April 04, 2020
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English Speaking Curse

English is a source of anxiety, even despair, for its have-nots

English Speaking Curse
English Speaking Curse

The buzz around "fixing" India's English is growing louder and louder....

  • The British Council plans to train 7,50,000 Indian teachers in English over the next five years
  • Narendra Modi is paying for 5 lakh young Gujaratis to learn English in time for Gujarat's golden jubilee in 2010
  • A new English-teaching TV programme, Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain, is being launched on NDTV to cash in on the huge aspiration for English
  • A Hyderabad-based company has announced plans to deliver a daily dose of English words and their meanings to mobile phones, so that Indians can improve their English vocabulary
  • The Delhi government is teaching cabbies to speak English in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2010

Brajesh Kumar's personal file is pristine - no thumbmarks, no blotches, no yellowing pages. There wasn't time. Within weeks of his joining a private engineering college in upscale Greater Noida, the 22-year-old had committed suicide, leaving a note saying that he could not cope with courses taught in English. An engineering diploma-holder from Jaunpur in UP, Brajesh cleared an all-UP competitive exam to get into the second year of a degree course at the Noida college. In his slim personal file, there were pictures of an intense-looking young man, forms filled in a neat, careful English handwriting, copies of school and college certificates that showed that while Brajesh had studied English as a subject until Class 10, the rest of his education, including his diploma, was in Hindi. He had also taken the competitive exam in Hindi. As a second-year student, he had no access to the Noida college's English skills programme, provided only to first-year students, and could not afford private coaching.

The English-excluded: The grieving family of Brajesh, who committed suicide as he couldn't cope with courses in English

Student who scored 100 in CBSE Class 12 
English exam in e-mail to Outlook
"It all depends on how one pen down the ideas.... 
The flow in the language helped me fetched marks."


For the college director who showed me his file, Brajesh's death last October was a moral tale - not about unequal access to English, but about excessive parental ambition. "What was the need to do a degree?" he asked. "With his diploma, he could have become a government junior engineer." Brajesh's brother Pramod, on the other hand, stressed that it was Brajesh, the youngest of four sons of a railway carpenter, who wanted the degree and a 'good post' afterwards. "These were ideas he got from his friends' circle, not at home," he explained.

After a conversation with Prof R.K. Agnihotri, a sociolinguist at Delhi University, it became clear that Brajesh's story was more a paradox than a parable. Agnihotri pointed out that unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, when most avenues in higher education were closed to those without English, "it is now possible, with some dignity, to survive without English, to even go from Class 1 to PhD in your state without much English." When it comes to passing English exams, he added, the system tends to be lenient with students from non-English medium backgrounds, rather than holding them back only because of poor English. In other words, the very system that helped a first-generation learner from an east UP village climb the education ladder by not fetishising English, aided his downfall when his aspirations took him - as they are taking millions of ambitious young Indians - into an often terrifying world of English.

Cases of college students killing themselves because of frustration with English - at least four in recent months - usually get only passing mention in the English press. (It was significantly the editor of a Hindi daily, Mrinal Pande, who wrote the only comment piece on the Brajesh case in the mainstream English media.) Stories that make the cut in this world are those validating India's self-image as an upbeat nation of English speakers. We celebrate international prizes won by Indian writers, the competitive advantage that English proficiency gives India in the global marketplace and the self-confident inventiveness with which Indians have hybridised English and made it their own. We even tell the story of people rushing to English-language teaching shops as one of canny entrepreneurship meeting a robust spirit of self-improvement, underplaying the fact that it also reflects an education system failing to deliver English proficiency (and that the self-improvers are mostly being taken for a ride). What we also underplay or gloss over is that as the stock of English rises in what linguist Prof Rukmini Bhaya Nair calls 'the language Sensex', English is increasingly becoming a source of anxiety, even despair, for those attempting to cross the boundaries separating those who "have" English from those who don't.

Press release from a PR agency --
"I will be happy if you met Ray, his painting and his
thought. I have send you the invite prior."


Shortchanged: Infantile approach to teaching English helps none

Some of the celebratory writing on English doesn't communicate how sharp those boundaries can be. In a piece hailing the coming-of-age of Inglish (English mixed with 'Indian') as both the "aspirational language of the lower and middle classes and the fashionable language of drawing rooms", columnist Gurcharan Das wrote: "One of the cheerful things happening in India is the quiet democratisation of English." Quoting language expert David Crystal ("If 100 million Indians pronounce an English word in a certain way, this is more than Britain's population - so it's the only way to pronounce it"), Das also speculated: Is Inglish our conquest of English?

Das's observations do capture a truth - we hear it all around us - but it's only a partial one. There are many worlds of English in India, and not all are blithely democratic. In the intensely desired world of BPOs, IT majors and MNCs, language gatekeepers are turning down all but a minuscule number of applying graduates. According to Uma K. Raman, head, Skills Enhancement, HCL BPO, her company rejects 92-93 per cent of applicants for poor English. Sandhya Chitale, director, Nasscom's Educational Initiative, puts the rejection rate for non-engineering graduates applying to the IT and IT-enabled sector, both in "voice" and "non-voice" roles, at 82-83 per cent, for lack of soft skills, including written and oral English. About 65-75 per cent of applying engineers are rejected for the same reasons.

Teaching exercise in a magazine brought out by a
popular English teaching institute--

Incorrect sentence : "Oh, he has the same car with yours?"
Correct sentence: "Oh, he has the same car like yours?"
Incorrect sentence : "Let me check your pic again see
how is your beautiful eyes looks like. Ahha"
Correct sentence: "Let me take a look at your pic again
and see how beautiful your eyes look like. Haha"


These trainers are almost ruthlessly clear that "Inglish", far from being the only way to say it, is not the 'right' way to say it or write it. "Indians can speak English in a cultural context but, and this is especially true of engineering graduates, we are not competent to use the language to communicate with someone other than Indian," says Raman. Her catalogue of errors made by "second level" users of the language includes: inappropriate use of articles, incorrect use of the plural and singular, mixing up of genders, lack of subject-verb agreement (for example, "The children is going to school") and wrong tenses. A typical conversation that causes confusion at both ends, says Raman, goes something like this:

Q: What is your favourite hobby? A: I used to go to the movies Q:Why did you stop going? A: What? (He didn't mean to say he had stopped going, but that he often went to movies.)

You know what I mean: Spellings run amok across the country. Democratisation of English?

"The curricula only emphasise reading and writing, not listening and speaking. You can't get a sentence out of a student who is asked to talk about himself," says Chitale bluntly. Raman declares written English even worse than spoken. "There is a myth that Indians are good at grammar," he says, "but they are only good at learning concepts - what is a noun, what is an adjective - not at applying them."

Tip from English teacher to Class 12 students --
"Keep the language simple and yet so crispy...
do not get deviate from topic."


Underlying these comments is, far from competitive-advantage complacency, considerable anxiety about a shrinking recruitment pool. With a growth rate of 33 per cent, and a 40 per cent attrition rate, the sector wants to hire more, but, says Chitale, "The numbers are there, the quality isn't." As it moves into Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, she says, the English gets poorer.

In the Humanities section of one of the country's IITs, where English teaching is taken more seriously than in most engineering colleges, I hear the same conversation from a different perspective. Many new entrants to IITs struggle, teachers say, in communication classes. The demand for remedial English has grown, supply cannot keep pace. The expectation of students that English can be "learnt in a single day" to measure up to the global marketplace does not help. Many students have difficulty organising and expressing their thoughts in a coherent language structure. Ninety per cent of his students, says one teacher, would find it hard to describe a simple concept like evaporation in a couple of logically linked sentences. "They can give you points, but can't connect them," he said. The teachers make an important fundamental point, which I hear repeated, time and again, by teachers in other institutions. These problems have their roots in students being language-impoverished rather than just English-impoverished (that is, demonstrating a poor ability in regional languages too), and being virtually cut off from the humanities stream from senior school.


English writing abilities of school students 
is poor, even in the country's top schools. 
A 2006 survey (conducted jointly by 
Wipro Applying Thought in Schools and
the organisation Educational Initiatives) among 
Class 4-8 students in 134 top English medium schools 
in the five metros found that 80 per cent of students 
even in Class 8 make mistakes in 
comprehension, grammar and syntax.


Another unequal world is that of the English language teaching industry, that teeming hub for seekers of 'good' English. They want 'good' English, not just for BPO jobs and scaling linguistic walls that prevent them from studying or working abroad, but also for better-paid jobs in malls, retail chains, airlines, hotels, restaurants, media, banking and finance. 'Good' English also gets you better treatment, English-seekers tell you poignantly, in malls, fancy showrooms, from sellers of financial services. This world is a living illustration of Nair's assertion that 'good' English matters, "not for moral or prescriptive reasons, but because this is the perception of those who demand English - the consumers of English."

A smiling, red-lipsticked blonde woman painted on a board that lights up at night beckons some of these consumers to a "premium institution for spoken and advanced English" in a south Delhi colony. Sitting in on an 'exclusive' teaching session conducted by one of the thousands of MAs in English who have descended on the English teaching scene, I can see this is a power relationship. The teacher is omniscient, even if she says "Gayatri is going to expose more to foreign buyers" while explaining why her student, who works in an export unit, needs to improve her English. The students, Gayatri and Anish - a young contractor who supplies marble and needs better English to work on a big Indian construction company's project in Singapore - are eager but diffident. They pay around Rs 2,500 a month for lessons. A dubious-looking Hindi-English guide is being used. Course materials lying around the "premium institution" turn out to be stuff the proprietor "burnt nights", as he puts it, printing off the Net. What he's got together is truly nightmarish: a mish-mash of definitions of auxiliary verbs, hackneyed proverbs (man proposes, god disposes), American "slangs" and "jargons" (airhead, hunk, chocoholic), tongue-twisters, teaching exercises that seem to have been written for Chinese students, with references to common Chinese errors. American English is the place's forte, I am told, and a class could begin, says one teacher, by her walking in and saying, "Hi dudes and dudettes".

Teacher knows all: Or does she?

That's the home-made English academy, at the opposite end of the market from the superior language courses sold by the British Council for around Rs 9,000 per two-month term of instruction, and there are different shades in between. The clamour to sell English to millions of eager India buyers - individuals, corporate houses, state governments - is growing. While "academies" are advancing into tehsil towns and pockmarking hill stations with their boards, UK language schools are eyeing the Indian market.


Rejected For Poor English: 82-83 per cent 
of non-engineering graduates applying to 
the IT and IT-enabled sector and 65-75 per cent 
of applying engineers are rejected for lacking 
soft skills, including written and oral English  fluency.
-- Sandhya Chitale, director of Nasscom's Educational Initiative


The British Council has redirected its energies in India into the training of Indian teacher-trainers in English and in engaging with corporate houses for English training, say the council's Kevin McLevine and Jill Coates. It's a shrewd move, comments linguist N.S. Prabhu, that will help British ideas, products, materials, specialists and institutions flow into the Indian market. British prime minister Gordon Brown, who believes that teaching English will become one of Britain's biggest exports, announced during his recent visit to India that Britain would train 7,50,000 Indian teachers of English over the next five years. The British tabloid The Sun called it "PM Brown's English invasion". (Yes, anti-colonial opposition to English is well and truly dead.)

Meanwhile, the buzz around quick solutions to language problems is also growing louder. Learning from China's drive to drill Olympic-appropriate phrases into the heads of Beijing's citizens, Delhi's government is teaching cabbies to spout English (if only it could get them to fix their meters too). Narendra Modi has mandated language teaching academies to provide government-subsidised English training to Gujarati youth, in order to change the perception that Gujaratis can't speak and write good English, and wants five lakh trained in time for Gujarat's golden jubilee in 2010.

Quickfixes, say the experts, invariably result in large numbers of people moving around with templates of sentences in their heads, a superficial, limited language acquisition, similar to the way tourist guides speak different languages. Sometimes it works, at other times it causes huge anxiety. Vijaya Subramaniam, deputy principal of the Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, and a regular user of Delhi's Metro, marvels at how a few catchy sentences and phrases, incorporating words such as "cool", "dude" and "awesome", enables commuting college students with shaky English to belong to the group. On the other hand, Maya Roy, a trainee chef who interned at a five-star hotel, describes how traumatic it is for wait staff and chefs with a limited stock of English sentences to deal with unexpected questions from hotel guests.

Meeting the country's large-scale demand for job-oriented learning of English without moving towards "fixed phrase parroting" is a big challenge, says Prabhu. Motivated advice from the language-teaching industry doesn't help, he warns, because it fosters the false belief that you can acquire a language quickly. "Language learning," Prabhu stresses, "is an organic process - you can't grow a plant in three days instead of three years." Nair says, in the same vein, "Language is not a prosthetic limb, you can't attach it, you have to grow it."

What the experts seem to be saying is that you have to grow it, with some dedication, through the education system. Parents across the country, desperate to advance their children's futures in a world of English, know that.

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