'China has more English speakers than India'

'China has more English speakers than India'

Although most of the world believes ‘India speaks English,’ the exact number of the speakers is not known, while China may already have more people who speak English than India.

Sharing this and more research findings in an interview with Kavitha K of Deccan Herald on the eve of the British Council’s English for Progress Conference in New Delhi on Wednesday, Martin Davidson, chief executive, British Council, drew a sharp contrast between the challenges that the organisation faces in India and China – two countries on the British Council’s radar right now. “There is more suspicion in China to outside organisations but there’s more openness in India; but once they make up their mind, the Chinese move quickly and things work much faster than they do in India,’’ Davidson observed.

‘English for Progress: Third Policy Dialogue’ is part of the British Council’s Project English initiative and aims to bring academics, policy makers, NGOs and the private sector together to discuss the English skills gap and the best way to address it.

Excerpts:
There’s been a perceptible shift in the British Council’s role – from promoting the arts in furthering cultural diplomacy to focusing on education...
I wouldn’t call it a shift but an extension of our work. Of course, we see a huge demand here in India for professional English teaching and learning.
Our approach is four-pronged: We work with primary school teachers in government schools, train them and design programmes using the curriculum; we support the teachers by providing education material and help them build networks; we work with learners by providing them online material; and we launched Teaching Centres. We believe that if we work with the Government authorities, we will reach larger numbers. Our experience with the state governments of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal has been outstanding.

The aim is to train over four lakh English teachers in India to develop English language teaching and improve communication skills among millions of young people. There’s a solid reason why we are working with Indian teachers of English and not British imports!

Talking of imports, there’s still a huge mismatch in the number of British students studying overseas and the numbers of international students in Britain...
Sure, there is a mismatch; in fact it is a huge problem. The (UK) Prime Minister’s Fellowships have brought about 100 students from Britain to India, and they have studied and worked here for a given period. Of them, a few even decided to change their course to gain more India exposure.

That’s a good start. But yes, there’s a huge mismatch, which is why we have formed cluster schools for exchange programmes. We are also increasing university links like those between IISc, Bangalore and Imperial College, London to strengthen scientific collaboration.

Coming back to Project English, does it pain you that, at some level, for many young people in India, English-language skills is the passport to a BPO job?
I’m convinced that people don’t learn English because they want to learn about British culture and history! If it means better opportunities for them, a better lifestyle for their family, access to other parts of the world, so be it. But I also like to think that while for many English is a commodity – a tool – to a better life, it also gives them access to the literature and thought that comes along with the language.

You’ve been working in troubled areas in the world – Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka. What is the British Council’s agenda in these places?
Cultural exchange is a slow burn activity. I am not foolish to expect that our work will end strife in Afghanistan but I do think that when we start a dialogue with people in such places, we begin forging relationships. Conflict will come to an end and then there will be opportunities for people with specific skills.

Apart from Project English, climate change is a subject close to your heart. With the Copenhagen summit just a few days away, what are you looking forward to?
(With a chuckle) I am looking forward to the television debates that the spirited, tenacious and passionate International Climate Champions will have with world leaders. I have seen them in action and they are frightening! They won’t take any lame excuses or nonsense, so be prepared for some real hard talk -- from the young. While working on climate change, we don’t believe in imposing Britain’s view.
We certainly believe in that view but we also believe in working on region-specific opportunities. One country cannot come up with a solution. What we need to do is to build a robust network and involve young people in the whole exercise.

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