English medium: is it the way to go?

The issue of medium of instruction (MoI) is an ongoing debate ever since the British introduced ‘modern education’ in India. Thomas Macaulay and Lord William Bentinck turned the tide in favour of English. Post-Independence, the English-educated elite occupied strategic posts all over India. It was a tacit conclusion that those who were well-versed in English and Hindi could spread their wings at the national level and those who were proficient in the regional languages would remain at the regional level.  

Presently, the socio-economic lines between the local, national and global are being redefined. If nationalism drew new lines within the nation, globalisation has led to porous lines. Food, clothing, travel, information and trade are becoming borderless.

Language cannot remain a silent spectator to these changes. Speech communities make language choices that go contrary to age-old political ideologies. Governments face the challenge of balancing the local with the national and global. We tend to forget that language always piggybacks trade and commerce. The 18th century-driven emotional attachment to language is facing an attitudinal shift in the domain of education.  

In 2007, Karnataka introduced English as a language from Class I in government Kannada medium schools. A small group of Kannada writers opposed it. The move was based on the theoretical assumption that a child can learn many languages in the formative years. There is no report or research available in the public domain on the learning outcome, success or failure of introduction of English from Class I. Yet, the government has now decided to start English medium sections in government schools in a bid to save the schools. Kannada as a medium of instruction is not preferred even in rural areas.  

This decision by the government can be seen at two levels: one, the changed socio-economic situation at the local, regional, national and global levels; two, the role of language in education, not as a means to promote regional languages but as a skill and a tool to access life opportunities and knowledge systems.   

Education is associated with job opportunities. Most jobs demand a basic knowledge of spoken English. The English-speaking elite in India are the role models for aspiring youngsters. English is more a skill today than a language with a colonial tag. This choice of medium of instruction caters to popular demand.  

The reasons for the introduction of English medium are: the introduction of English as a language hasn’t brought about the expected language proficiency; enrolment of students in government schools is dwindling while enrolment in the private schools is increasing; the Right to Education Act shows a movement towards private English medium schools; people of Karnataka seem to have made a distinction between the home language and the language of education; English is emerging as the language of education of elites in most parts of the world; governments don’t want to deny that choice of opportunity to the economically backward.  

Often, governments tend to hold the MoI responsible for the falling standard of education. The irony is in the prescription of another language as MoI. Surely, the rot runs deeper than
the MoI. There is a need to find out what went wrong when Kannada was the medium. Kannada-medium schools produced great minds that fostered an inclusive mindset. Would a change in MoI equip our students with the language skills necessary to handle life chances? Is there a connection between falling standards and our preference for technical education?  

The challenges to introducing English medium sections in government schools are: availability of textbooks of various subjects, methodology-trained teachers, teacher trainers and a paradigm shift in testing. Lower primary classes will have to concentrate on developing listening and spoken skills and the higher primary should concentrate on reading and writing skills, leading to application of concepts. This is easier said than done as our teaching concentrates on the listening skill of a learner but tests his writing skills even at the tertiary level.  

A few questions to ask at this point: is it really necessary to have a uniform MoI? Is it fair to introduce English medium sections without going into the details of the effect of introduction of English as a language at Class I? Why didn’t the introduction of English as a language from Class I attract students to government schools? Is it fair to introduce English medium sections without experimenting with dual medium education as followed by central schools? With this policy shift, are we facing a situation where we are going monolingual in education? How long can Kannada and other mother tongue mediums hold against English as the medium? Is this move a counter to aggressive promotion of Hindi?  

Europe and the US are encouraging multiple languages in education as it improves cognition. Languages are learnt for economic reasons, too. Speech communities and governments need to create zones where it pays to learn local languages.  

(The writer is former faculty of the Regional Institute of English, South India-Bengaluru and former Associate Professor of English, Nehru Memorial College, Sullia) 

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English medium: is it the way to go?

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