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English Education in India: Ladder or Roadblock?

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Sep 2, 2016

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Between 2003 and 2010, English education in India saw a surge of new students, as the number of children enrolled in English-medium schools from Grades I to VIII increased by 274%, according to data from the National University of Education, Planning and Administration (NUEPA).

Even local-language schools have moved to include more English in their curriculum – just last year, the government of Maharashtra introduced semi-English-medium schools in which mathematics and science are taught in English, while other subjects are taught in Marathi. But the shift isn’t limited to one part of the country.

“The perception is that if you know English you get better jobs and you have a better life in general,” says Dr. Aditi Ghosh, a linguistics professor at Calcutta University, whose research into the social impact of language takes her all over West Bengal. “It’s really about an attitude which puts somewhat unreasonable prestige and value on English.”

The great irony, she says, is that English education in India could actually be holding many students back.

Acquisition vs. learning

Everything scientists know about how children learn language is based on hypotheses and rare observations of abused children deprived of all social contact. Because of this, there is a lot of dissent and differing theories within the linguistics community around language acquisition.

But two modes of thought generally hold sway: One is the idea that every child is born with some kind of intrinsic understanding of language as a concept. And two, that there is a critical age window up until puberty for children to acquire a first language.

This latter theory is often applied to second language acquisition as well, backed up by brain scans that show the mind’s capacity to absorb language diminishes gradually over the course of life. While some question the window – such as Francois Grosjean, who puts no age limit on bilingualism and says adults actually may have an advantage in second-language learning – it is the reason, combined with cultural pressure, that English instruction dominates early education.

But what parents and educators often overlook is the difference between acquisition and learning.

When a child gains command over a language by exposure to the environment where it is spoken, without formal teaching, it is acquisition. But when a language is presented to a child instructively, whether by a teacher or any adult, it is learning. And learning a language too soon can have long term impacts – none of them particularly good.

“Below the age of 5 if there is interference [second language learning] when a child is still acquiring his mother tongue, there will be problems.” says Dr. Panchanan Mohanty, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Hyderabad “Among educational psychologists it is common knowledge that if a person is good at their mother tongue, they will be good at other languages also.”

Studies show that building first-language proficiency until age 5 lays a crucial foundation for all future learning – regardless of whether instruction after that age is in the mother tongue. Introduce a second language too early and this foundation can crack, limiting how much and how easily new information can be absorbed and understood in the future. Which means enrolling a child from a non English-speaking home into an English medium school might actually be doing more damage than aiding language development.

The affect can be lifelong and is often compounded by the fact that — whether at English-medium public schools, regional-language public schools that introduce English later (typically in Grade 5), or urban private schools — English is frequently taught in ways that don’t build confidence and proficiency.

‘99% of the language is not known’

“English is the world’s largest language,” says Dhruv Sharma, founder of Logophilia, an organisation that builds English skills through etymology. “And it contains 1 million words that are non-technical, which means there are a million commonly used words found on the Internet, in newspapers, in classrooms, and so on. … In India, it is estimated that a school in 12 years teaches about 10,000 words to students. That’s 1% of 1 million, and therefore 99% of the language is not known.”

According to all educators interviewed for this article, the most common approach to English instruction in Indian schools is the grammar translation method, in which English is translated into the student’s first language and grammar and syntax are the focus.

While this method can be effective, it’s incomplete without immersion, which most experts agree is a critical component of second language learning. The result is memorisation of English letters and words, rather than an understanding of how to deploy them, and students who can pass an exam, but find it difficult to hold a conversation.

Full immersion – that is, when a child is surrounded by the new language and is spoken to by native speakers, who discourage direct translation — is difficult to achieve. Other, supplementary methods could still make English more accessible, but are seldom used.

“Phonics [a method that teaches language by its components] help you understand the sounds and letter, so you know how to blend letters together and read them as one,” says Swati Popat Vats, who runs a Mumbai preschool and is president of India’s Early Childhood Association.

And Sharma makes the case for teaching etymology – albeit only after the fundamentals of English are established – as a way to facilitate not just fluency, but broader knowledge.

For example, he says, “it’s photo + syn + thesis, where photo is [Greek for] ‘light,’ and syn is [Greek for] ‘together,’ and thesis is [Greek for] ‘to make something.’ The definition does not need to be artificially memorized; it is all right there in front of you.”

The broader problem is, perhaps, that both methods require teachers to have training and an adeptness in the English language that’s just not common.

Rahil Sheikh and Tirth Raj Bhutoria, co-founders of Gyaan Sarthi, an affordable preschool in Jaipur, say most teachers have little knowledge of second language instruction methods and often speak in sentences that are grammatically incorrect themselves; they might be able to teach English in theory, but they cannot model the language in conversation.

“You first [look for] three things in a teacher,” says Vats, speaking of how faculty hiring decisions are made. “You see whether she is patient with the children, whether she has a loving nature, whether she has understanding of early childhood, and then, fourth, is English.”

The medium of success

The roles of a teacher and school evolve over a child’s life, and in preschool, security and affection may well be the highest priority. But that becomes less true with age. Which begs the question – to what level of competence is schooling meant to take students? If it’s fluency, the goal may already be reached; in linguistic terms, it is possible to be fluent in a language, but not proficient.

Meet Bhatt, 23, studied at a Gujarati-medium school in Ahmedabad and started studying English in pre-primary. He is one of the thousands of 1%-of-English speakers produced by English education in India.

“I know the basics. I can read, write, and speak,” he says, adding that his skills improved after joining an English-only working environment. “But there is a problem with my grammar in my vocabulary. I want to improve that.”

Yet Bhatt is comfortable with his language skills — and with what he has achieved in life. The administration and community assistant for Teach for India, Ahmedabad, says expectations are, perhaps, what need to change most about English education in India. For his job, Bhatt often visits low-income English-medium schools, where he has observed parents threaten to take their children out of the school if their grades are poor.

Dr. Ghosh sees the same attitude on the other side of the country, too. The parents she speaks with all over West Bengal, see English instruction as the medium of a good job – specifically to a career as a doctor or engineer – or, failing that, a call centre.

“But according to most research, children should be taught mathematics, science and other basic concepts through a language he or she is most familiar with,” Dr. Ghosh says. “It is seen that cognitive development is affected if these concepts are not taught in the mother tongue. So these children [who go to English medium schools], while they might become more proficient in English, they will be less proficient in science.”

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Written By Mihika Mirchandani

Mihika Mirchandani holds a Bachelor’s in Mass Media and has worked extensively in the non profit sector. Her interest lies in using filmmaking and writing to inspire social change. An idealist and a daydreamer, she spends her spare time baking or contemplating life over a cup of coffee.

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