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.