Saturday, June 19, 2010

The issue of banning Tamil speech in schools

I had a chance to interview my esteemed nephew, Arjun - he was transitioning from 8th std to 9th std. In the middle of his very busy schedule of watching TV and listening to "Singh is King" songs, he allocated ten minutes for me. I will write the detailed interview later, but for now, I wanted to highlight something. The interview started with him asking me a question about writing in Tamil.
"Why would you write in Tamil? Write in English and a lot of people will read it", he said.
I said, "I have tried writing in English. It is not my native language and I write Indian stories, which sound stilted in English. My English is not fit enough for first class writing."
He understood this to mean that I had scored low in English. He said, "I get lots of marks in English."
I said,"But think about your logic everyone around the world should be writing in English. There should not be any Spanish, French or Turkish writing at all. That is not the case, right? There are enough people to read those languages and that is so in Tamil too. There is no real first or last in languages. Every language is equally good."
He responded with this: "If what you are saying is true, why does our school prevent us from talking in Tamil, ever?"
I was stumped.

A couple of days after this discussion the school near my home had announcements. It was the opening day and the principal gave a long, rambling talk as usual (in bad English - I have written about this here). This was the person who had banned facebook and promised to put cameras in every classroom.
In the middle of her talk she said this:"I don't want my students engaging in bad activities, such as talking in Tamil. I don't want that."
There were many parents standing at the door, since it was the first day of school.I wondered what they thought of this.

Where does this come from? Why is this not called fanaticism? How could any sane society tolerate that its schools ban its own native language?
I have wondered about this, but failed to come up with any good reason. It requires a bunch of sociologists to figure out what is going on here.

Fixing the Fanaticism
There is an important issue in balance here. You see, schools have a right, as private entities to fix any rules they deem necessary, as long as they submit to the education departments' requirements. The government cannot directly go ahead and legislate out Tamil hatred from schools.
There are two questions:
1. Why did we reach this stage?
2. How can we fix the underlying reasons?
It is easy to call the school principal an idiot. She is ignorant, sure, but she is responding to some kind of pressure or confirming to some social tradition, when she bans Tamil.
Where exactly is that pressure coming from? Is it coming from the parents? They are the demand side, the "buyers" of education. Are they expecting that schools completely ban Tamil within the campus?
May be to a certain extent, but education is a seller's market. A parent is constrained a lot in shopping for a good school - it is not like shopping for a product in a store. Your school has to be close to home, for example. It is not as if a parent would seek out a school and then can AFFORD to decide, "No, this school bans Tamil. I won't admit my child here." They can't, that is why there are long lines in front of every school.
Sure, we have reached this stage starting from colonial times. Knowing English was no doubt an advantage then. But what happened after independence? In particular what has happened in the past 40 years when ostensible Tamil lovers have ruled this state?

The Failure of English Education
Here is my shot at an explanation:
You start out first with the fact that your range of jobs immediately expands if you learn science and technology in English. We are a developing country and not at the forefront of research and development in most fields. The words that we use at work (Kalai Chorkal in Tamil) are generally in English. The process of translating Kalai Chorkal to Tamil is slow (although it continues to be done by admirable people). You are a better hire if you know learn technical subjects in English. This explains why schools offer two streams, Tamil and English medium, with English medium charging more. That is just Economics at work.
The next step is to speak English fluently - not just knowing technical terms or understanding documents. Ideally, (think about this carefully), your school education would be SUFFICIENT for this purpose. That is, if you took English as a language in your school, then that class education should make you fluent in English.
We all know that is not the case - just as that is not the case with any subject in our system.

If English is to be taught as a foreign language, then it should be taught right - with practice sessions and interactive classes - not as you would teach any other subject like History. If English was taught correct, it will be enough to learn it in the English class.

My point is that the school principal near my home forces kids to talk all the time in English because she KNOWS that her own school curriculum is INEFFECTIVE in teaching good English. If her school was effective, she won't care what language the kids speak outside of English class.

Thus, the myth has taken root, that you can talk English fluently ONLY if you talk in English all the time. That is what the schools are attempting and they do seem to make it a selling point.

So, my theory (I could be wrong) is that schools force kids to speak in English all the time because they have no faith in their own English teaching system. But you can't blame them. They are probably right in their belief. As I have explained before (in this article), the examination system decides how you educate students. I believe the examinations are all wrong. So that is what you get in your education.
How then, can we go about correcting this situation?

One way is simply a blanket ban by the government on such rules by schools. But it would be thrown out of court, at least for minority institutions to whom the government has no right to dictate. I believe that such a ban would also be an infringement on the rights of private institutions - who knows what else the government will ban next?

Second is to focus a lot on English education - this is completely paradoxical. But if you had excellent resources and require good English education standards at the English SUBJECT level, schools simply may not feel the need to ban Tamil. I realize this sounds very contrarian.

I also think that the Tamil Nadu government should do a LOT more to save the language from extinction. It IS the government's responsibility in this country. But that is for a separate post. Two related points here:
1. Modernise Tamil education too - stop the stupid "Manappaada paattu".
2. Teach some post-modernist thoughts at school. There is a common view that languages (or music or art, for that matter) are hierarchical and that there is a single path to modernity. The past forty years of post-modernist thought has completely broken this view, but it is not yet taught - as a concept - in our schools.

PS: Tamil society, in the world outside school, has fought against such school bans. There is a reason words such as "Peter" or "Mary" entered popular Tamil lexicon. In school and college the kids who spoke in English all the time (without reason) were thought to be uncool, when I was growing up. I don't know how it is now.

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