Can You Write a Full Sentence of More Than 140 Characters Anymore?

In the IT Services industry you have to be able to write code. And English. In fact, not being able to write code may be alright. But without English you just can’t function.

And yet, it is surprising how little attention is paid to written communication skills. The BPO industry trained thousands of people in spoken English, often accompanied with accent training. But English writing skills get little attention.

Why are English writing skills so important?

Internal business communication in an IT Services company is entirely in English. The offshore model means that business matters that could have been transacted in a meeting or over the phone, necessarily end up on email. If an email, or design document is not well written, a whole day might go by before a clarification or correction can be made. Big waste of productivity!

Second, Indian offshore service providers work with clients who are used to dealing with consultants who typically have excellent writing skills. In western markets particularly, writing with clarity and even flair, is a mark of a good education. That’s what you get compared with.

Over time, most clients on the IT side of the house have adjusted their mental models and no longer automatically connect good writing skills with IT skills. But as we start going in front of business, the same problems will start surfacing again with a new set of clients.

Nominally, Indians in the IT Services industry were educated in English medium schools. I would guess that over 90% of the industry took their XII board exams in English medium. But when it comes to writing English, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean much.

Indian high school education is all geared towards college entrance exams. Entrance exams for engineering colleges don’t test on English. The Physics, Chemistry and Math exams are entirely (?) multiple choice. As a result, nobody cares about English at school. Correction – nobody cares about any language, period.

And then came the mobile revolution. The kids coming out of college now write emails, the way they text. Short, unintelligible sentences full of typos. Not surprising since for them words texted far exceed words written in full sentences in email or any other form of writing.

Go to the comments section of any Indian publication online. You’ll see what I mean. I can’t understand half of what’s written there.

This is actually now a crisis. I believe that with the new generation, writing full sentences is just not cool any more. Every idea must be conveyed in 140 characters or less. Much of it will be SMS English. There will be typos galore, because, you know what, I am too busy to review what I just wrote. If you can’t understand what I’ve written that’s your problem.

As always, the industry will have to come up with its own solutions. We can never rely on the Indian education system to meet our needs. But unlike technical knowledge, it is really difficult to start writing well if you have ignored it in school and college.

The Role of English in Modern India

The New York Times has a piece India Faces a Linguistic Truth by Manu Joseph

English is the de facto national language of India. It is a bitter truth.

The article goes on to depict this battle between people who want to make English a national language and those who don’t. If English becomes a national language then

Accepting that English is the national language would have benefits that far outweigh soothing the emotions of Indian nationalism….

The chief beneficiaries if English attained this status would be the children who attend the free schools run by the central and the state governments. An overwhelming majority of such schools are not taught in English.

This was news to me. I thought English was an official language. The Wikipedia entry on India says that both Hindi and English are official languages. English is a ‘subsidiary’ official language, whatever that means.

I think the English genie is out of the bottle. It is the language of the aspirations of young Indians. Cultural jingoism is not going to be able to push back the economic drive of English. To get ahead in India today, to get a well paying job, you need English.

There are issues with this situation, of course. From an earlier post

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.

From another post English Medium Education Can Lead to Poorer English

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.

If things continue as they are today the future will see:

  • English, not just talent and hard work, will be a key determinant of income. Did your parents speak English? Could they afford to send you to a English only convent? These factors will determine the kind of job Indians will get perhaps more than their capabilities. Class mobility while not being engrained for generations, will be restrained.
  • We need a well educated population – for a 21st century economy, for a well informed electorate. Is a forced diet of English medium education going to get us there? Will children learn elementary school science better in English or their mother tongue? Do we even have the teachers who can teach Biology in English, in the numbers needed?
  • Will English medium students actually join the work force with good English skills? If you go by the writing skills that one sees in the comments section of Indian websites, I seriously doubt that all the years of English medium education has done them any good.

If there is any policy direction that we need here it’s that India has to pay serious attention to the manufacturing side of the economy. Sophisticated manufacturing industries value skills. Factory workers don’t need English skills to work with global clients. Just like Germany’s world-beating machine tool industry is all German speaking. While the capital markets industry, being integrated into the global capital markets, speaks English.

And if we focused more on teaching English better, rather than teaching every subject in English, we just might turn out better workers.

IIM Ahmedabad ranked 11th by FT

The Financial Times has its Global MBA rankings for 2011 out. IIM Ahmedabad is ranked 11th. It was not ranked in previous years. So this is completely out of the blue.

The Economist recently also published their MBA rankings. IIM Ahmedabad was ranked 85th – the only Indian MBA program to be on the list. Which is better than not being on the list, but only just.

So the FT ranking is quite a shot in the arm. I have never had any doubt that my fellow alumni can stand toe to toe with the best. The faculty and research, I know, could improve. But the students are the best anywhere. Yes, they are picky and high maintenance and tend to not fit into every organization. But, at least in part, that is because they are just smarter than the people around them.

OK enough self-serving praise. If IIM A is so hot, how come it didn’t even get a rank till last year?

You have to apply to be ranked, and I don’t know if the institute applied or not. But even so, there are a few things it has ranked high on, which may depend on changes to methodology, and that may have pushed it higher in the rankings.

Take a look at the FT page I have linked to above. It allows some pretty neat analysis on-the-fly.

IIM A has ranked high on Salary Today (3rd) and Weighted Salary (2nd). Since these were computed using PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) it has ranked quite high. It also ranked high on Increase in Salary, before and after the MBA (3rd). Also on Careers and Employment.

Not surprisingly, it ranked low (92nd) on Research and International Faculty (last). It also ranked low on Women in Faculty (12%).

Now, how all this was factored into the final rankings is not something I went into. I expect, Salaries must have had a pretty high weighting in the overall rank computation. Using PPP there, helps a lot, and I would argue is absolutely the right thing to do.

Now if only the institute were freed from the clutches of the government it could do something to attract world-class faculty and focus a lot more on research. Like many things in India (the economy, for instance) IIM Ahmedabad shines, in spite of, not because of its ownership by the Government of India.

[Update: As many readers have informed me, the FT ranking is for the PGP X program which is a 12 month full time MBA that accepts students with considerable work experience (avg 10 years), unlike the PGP program which is a 2 year MBA but accepts many (most?) students straight after college (as I did). The PGP program does not qualify, because of the low work ex requirement, for the FT rankings. The PGP X program, which is new, was ranked for the first time.]

TVU Immigration Scam

From The Hindu

This could become one of the largest immigration frauds to ever hit the U.S. university system

With 95% of the students involved said to be of Indian origin, hundreds may face deportation

Tri Valley University, here in the Bay Area is involved in what might be the biggest immigration frauds with student visas. From The Hindu

When they launched a sting operation against Susan Xiao-Ping Su, the head of TVU, with undercover officers posing as foreign students, she was willing to offer them I-20, or student visas, even though they admitted they had no intention to attend courses and had improper status from previous schools.

Over 95% of the students are of Indian origin.

The TVU story is over. But the website is still up. It projects a strong association with “Christian education”. It won’t be the first operation to use religion as a cover-up.

God has been with us for every step the university takes. Initially starting with engineering program, Tri-Valley University quickly develop all of its academic programs in Christian ministry, business, law and medicine with helps and contributions from many faculty members, volunteers, as well as renown professionals.

TVU appears to be very new. They applied for accreditation in 2008. No news on whether it was received or not.

The first important milestone date of Tri-Valley University’s development is June 29th, 2008, the initial contact of Tri-Valley University with our accreditation agency. Ever since then, Tri-Valley University has been structured according to the prestigious accreditation requirement for all its institution infrastructure, administration, and academic programs in spirit and practice.

Because it is so new, it probably hasn’t graduated too many students, though there may be some who have transferred credits elsewhere. Those credits will be worth very little now.

TVU exploited the scarcity of US visas and Su’s ability to award them. There are many, many people around the world who want to get into the United States, somehow, anyhow. H1-B visas are already scarce. USCIS ran out of the 2011 quota on Jan 26. That F-1 visa is worth something, even if the education around it is a sham.

A similar thing happened in the early days of the IT boom in India. There weren’t enough engineering graduates coming out of colleges for the IT Services companies. Which led to the rise of the donation college – colleges that essentially granted you a degree in exchange for money. The quality of education itself was almost immaterial. The smarter colleges focused on getting employers to come for campus hiring. Then stick some kind of entry criteria at the admission level so that you aren’t admitting totally unemployable students and the virtuous cycle of good students – good jobs – more good students starts working in your favour.

Some day, there will be a shakeout in the engineering college industry in India. Supply will catch up. Salaries offered on campus will diverge. And the game will be over for the fly-by-nighters. But then the owners never really invested too much in education anyway. The students will be left up the creek without a paddle.

It didn’t have to be this way. If accreditation agencies in India took their job to be anything other than making money for themselves, you could still ensure quality education while growing supply. But then, that wouldn’t be India, would it.

[Update: ToI has the best piece on the TVU scam]

For Budding Social Entrepreneurs

Many friends and people I know have been taking up responsibilities or causes that have a social objective. Education is a particularly good field where the needs are great in India and where people like us have been beneficiaries of a good education and all that comes with it.

Friend and former colleagues P R Ganapathy and Sandeep Shroff are both involved with non-profits. Guns, who is going back to India will spend part of his time with Teach for India. Sandeep has been involved with the Indian Literacy Project here in the Bay Area for many years. I do my little bit through my father’s trust Digjyoti Trust that supports higher education for orphaned and disadvantaged children.

Aside from the non-profit route, others are succeeding with a commercial model, but with a social objective embedded within it. Samhita Academy is one such educational institution. Their flagship school in Bangalore is doing quite well even though it is in just its third year.

The school is backed by the family of S. D. Shibulal, a friend, former colleague and founder of Infosys. Asha Thomas, Exec Director and her team have done a fantastic job in laying a solid foundation of the school. The infrastructure, staff, teaching methods – everything points to an excellent school in the making.

25% of the student population of Samhita Academy comprises of disadvantaged children whose costs are borne by the school. As Samhita Academy sets up more schools this objective will carry into the other schools as well. However, and this is the interesting thing, Samhita Academy is a commercially run enterprise. The fees must cover all costs. Why? because Shibu believes that this is a better model. If the schools are run like a commercial enterprise, the model becomes much more scalable. Ultimately, the social objective too is served better if the schools succeed commercially and expand to many more cities.

Samhita wants to now expand with more schools in other cities. They are looking for a leadership team. If you or anyone you know has climbed all the mountains you wanted to in your corporate job, and wanted to do something different and more meaningful, please contact Samhita. Or drop me a note and I’ll pass it on.

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.

Make Work Homework

A few years ago my son who is now in middle school got some vocabulary homework for English. It was a pretty long list of words. He was supposed to write the meaning of each word and then use it in a sentence. And then, get this, draw or download a picture from the internet that illustrates the word. The homework took thrice as long as it would have without the illustrations.

Now if you think about it, if the child has learnt to use the word in a sentence, there is little value in an illustration. Especially, since most of the words pertained to intangible things like “blatant”. If it were an art class I can still see some value in an exercise where students reflect and then draw a picture depicting “blatant”. But not for 50 such words and not for an English class.

There is a phrase for this kind of work. Its called “Make Work”. Basically teachers are giving homework just to make up the 3 hours or whatever of homework they need to give per day. Like many issues, there is economics behind Make Work Homework.

Public schools and most private schools in the US have a student-teacher ratio that has gotten higher and higher over time. Obviously, there are cost reasons for this. The primary driver of cost efficiencies in a school is the average number of students in a class.

A teacher spends time on preparing for class, grading homework and other small activities. The time required for preparing for class does not vary by the number of students in class. It also goes down with experience. But grading homework varies directly with the number of students. And it can add up to quite a lot of work. If the teacher is hard pressed for time, she can’t reduce the amount of homework given to students. But she can give the kind of homework that takes less time to check. The example I cite above is exactly that kind of homework – with asymmetric workloads for student and teacher.

I believe this is the root cause of Make Work Homework. It takes a lot of time for the student to draw an illustration and very little to eyeball it while grading. This asymmetry works in favor of the teacher. She can give the prescribed amount of homework and still keep her grading workload low.

This is not to say that anything requiring an illustration is Make Work. Not at all. Sometimes it is absolutely necessary. Visual learning can be very powerful. And sometimes it can be justified with the argument that children learn in different ways and at different paces. What may seem like gratuitous drawing and coloring to one student may be essential reinforcement of what is being taught in class for another student.

But a lot of what passes as homework for our children, is the product of a teacher trying to reduce his workload.

Career Advice to the IIM Ahmedabad Graduating Class

1395668938_dc7ce824e6_mLast week I was at IIM Ahmedabad for my 20 year reunion. For two days and three nights we had non-stop fun reliving all the special memories from our times at IIM. Reunions, some say, can be quite a let down. Your classmates and you went down different walks of life, they’ll say, and you don’t quite have that connection anymore. Our reunion was, if possible, even better than the high expectations we came with. The reconnection was instant, as if no time had gone by. Needless to say, a good time was had by all.

During one of the few serious sessions on campus, we talked to some of the current PGPs and PGP Xs about careers and career choices. (PGP is the Post Graduate Program, which is the regular two year MBA. PGP X is a 12 month program akin to an Exec MBA). Given how bleak the job scene out there looks, and how concerned the students were, I thought I’d do a post for IIM A students graduating this year or the next.


Trip to IIM Ahmedabad

Last weekend I made a trip to my alma mater – IIM Ahmedabad. Prof. Arvind Sahay who teaches Marketing and is the Chairman of the PGP X program, invited all the entrepreneurs from my batch (and his). Ten entrepreneurs from PGP 89 came to campus and participated in various classes, panel discussions and presentations. It was great fun. With hugely successful entrepreneurs like Sanjeev Bikhchandani (, R. Subramanian (Subhikhsa) and Rahul Bhasin (Barings Pvt. Equity) in the class, the students got a massive dose of ‘from the horse’s mouth’.


My Government School

I grew up in a small town called Hisar in Haryana. My father was a Professor at Haryana Agricultural University and I did most of my schooling at Campus School. As the name suggests, the school was meant for the children of University staff.

I left Hisar after my 10th boards. On trips back to Hisar to see family I would drop in for a chat with my school teachers. Then my family left Hisar and I never went back until recently the internet brought some of my old school mates together. On this trip to India I went back to Hisar and to Campus School after more than 20 years. It was quite a trip down memory lane.