English Medium Education Can Lead to Poorer English

Giridhar Rao has a new essay out From Mother Tongue to Many Tongues which makes two interesting points

One that English medium education can lead to “poor educational outcomes”

“It is now well established that when a child begins learning in his or her first language that child is more likely to succeed academically and is better able to learn additional languages.”

I blogged about this in my post More English and More Non-English.

But the other interesting point made is that English medium education can lead to general “language impoverishment”. (L2 here is English and L1 is the mother tongue.)

Starting L2 as early as possible, and teaching as much of the curriculum as possible through the L2 does not result in effective or widespread L2 acquisition. At best, this results in “subtractive bilingualism”: an L2 acquired at the expense of L1. Most often, the result is simply language impoverishment; not being able to use either L1 or L2 adequately.

The essay cites many references. Please go read it if you can.

The second point, that an early start or transition to English medium education, can actually lead to communicating in all languages poorly, including English, is counter intuitive and some of you may disagree with it just based upon your own personal experience or the people you know. But I would argue that the readers of this blog likely had a privileged environment – exposure to English at home and with friends early on etc. – or may have been gifted enough to overcome the disadvantage. So you are not exactly a random sample of India’s population.

Across the cross section of India, I think English medium education works to disperse educational outcomes. For a small minority, it results in better English skills but no better general educational outcomes. This small minority, who have an “English friendly” environment, an English medium education poses no hurdle, or a very small one. But the rewards are linked to opportunities in the global marketplace for higher education and jobs, including the export oriented service industries in India.

For the large majority, however, according to the research, English medium education works differently and leads to poorer educational outcomes and poorer language skills. If this is the case, it must be a matter of great concern to education administrators.

Whether there is language impoverishment in India compared to other countries, is a tough question to answer. In the companies I have worked in, American employees in the same role have uniformly had better English skills than Indian employees. But language impoverishment would imply that the English skills of the American employees were better than the Mother Tongue skills of Indian employees, which I wouldn’t know. My guess is they are.


  1. Krishna says:

    I think the correlation is grotesque. Better educational outcome is not the reason why people pick up language skills. I think it mostly is because it enables facile communication and ease of access to voluminous material published in that language, that may not be available in L1. By that count, a fair bit of grasp over a L2 that is good enough to glean vital info on a subject from material that is available in L2, acquiring L2 skills indeed helps one to further academic pursuits as well. The attribute of losing out to L2 over L1 is more because as they learn L2, they read less of material published in L1. Hence the culprit is lessened reading of L1 and not learning L2. Now it will never give you a "mastery" (in the true sense of the word) in L2 because human nature is always to think in mother tongue and speak / write in L2 – and the American scores here because he doesn't have to face that dichotomy and hence loses nothing in instant translation.


  2. Swapnil Pundle says:

    I think you have a point. Being exposed to multiple languages early in life does make you a "Jack of many languages but master of none".

    On one hand you lose out on what can be called advanced language skills while on the other hand working knowledge of multiple languages is a great advantage in a place like India. Allows you connect well with people from different regions. This can help in many ways right from making girlfriends to closing business deals.

    Take your pick girlfriends, business deals or great language skills!!


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