More English and More Non-English

Chetan Bhagat has a recent post on his blog which is a transcript of a speech that he gave at the British Council in Delhi. He defines two groups in India. One, which he calls E1, is proficient in English and gets all the good jobs. The other, E2, is familiar with the language but is not proficient. E2 is ten times the size of E1. He would like to see effort being made, by the likes of the British Council, to shift more people from E2 to E1.

It’s hard to argue against this point of view. Expanding E1 or for that matter E2 as well is good. Spoken English skills are what have enabled India to create the huge offshore services sector. English is also the common language that links India and is therefore the de facto language of big business. Better English skills – spoken, written or really at any level – enhances a person’s employability and opens higher paying job opportunities.

But is more and better English the only dimension there is to language in education? I see two problems with this.

One, English is a self-perpetuating advantage that creates haves and have nots across generations. If your parents can speak in English, if their friends and their children speak in English, you are much likelier to grow up to speak English. This self-perpetuation is true about education in general (if your parents are educated you are likelier…) but while better access to books, schools and teachers can, to a large extent, break the cycle for general education, this is really hard to do when it comes to speaking a non-native language.

Two, an English medium instruction may actually be detrimental to a child’s education. There must be millions of children who sit through say, a History class in English, not understanding much of what is being taught. Giridhar Rao writes often about this often at his blog Bolii. A couple of posts here and here are illuminating. Apparently, this problem is not unique to India.

The answer is certainly not to turn the clock back on English and English medium education in the country. Yet, I would say that the focus should be elsewhere. Market forces are taking care of English skills. Parents know that their children will have a better future if they go to an English medium school. They are all voting with their wallets for English. Even the MBA school that Bhagat speaks of that hired ten English teachers to upgrade the students’ conversational English, is a product of the market responding to demand for English.

So English doesn’t need any help. What does need work is creating a lot more employment opportunities in the organized sector for non-English speakers. If non-English speakers could see good job opportunities in manufacturing or even the service sectors, some may avoid the sisyphean task of becoming an E1 and yet make a good life for themselves. And perhaps even understand what’s going on in History class.


  1. Ved says:

    Very well said, i fully agree wih you. I am one of those who, well kind of, broken the cycle. But I sitll remember my 1st year in IIT, when I did not understand anything taught in L-7. Thanks god courses were primarily continuation +2 Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics otherwise it would have killed my spirit. Still, it did enough damage to my confidance and i don't remember speaking anything during the lecture either to ask a question or to answer a question.


    1. Ved – the primacy of English has many other deleterious effects. In another country which taught its students in their mother tongue you would do well in a class based upon how well you did in that subject. In India, English can shuffle the deck in other ways. It can have a huge impact on the confidence of a child (and adults) when their proficiency in their mother tongue doesn't carry over to English.


  2. Agree with your view. While E2–> E1 is important, like you said the market forces are heavily leaning towards it. Accommodating regional language is also good for harmonized growth. I see this tension in Bangalore (where I live) between Kannada speaking (and taught in public schools predominantly even today) and the rest. Most employment opportunities except for blue collar skilled jobs require considerable English proficiency and that need not be the case. Its the momentum & insensitivity that drives this behavior today.


  3. lakshmi ramachandran says:

    We should not be creating jobs just for the purpose of employing non-English speakers. But, I am sure there is so much to be done in India, in agriculture, infrastructure, food processing and many other sectors where there will jobs which will not require much knowledge of English. They will only depend on the person's skill and competency in that area – it is just that nobody creating such jobs 🙂


  4. ila says:

    Why blame a language for human deficiencies? Pranav Mistry of Sixth Sense fame studied in a GUJARATI medium school till Class 7.
    Agreed not everyone would have had his abilities but in a country where speaking English is aspirational, to not encourage it is foolish. Those who say that dont have the pulse of the people. Ila


    1. "Pranav Mistry of Sixth Sense fame studied in a GUJARATI medium school till Class 7." Doesn't that statement indicate your own belief that it is difficult to be successful if you don't study English medium? And yet for many Indians, an English medium education is difficult because they can't understand and speak English well enough.

      I think English needs no encouragement because it is aspirational and the market takes care of it based on demand. But opportunities for non-English educated students is what needs encouragement. There isn't enough of it.


  5. Abhishek says:

    Whenever I get some time I read your blog. I think that English is a business language in India and it will remain so, thus one need to produce those products for which there will be always demand in the market. It is easier to create a product suitable for a job rather than to create a job out of nothing. We run English medium school ( in the village and our experience tells us that today every parent wants to teach their child in english medium as they know that if their child knows english then it can enhance employability of his child manifold.


  6. srivats says:

    Language, yes, is a huge barrier. It would be best to allow a person to think and understand in the language he knows or understand.
    Is that the reason the world stopped big inventions by the 80's?
    I was told by my pediatric that a child can learn 10 languages at a given time. I need to confirm this though. Now my daughter can talk / understand about 5 that includes english, tamil, malayalam, hindi & spanish. I am sure if we travel to europe she may pick up german and french too. I can just manage 3, english, hindi & tamil.
    Would it be better to just teach them the language and build charecter till they are ten and start with science etc after 10 in a language a child selects?


  7. Shefaly says:

    Basab: Your Aug 2007 post on Being Articulate comes to mind instantly. Perhaps both together articulate a higher point about competence and its relationship with linguistic abilities.


  8. Giri says:

    Basab and friends

    I've just blogged at on my article "From mother tongue to many tongues" which appears in the current issue of Teacher Plus. Comments welcome!


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