Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Learning English

The debate raging in Karnataka over teaching English in government schools from Std I baffles me.

My logic is simple: you don't need to be taught your mother tongue. It's there in your blood. The importance of English today is only too obvious. I just can't understand what's to be debated on whether children should be taught English from Std I.

The apparent fear is that Kannada will die if children are taught English. Who needs whom? Children need the language, or the language needs children? Whose death is more important: language or children?

Language is a tool; used for a purpose. A one-year-old doesn't need a language to talk to her mother. Later her needs increase, and thereby a language to communicate.

There is a world of difference between a bicycle and a car. When you need a car, you don't take your bicycle. And, you don't refuse to buy a car, because you feel bicycles will become extinct if you don't buy and use them. A local language has its use. The bonding it can create is amazing. But that's just about it. English can take you much farther, like a car.

I have seen many people, residing outside Kerala, who have grown up speaking English at home, later picking up easily Malayalam, without anyone teaching them. A cousin of mine, who grew up in Bhopal speaking Hindi with his siblings and parents, did his MBA in a Kerala college, and got his first job also in Kerala. Nobody taught him Malayalam. It just came to him. And, it served its purposed well, just to talk to the localites.

The misplaced chauvinism is not restricted to Karnataka. It's rampant in the supposedly intellectual state of Kerala. English is scorned and condemned, there. People are looked down upon if they speak in English.

Mercifully, the youth who want to learn English do so, quietly. And, India has a good number of them. So much so, countries like the US and Britain are mighty impressed and outsourcing their work from India.

Wish our language chauvinists knew this!


  1. Yes, I'd agree particularly with the content in the third paragraph.

    I feel it is important to learn the local language/mother tongue & a good place for this is home & family.

    Also, I'd say that language is tool, perhaps for the most part of our working lives. However, language is also a medium of expression; a lot people choose their words when they speak, erudition is reflected in doing so.

    I guess all this enforcement stuff is bogus. One really has to 'sell' kannada; & propoganda will go a long way in doing so. The media invades our lives in so many ways; I think a bit of effort towards building up the 'image' of the local language won't be futile - so, in general, not learning kannada in lieu of English but to do so, in addition to English.


  2. I think children are capable of picking up two or three languages rather effortlessly- we have a nepali watchman in our lay out whose children speak Hindi at home, Kannada in the school and english with the children of the locality. But medium of education is another issue. I think it is simpler to learn concepts in the mother tongue than in a foreign language badly taught. If with vernacular medium, English teaching is imparted in a good way, they can easily switch to English medium after school.

  3. English is definitely a must since the universal language of communication and I feel that it should be taught from an early age. But I also feel that the neglection of the local language should not be allowed. This should also be taught, albeit optionally from the beginning.

  4. well..there is always something about mother tongue. i feel kids should know their mother tongue. It is also a part of keeping an "identity" in this world where uniformity is fast becoming the norm.

    This ofcourse doesnt mean that i endorse the chauvinistic attitude of the agitators. I have seen similar attitude from the "intellectuals" in kerala.

    I luv english; both for the opportunities it opens up and the wonderful never-ending library of literature it holds. But i adore malayalam. And ultimately kids should not be confined to just one language. 2 is definitely stimulative (i dont know abt 3 though..i found learning hindi a bit difficult, probably because i started late) and best time to learn a language is when you are a kid.

    I also think that kids find it easier to learn when they are taught in their mother tongue. Of course, i would define mother tongue as the language which they speak at home. So if one speaks english at home, thats pretty much their mother tongue.

    And ultimately no one should be forced to learn a language. There should always be options available, especially in a cosmopolitan city like bangalore

  5. Just remembered something interesting. my prof in business strategy class once told that one of the "sideffects" of globalization (and the uniformity it sorta imposes) is that people will tend to become "tribal" atleast in some aspects as they look around to find an identity!

    I guess this is a part of it


  6. "English is definitely a must since the universal language of communication and I feel that it should be taught from an early age."

    No, it really isn't. I don't have a problem with schools in Karnataka teaching English in the early grades-- my problem is the way so many of them are considering teaching English *to the exclusion of other major global languages*. I used to be a major supporter of the teach-English-early movement, but after traveling far and wide I've come to realize that Karnataka (and India in general) might be shooting itself in the foot by getting caught up in the English fad to the exclusion of teaching other big languages like Spanish, German, Chinese, Portuguese and Japanese.

    In the outsourcing business for example, the growth in Anglophone back-office and call-center operations is flattening out and in some places even shrinking. By comparison, there is rapid growth in the outsourcing market for languages like German, Japanese and Spanish. In fact, the biggest growth in call center business for the USA is in the SPANISH language, not in English. If you want to get a job in US call centers these days, you'd better be pretty good in Spanish.

    My point is that this claim about "English being the language of universal communication," just isn't true. It's a product of the English myopia that we still have in India as a result of the British colonial years. There are a number of important world languages these days, and many of the best jobs in BPO operations are for those who can speak languages like French and German. People in Chennai for example are reaping huge benefits because many there speak fluent French (or have studied at German language institutes), and they're the ones profiting most from the new wave of offshoring. Getting too closely associated with English is like trying to getting into a market that's already saturated and drying up-- we need to split off from that. It's important for kids in Karnataka to diversify as far as the languages that they learn.

    My own suggestion would be for kids to study not only literature in their native Kannada, but learn at least basic Hindi (or whatever people are calling the Hindi-Kannada-Tamil hybrid that you'll hear in South India), and then have students split up after that by teaching a major European or East Asian language starting Grade 5 or so. Some students should learn English, some should learn French, some should learn German, some Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese or Italian. This will maximize the ability of Karnatakans to capture business from a variety of markets. This is the smartest way forward.

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