language divide

Taunting, teasing, segregation: What regional-language students face in English-medium colleges

A research project by eight college students in Mumbai explores how language barriers affect students once they leave school for higher education.

For students who complete class X in regional language schools, stepping into an English-medium college in an Indian city can be a daunting experience. If coping with classes and examinations isn’t hard enough, there are also the taunts, sniggers and patronising attitude of “English” students to contend with.

In a new research project conducted by Pukar, a Mumbai-based urban research collective, a group of eight college students have explored these struggles faced by their peers from non-English medium backgrounds studying in English-medium istitutions.

The students, from the Dr BMN College of Home Science, were fellows of Pukar’s annual Barefoot Research Programme in which around 10 youth groups from different colleges and organisations are inducted and trained intensively on various aspects of conducting field research. The groups spend one year working on research topics that are close to their own lived experiences and help them explore their local socio-political contexts.

Along with other projects on issues such as menstrual taboos, the challenges faced by single mothers and familial acceptance of transgenders, the study on the problems of non-English medium students was released at an exhibition in Mumbai on July 25.

‘They laugh at our pronunciation’

“The biggest challenge for vernacular-background students is the negative perceptions of students from English schools,” said Rukhsar Khan, a third-year student of food science and nutrition at Dr BMN College. Rukhsar, who studied in Urdu up till Class 10, is one of the three students in the eight-member research group who didn’t have English as a first language in school.

Over the past year, the researchers conducted interviews and focus group discussions with 40 students from both English and vernacular backgrounds, along with interviewing a few faculty members from their college.

Many English-medium students, they found, subliminally perceive English as a language of status and tend to view non-English students as less intelligent. A lot of this is conveyed through “disapproving looks” and other non-verbal communication. Many vernacular background students reported strong feelings of under-confidence because of this attitude towards them.

“During class presentations, when English-medium students make mistakes in pronunciation, it is not seen as a big deal. But when one of us pronounces something wrong, there are always some people who laugh, tease or taunt us,” said Deepali Adsul, one of the research group members who studied in a Marathi school. “This has a bad effect on our confidence, which is already low.”

Many of the students they interviewed reported receiving prejudicial comments connecting their attire to their language competence. “Just because I wear a burqa, people have assumed that I come from an Urdu school, even though I have not,” said Bushra Girach, another group member.

‘Language is not identity’

As with many colleges keen to bridge the language gap among students, Dr BMN College divides the first-year English class into two batches – a regular class and a separate batch for students from vernacular schools, who are taught “lower level English”. The aim of the latter, says vice principal Mala Pandurang, is to provide some extra English coaching to those who may not be able to cope with their college courses otherwise.

“English is a tool of social mobility and impacts employability, because the markets, unfortunately, do discriminate on the basis of language,” said Pandurang. “We want to give our students the added advantage, and as an English teacher, I believe that the separate attention is helpful.”

But as the Barefoot Researchers group found, the experience of being in the “lower level English” class can often be unpleasant for students. For one, the segregation is open, which often leads to snide remarks by English-medium students. Deepali also believes that the separate class can sometimes be patronising, teaching vernacular students basic English language concepts they have already learnt in school. “Sometimes I feel we would learn more by sitting in the regular English class,” she said.

In their report, the group has recommended options such as holding an English entrance test for all students when they join college. “That way, vernacular students who are good at English don’t need to be in the lower level class and the English-medium students who are weak at the language can benefit from the extra English coaching,” said group member Zainab Cutlerywala.

There are, in fact, several English-medium students who feel more comfortable in their mother tongues, says Zainab. “In our first year, we were given a chance to make creative group presentations in class through poetry, puppetry and art, and none of the groups chose to present in English,” she said.

In their report, the group’s final recommendation is for both English and non-English students. “Vernacular students should believe in themselves and not let others’ perceptions affect their confidence,” said Rukhsar. “And English-medium students should learn to empathise with us, because language should not become identity.”

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