Why not English medium?

Language debate

The controversy surrounding the medium of instruction has come to haunt Karnataka once again with the Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy deciding to start English medium in 1,000 government schools from the next academic year. It is seen as a welcome move by parents, educationists and many right thinking individuals. However, if Kumaraswamy buckles under pressure from Kannada chauvinists, hopeful parents and aspiring students of government schools will again stare at a future forced upon them by a socio-political order that is designed to discriminate. Unable to afford any better, they will be left in a quagmire to fend for themselves. 

Years of “Kannada or mother tongue” formula has done little in terms of improved comprehension levels or academic performance, if pass percentages in government schools are any indication. What it has certainly done is hampered the ability of children to learn any language well and dampened their career prospects. The business-inclined private English schools have been the sole beneficiaries of such language policies. Over the last five years, private schools have gained 1.7 crore students despite exorbitant fee structures and government schools that offer free education have lost 1.3 crore students across 20 Indian states.

It is necessary to understand the science behind language acquisition. Ample research suggests that a critical learning period in early life exists which facilitates learning and mastering of multiple languages with equal ease. Past this age, the dexterity is either lax or lost.

For instance, commonly, the adults of migrant families can never match the fluency or comfort of children in speaking the regional language. Language is germane to cognitive development like thinking, perceiving, recalling, and decision-making. Being multilingual not only broadens these capabilities but enhances a child’s intellectual, social and psychological environment, opening a wider world of knowledge.

There is no denying the importance of mother tongue in providing a sense of comfort, confidence and self–worth. Given an opportunity and right environment, children are capable of learning the mother tongue alongside English with equal élan. Limiting children to learn one language, either mother tongue or English, is a great disservice to their natural lingual gift. Living in a shrinking globalised world, linguistic pluralism or multilingual ability is what stands to benefit children most. 

Language has remained a perennially volatile issue across the country. Education being the softest target, several state governments, in a vile political ploy, introduced mother tongue as a medium of instruction in government schools, in the name of upholding the culture of the land. This denied millions of children English education that they needed and aspired for most. It has played havoc with the lives of generations of children.

The struggles of these children to match up to other privileged ones begin right there. It is perplexing that a vast majority remain oppressed merely due to their lack of English knowledge. In today’s India, fluency in English language to a great extent determines a person’s socio-economic status. As though a new caste system has been established.

Akin to earlier blatantly discriminatory times when Sanskrit knowledge was denied to people from lower socio-economic strata, today, while the elites and middle class send their children to expensive private English-medium schools, the vast poor send theirs to government mother tongue medium schools. English education is aspirational for the poor, too. And why not?

Let’s face it — English is the language of heightened opportunities. It is the language of everyday living — from medical instructions, food labels, nutritional information, government forms, advertisements, street signs, to even hotel menus. It is the only intra-state and international communication mode. English is also the language of commerce, of science and technology, of social media, of employment, and hence of development. It defies reason as to why anybody in the right frame of mind would oppose a move that will elevate the life and livelihood prospects of a large section of poor children.

We must accept, however grudgingly, that a significant advantage of our colonised past has been our access to the English language. It has now made its home here as much as the other Indian languages. Largely, it is this very advantage that has given India a competitive edge in the global market as against several other developing countries. Poor, underprivileged children have as much right to partake in this Indian advantage. According to several trade associations like Nasscom, Ficci and Assocham, to a great extent, many youth are unemployable due to their lack of knowledge in English.

The absurd and pernicious resistance to English stems from an ill-founded notion and a deliberate portrayal of compromised cultural ethos. Firstly, no culture is so fragile that it gets diluted by learning another language. Culture is an evolving, ever changing, dynamic, utilitarian force that helps society keep pace with changing times and the need of the hour. Moreover, it is not as if studying English by government school children too will mar culture. The poor and voiceless are not guinea pigs on whom misconstrued policies can be tried without their welfare in mind.

Interacting with a multitude of company recruiters during my tenure as officer in-charge of skill development in government colleges and consultant for Karnataka Skill Development department helped me fathom the enormity of English knowledge. It was sad to witness many qualified and capable young aspirants being rejected in job interviews merely due to their insufficient English knowledge.

In an obvious damage control mode, the National Skill Development Corporation and several state skill development departments in India have made huge budget allocations for spoken English training for youth.

The progressive step taken by Karnataka will herald social engineering in the true sense of the term. A child’s future is not a matter of debate. Every child in our country has a right to education, especially to meaningful education that brings promise of a better and happier future. It is especially the responsibility of elected governments to ensure that. 

(The writer is a former professor of Psychology, author and Director, Eudaimonic Centre, Bengaluru)

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