Saturday, January 17, 2009


This post is entirely because of the Seminar on the National Knowledge Commission's report on Engineering Education held at JU that I attended, although this is very far from the actual subject of the Seminar. I was moved into thinking by some of the comments and felt like putting down my contradictions and vehement agreements together.

Fear of the English language is one reason why a large section of the students drop out of schools every year in both urban and rural areas of West Bengal. Even in secondary and higher secondary levels English has the highest number of people failing in it. We must remember that most of these schools have Bengali (or Hindi in some) as the medium of instruction. English is taught only as one of the subjects-as a secondary language tool apart from the vernacular.

There is a growing worry about if more than required emphasis is being laid on the need to nurture good English language skills among students from the primary level. There are recommendations by the NKC that suggest that even other subjects (apart from obviously other languages) be taught in English. Many feel that this might pose a hindrance to learning, specially when English itself is a cause for failures. So, students may end up learning nothing as opposed to only failing to learn English. The question comes up- is the importance of English overrated in a country like ours?

I think not. Here are a few reasons why.

How do we learn a language? By imitation(speaking/writing). By hearing. By reading. The more one is exposed to a language the more one learns. How many of us have learned Hindi in school? Or more precisely, how many of us understand Hindi because it was taught in school? It's just that we are continuously exposed to Hindi all through the growing text, in hearing, in communicating. Do you believe the same could have been achieved by merely Hindi language classes? Even if Hindi classes did have the same learning effect, which of the two is a more natural learning process? Language is best learned in its application. That can be supplemented with grammar classes that reinforce what a child already learns, explaining to her/him the whys and hows of the language.

If students are failing in English, it does not necessarily mean banishing it to a cameo would necessarily make it less cumbersome for the student. There are other questions that need to be asked. Why is English becoming such a menace? Poor teachers who themselves lack a love for or knowledge of the language? Yes. What else? Well. May be the expectation that a language can be taught merely by making students learn question answers to ill-chosen texts? By making them solve exercises of grammar books in the name of language application?

When application, in fact ought to be everything apart from the grammar. When all other subjects could have been a place to see how language can be applied. That would aid in the learning of not only the language itself but also open up other avenues. What avenues?

It is time we realized that it is not practically possible to have competent teachers everywhere. There will always be bad teachers. But what a knowledge of a language like English can do is open up a whole new world for a keen student-a world that s/he will be free to explore on her/his own.

This is where technology comes in. In a world like today, information, with the power of the internet, can be as reachable as would be any region of your cerebral cortex. It is an extension of your brain. Thankfully, the new God, Google takes care of that. He patiently answers all your questions. (Unlike the Old Chap who tested your patience and made you wait for moments of epiphany or Nirvana, which we'll all agree were disputed and pretty far between.So,Boo!)

Yes, I agree. We need to make sure that the Digital Divide is removed. Don't hold computer classes. Don't pay stupid tech-retard teachers to 'teach' computers to children. Don't device computer courses. And for heaven's sake don't hold computer exams. Use the money to buy more computers and get them a good working internet connection. Just leave them to students to explore. This is where a teacher even if he/she is lacking in knowledge but enthusiastic can come in as a facilitator. Together this can be extremely effective.

Here is when we go back to the initial issue of whether English is over hyped. Clearly not. What percent of the internet is in Bengali/Hindi? What percent of the best texts for higher education technical or otherwise is in a vernacular? Is it practically possible to translate all the resources to vernacular? Can a text book, course materials prepared by teachers, etc be a substitute for all that the mere knowledge of English would have brought to their disposal?

Bottomline: English needs to be taught. And taught well. Not the way it is taught now, specially in government schools. It is really not difficult to see what could be a good way to teach English in schools. Most good schools in Calcutta can act as good models. Teaching other subjects in English would mean more exposure to the language for the students and hence better and faster grasp of the language.

I come from an engineering background. I believe the quality of technical education in West Bengal suffers heavily because of the poor proficiency of the students and the faculty in English. Most of the texts for such specialized courses as say, electronics, are written and published outside India and most students avoid reading these books because the language is too daunting for them. They make do with poor quality Indian books which (with exceptions of course) are but cheap and over-simplified copies of the good authors. Where the good books leave the problems to be solved by the students to help build deeper understanding of the subject, these books play to the gallery by providing Worked Out Examples in hundreds. Students read the solutions to the problems (imagine!) and memorize the methods. If you are lucky you might find the same problem in your exam without any alternation in even the figures and calculations!

This, again, is for those who read books at all. The new sensation in Engineering is not Pearson's Publishing or Tata Mc Graw Hill's. It is a certain Matrix Educare Pvt. LTD. And they do live up to their name. They operate from a counter on college street that rightly resembles the ticket counters of one of those C grade movie Hall running a Jawani ki Aag. They have captured the somewhat retarded imagination of the engineer-kind. One month before the semester they publish thicker replicas of porn booklets that have a binding and a size that is optimized for tearing and carrying to the exam hall respectively. But that's a story for another day. */

So with questions being set from Matrix booklets and Worked out problems the Semester exams are a breeze. That is when the internal marks have been taken care of by either pleasing the professors by affectionate displays of love and false reverence or by shutting the fuck up or both. The real Katrina breaks in when the campus recruitments are round the corner. Suddenly English is in the lime light. Sadly, to the discredit of the otherwise versatile and efficient Matrix Educare, they do not have booklets to get you through Group Discussions or interviews. Besides, the interview panels are rumoured to not take sneaking in worked out answers to the hall in the usual humour and banter. So. Suddenly everyone is mugging up answers. Corridors resplendent with random Ice-breakers: Hello Sir. Myself... I love mujik sir. All kinds. Myself and my friends play in canteens often...

Do not let my sarcasm make you even for once, forget the irony. I have seen the best of semester toppers tensed. Almost hopelessly resigned to fate. Even people with the most sound technical backgrounds. You who write-speak-think-dream in English will never know the importance of it. Ask the guy who cannot. Stand by him as s/he waits outside the room waiting for his/her turn to be interviewed by the panel. Look at him as he tries so hard to put all his thoughts together, wishes that once, just this once, he'd be able to talk about his everyday likes and dislikes in plain correct English.


  1. I rather think that the internet is scarily making English the only language of the world. After English, comes other languages written in the Roman script. To counter this, I think the internet should have more language democracy. More effort should be given to make the use of other languages which are not written in the Roman script (like Indian languages) easier.

  2. yeah, dibbo is totally right, of course. which is where linux applications and the FOSS movement with projects like Ankur Bangla are coming in.

    hopefully, english won't be the major language the web runs on, in the near future. my korean friend Bomi has dell computers in korean script, (as do millions of people in chinese and japanese, etc in the respective countries) and they surely cant be any less complicated than indic scripts!!

    but coming back to sappy's posts. yes, english is essential. i know all about the engg student's dread of english interviews. plus i come from south point, where chandreyee and i used to be sneered at and thought aantel showoffs when we spoke in english between ourselves. "bangali-r meye, bangla-e kotha bolo" was a refrain. but the same people learnt speaking it the hard way when most of them went on to reputed engg colleges all over the country.

    ki bolbo. the fear of english that west bengal schools -- teachers and students alike -- suffer from is a state-created malaise. look at south india and how they've managed to embrace english.

    and what most indians forget is that hindi and english are the only options we have even when trying to communicate with indians of other tongues.

    thanks for the post. thought-provoking and heart-felt as always. a pleasure.

  3. in a country when almost everyone is at least bilingual, if not perhaps tri or quadrilingual, it is not as simple to create websites in vernaculars (as well), like, say, in Italy. There would be an immense amount of work and infrastructure needed to have all websites in english, and translate them to hindi, and/or say, bengali. so are we looking at a stage where websites are made only in vernaculars so that most people can have access? what about those who cannot read hindi, bengali as fluently as they can english? moreover, what about someone from another state who wants to know the contents of a website in bengali? it is very complicated and i am slightly pessimistic about the language democracy.

    and saptarshi, about the most brilliant of the engg.-kind faltering in face of the thought of having to converse in english with a panel, and hence they must be taught properly so that they can speak 'properly'...i think it's a rather vicious circle. The more the applicants think the panel will be impressed by their english skills, the more is expected from them by the panel, the more, in turn, the students fear the thought of having to speak in english, and so forth.

    so while i think a person's knowledge or ability to apply his/her skills must not necessarily be barred by making english as the sole medium of expression, i'd agree that some amount of working familiarity is needed to be able to access a large number of things in the language.

  4. I don't think that this -- -- is proportional to the actual number of speakers of each language.

  5. ekta bhasha shekhar jonyo you have to have that kind of ambience...know what i mean?aj tor amar pokkhe ingriji shekhata shohoj kaaron amra baarite, schoole, hotel-restaurant, club, ityadi shob jaygay e ingriji diye surrounded. kintu ekta remote graam elaka e ingriji is as alien as say french is to us...kolkata e boshe chomotkaar fluent french kotojon shikhte paare??pondicherry te kintu onek e paarey kaaron okhaan e aaj-o french is like a second have to have constant interaction with a language properly in order to learn it..
    je atmosphere e shei interaction possible noy, shei atmosphere shei bhasha ta ekta imposed burden hoye jaye...third language sanskrit jerom aaj onek er kachhe burden, kintu ekta shomoy shikkhito lok maatrei sanskrit er ekta basic knowledge thaakto.
    ingriji shekha oboshyoi joruri. khub-i. kintu rural bhaarot er ekti chhele/meye jaar ingriji chorcha shoptaahe 5din, 40 mins e sheemaboddho, taake shei 40 mins e jotoi bhaalo shekhaano hok na keno, taar theke ingriji te fluency asha kora ta onyay. jerom kebol maatro ingriji bhaalo jaane na bole perfectly intelligent capable chhele meyeder higher education opportunities deny kora ta onyay.... amar mone hoy

  6. I agree with what you said about teaching English, to a large extent, in this post; language is meant to be learnt by using it, rather than by rote, just like Mathematics, which is for the same reason another menace {i.e. people learn it by rote}. Agreed that sometimes, some mathematical concepts don’t hold any real-world approximations (determinants come to mind), but most of the fundamental mathematical theories are strongly rooted in our day-to-day life.

    Yet, I digress. I remember the start of my first semester last year, when the very horrible English Language and Communication teachers of my college made it very clear that without a firm grasp of the language, one would not get placements easily, and that which you very lucidly illustrated would happen.
    Although one department (Mechanics) kept to strict English during class, the others fizzled out to plain ol’ Bangla towards the end of the semester. It’s easy to see why – they speak, eat, dream Bangla with their colleagues, friends, and relatives. Why should we students be any different? (Some did hold out, nevertheless). And though most of my classmates are decidedly good at much of the academics, they are blissfully ignorant of English. Agreed, it isn’t the greatest of languages in this world {it’s fragmented – the Britons (or the Anglo-Saxons or whoever) decided to copy-paste words from all the peoples they captured and decided to call it their own. Talk about communal ego…}, but the world they will be entering runs on it, and so should they.

    Oh, and Matrix Educare publishes a Humanities book. I saw one of those during my semester exams and was quite obviously awestruck by the elegance and awesomeness these super awesome books have. [/sarcasm]

    Aside: Please refrain from using “vernacular”. Its etymological meaning is “slave-tongue”. {From ‘verna’ = ‘slave/native’}

  7. @ Prince, about the Vernacular -- ...but that's the delight of appropriation, isn't it? Take something vile and use it for ourselves, bend to it our wills and purposes, change it in a way that forever alienates it from its origins? I take it as cocking a snook at whatever you're appropriating. Otherwise history would be too tyrannical, and we would be submitting to its tainted dictates even now, because most customs/words/what-have-yous have barbarous and revolting origins, after all.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. @Kazarelth: So much in the name of Political Correctness... eh?

    And the etymological reference is while close but not correct! lol! The Indo-European (read: Sanskrit) root word for 'verna' did not exactly refer to the english word 'slave', it actually refers to 'class" or 'color' or 'type', or even 'covering', 'exterior'.
    Vernacular once meant "language/tongue of a particular class".

    PS. If u want more details on the word, lemme know!