Friday, March 20, 2009

Speaking of English as a Medium


Almost once a week, the principal of the school near my home addresses her students and blames them for all her problems. I will write more about that later, but something caught my attention today about her "pulambal".
She said, "We will not tolerate coming late to school, talking in class, speaking in Tamil or behaving disobediently".
Yes, she clubbed speaking in Tamil along with all the other ills in her students' behavior.
Then I went to the beach in the evening and heard a couple next to me yelling and screaming in English with their 3 year old son. They were literally baby-talking to their kids in English. It was hilarious listening to the dad telling the son to "lick the chocolate, dude".
I would almost have a problem with these two incidents but both of them were illuminating for other reasons. It was not so much that the school principal was advising that talking in Tamil in school was a crime. Most of us are used to this - almost every private school has this rule and it exists for a reason (we will discuss that later).
But the school principal herself was talking really bad English.
She was saying things like this: "I don't know what I will do. I get too angry.."; " The teacher scolded me! How am I feel?" and so on.
I have listened to her closely and it is obvious that she is translating from Tamil to English in her mind. In fact I bet all their teachers do that.
The students whom these luminaries are training are no better: they generally talk street Tamil outside but occasionally lapse into "I like that only" kind of English.
The same holds true for the family in the beach. In spite of all their efforts to talk in English with their kids, I could tell it would not help. The dad had a really clumsy accent and his yelling "dude lick the chocolate" was not going to go far.
Here is the reason why talking in English to kids, and enforcing that even in casual talk, at school may not help - most of our English is bad (as in ungrammatical and clumsy) English. How do we expect that the same teachers at school, who teach bad Physics and bad Biology, and the teachers who are trained by our same useless educational system (we are better off calling it an examination system) - how do we expect them to suddenly teach English alone in an exemplary manner?
I have struggled to find why this English only rule is imposed in schools and why more and more parents talk in English to their kids. I have heard the explanation that it helps the kids' fluency when they grow up. I doubt that it does. The reason why we think that, is because we assume the people who are teaching English are good. We assume that the parents talk good English in the first place. Most of the time, both these parties do not know any better.
If learning a language fluently meant talking to kids exclusively in that language all his or her life, then they will grow up both unable to blend in India AND anywhere else.
What is the focus here? How much of immersion into a language will make a kid an "almost native speaker" of English? My point is that it is a futile quest. Just accept that we are Indians. we speak a different language natively and our educational system can only provide so much.
Instead, let me suggest an alternative.

Now we are getting to the positive part of this essay: I went to a government school. I got into a government engineering college and 70% of my classmates were from rural areas (I myself am from Tirunelveli, which is neither rural nor urban). Many of the guys and girls were getting an education in English for the first time in their lives. Not just that, some of them were the first people to pass tenth standard in their whole village.
Well, almost all of them are in the United States now. Some of them run companies there. They have been there for more than 10 years and talk and write better English than the school principal above or the retarded English only kids. How did this happen? Is it a miracle?
No - most humans with an IQ above 90 can pick up a language pretty easily if they are in an environment. Now, in my class, there were also kids who exclusively studied in English-only private schools. Looking back, I would not say they were particularly successful or smart. Both these groups did well enough.
Here is the thing we have missed in this craze - what helps a kid most is, I believe, a cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary knowledge - what they call a Renaissance education. Some of the most informed and smart students in my batch were actually rural and had a taste for modern Tamil literature. They used to read Jayakanthan, Sundara Ramasamy and so on. But better than that, they had a thirst for literature of any kind. One guy from rural Tanjore had Tagore's Gitanjali along with a translation of Manto's short stories in his hostel room. Well, he was the first guy who cleared GRE and went abroad.
The truth is this: purely from a practical perspective, a kid who grows up with an awareness of his immediate surroundings will adapt better to new cultures and will, in general, be smarter. I am assuming that every middle class and rich family wants their kids to be in the United States - and thus the push for English, rather than any literary merit they see in English. I may be wrong.
But if someone does want their kid or student to grow up to be able to work in an international environment (euphemism for American companies), then they may be better off exposing them to regional Indian literature and the arts, than try to talk to them in bad English all their youth. That is what my experience tells me and that is what I observe from people who grew up with me. It may seem a surprising result, I acknowledge that.
There is no gain made by pushing English down their kid's brain and blocking off access to all local languages - he or she is still either translating in their minds or are completely disconnected from their local environment, that they cannot attune to any other culture.

I could not resist wondering about some of the motivation for the insistence on English by parents and schools. I suspect there is another reason beyond "learning". See, here is what happened when we became independent - suddenly the poor had voting rights; legal rights; and access to an education. I think some of us just could not take that all distinction was lost between the chattering masses and the special "ones". Enter English-only schools. Enter parents talking to their kids only in English. At first, it was cute that a kid spoke words like "irritation". Soon it wore off and more urgency crept into the "classy" people. They now had to make the kids sound American. The quest goes on for that teeny weeny measure of distinctness from the trash surrounding us.

6 comments:

AlvaThundu said...

well said and right thoughts, quodlibet handled how it supposed to be? to add to your point, I studied in an anglo indian school, where we had strict rules, not to speak/talk in regional language, but that didnt help me at all, moreover I still dont understand why I want my kid to sound like a native English speaker and not like myself, and sarcastic part is, genetically cloaning them with native culture and foreign language, raising mental imbalance.

Venkateswaran R said...

You are utterly right. I am happy that you wrote my mind. I was discussing the same coincidentally with Praveen associating an incident at my kid's annual day function this Sunday. I am surprised to hear a father shouting at his 2 and half year kid (whose mother tongue is Tamil) in front of many kids at the school for not performing well in any activities in the annual day. Also, comparing him with other kids who did well.

A kid who listens to grandparents and parents speaking Tamil at home feels surprised and shocked to see the same parents talk flamboyantly when they are out of house. Is it to teach better English to kids or to attract the attention of others.

mptyvessel said...

Great post...I have thought about this several times....When I came to Bangalore(from Madurai), I was shocked that the kids playing on the street speak only in English.....and sadly their English was terrible. Luckily I never had the necessity to speak in English until I left Madurai. However, I manage to speak relatively better....
There is no point in forcing the kids....

anguraj said...

All what have you said are entirely true.In my school days , one of my english teacher used to say "If you want to know english better, you should have known tamil (implicitly means one's native language) better. If you dont know the tamil grammer, you will not be able to learn english grammer too. you dont deserve learning english. I will not teach you english" after telling this , he will teach tamil first and then proceed with english.
People may say "you should try to think in english , and should not be translating to english everytime". But who are they to tell us not to think in our native language.

anguraj said...

All what have you said are entirely true.In my school days , one of my english teacher used to say "If you want to know english better, you should have known tamil (implicitly means one's native language) better. If you dont know the tamil grammer, you will not be able to learn english grammer too. you dont deserve learning english. I will not teach you english" after telling this , he will teach tamil first and then proceed with english.
People may say "you should try to think in english , and should not be translating to english everytime". But who are they to tell us not to think in our native language.

anguraj said...

All what have you said are entirely true.In my school days , one of my english teacher used to say "If you want to know english better, you should have known tamil (implicitly means one's native language) better. If you dont know the tamil grammer, you will not be able to learn english grammer too. you dont deserve learning english. I will not teach you english" after telling this , he will teach tamil first and then proceed with english.
People may say "you should try to think in english , and should not be translating to english everytime". But who are they to tell us not to think in our native language.