Standing in an exceptionally well-appointed demonstration lab in one of Chennai Municipal Corporation’s so-called “model” schools, the chemistry teacher, speaking in Tamil, explained to me that science in high school was taught in English.

I asked her whether the classroom discussion was also in English. She said, “For discussion I allow Tamil, but I explain the concepts only in English.” Since she had needed an interpreter to understand my question, I asked if what she did was to read out concepts to the class from a textbook. She replied that that’s what she did.

In a Delhi government-run model school, a star high school student’s exam script answer to a question about the Right to Education says:
“In this right all the citizen of the India have right to education and all the child who are under 14 year have right to free education. No one can exploide any child to do/ to be a labour. Child labour is punishable offence and it is much similar to right against exploitation.”

The science teacher in Chennai, who has a MSc in Chemistry and the requisite degrees in education, and the 17-year-old Delhi school boy, who has attended an English-medium model school since class 1 and got more than 80% in the class 10 board exam, are products of an intractable problem in Indian education – that policy-making for mass education focuses on form and not substance.

Push for English

The push for English in primary schools over the past decade is part of this problem.  Two states – Jammu and Kashmir and Nagaland – have made English the main medium of instruction in all schools, public and private. More and more states, such as Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Delhi, offer English-medium as an option in existing state schools. Private English-medium schools are a growth industry, offering a range of services to suit almost all budgets, from around Rs 200 a month to Rs 2 lakhs a month.

The massive push for English started with India’s claim that it had an English-language advantage that would make it a leading “knowledge economy” and the belated discovery, as low-end service sector jobs in call centres and BPOs went a-begging, that in fact this was not the case. The quick-fix solution that has become a sort of mantra is that English is the only way out. It will close the skills gap, offer employment opportunities and set the country on its path to greatness.

This simple-minded link between job opportunities, economic success and the English language has an increasing number of urban working-class and lower-middle-class parents investing hard-earned money in private English-medium schooling, often of uncertain quality. Today, almost a quarter of all Indian children attend private schools, a significant proportion of them officially English-medium. It is this shift that has made some states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra offer an English-medium option in existing government schools in the hope of stemming the flow of children out of state schools to private schools.

Primacy of the mother tongue

Yet across the world, and in India, there is a consensus among educators, educationists and linguists that children learn most effectively in their mother tongues. Research collated by UNESCO shows that “children who begin their education in their mother tongue make a better start, and continue to perform better, than those for whom school starts with a new language.”

It’s a no-brainer. Using a language that children are familiar with eases their transition from home to school. Children are more easily engaged in the classroom because they understand what is going on and are able to link it to their everyday lives. This helps them develop literacy skills more easily and also their general cognitive abilities.

A mass of research shows that a child’s ability to learn a second or even a third language improves greatly if her first language skills are well developed. And far from being a burden, children who know one language well are very receptive and quick to learn new languages. The three-language formula for schools, which emphasised learning in the mother tongue, seemed to acknowledge this.

The transition from home language to a school language is complicated enough in a country like India where large proportions of the population do not speak the standardised regional language but a dialect or, as with many tribal communities, an entirely different language.

States with large advasi populations, for example, do not even have sufficient teachers who understand, never mind teach in, their various languages. Starting to learn to read and write in a language that they never hear at home or in the community makes learning difficult and reduces its appeal, making it harder to keep children’s’ attention in class or to keep them in class at all.

Where are the teachers?

To teach and learn a language you need teachers who are highly skilled in the languages they teach. So in primary school, where one teacher teaches all subjects, you would need properly multi-lingual teachers. Apart from problems of language pedagogy generally used in Indian schools, such teachers are rather thin on the ground.

Most teachers teaching English can do little more than read from a textbook. In a corporation-run primary school on the edge of Chennai, the majority of children admitted this year have opted for English-medium. The teachers in the school are all properly qualified and have between 10 and 20 years of teaching experience each. They all teach English as a subject to their Tamil-medium students, but not one of them can speak a sentence of grammatically correct English.

Asked how they would  teach the English-medium students, they said: “It’s government policy, so we will just have to.” An assistant education officer, who monitors primary schools, said there was a real “medium confusion” with “teaching done neither in English nor in Tamil.”

A 2012 NCERT study of English teaching in government schools in states (including Jammu and Kashmir and Nagaland, where the medium of instruction is English) found that in a majority of schools the classroom language was the official language, the local language or mother tongue.

According to the study a very large proportion of teachers were not confident teaching in English. The reasons they gave were that they were not trained in English-teaching, or that they were not English teachers, but had to teach English or felt their English pronunciation was poor and that they did not speak English correctly or fluently.

Earlier this year, the Punjab state education minister was shocked to discover that a significant number of English teachers in the state had very rudimentary English skills even though many of them had postgraduate qualifications in English language or English literature.

But educators and educationists have long been aware of this situation. An element of corruption may explain the problem to an extent, but in the main teachers’ qualifications reflect the state of school and higher education in the country, where certification trumps learning.

Difficult task

State governments, suddenly conscious of the English deficit are trying to fix the problem with short in-service training programmes conducted by the British Council or by CSR divisions of business corporations. This looks fine on paper, but in reality the skill levels needed to be a teacher of a language are not so easily or quickly acquired.

The average private school is generally worse off because private schools have lower qualification requirements and less experienced teachers. They may be English-medium, but their teachers too don’t speak English. Abhishek, an autorickshaw driver in New Delhi who has two children attending private English medium school has just made this discovery.

He pays more than Rs 20,000 a year as school fees for his KG- and Class 1-going children in a CBSE-affiliated school. In addition, he pays around Rs 8,000 for tuitions, for although he has a class 10 qualification (the learning standard for qualifying exams that prospective teachers need to pass to teach primary school), he cannot help his children with their schoolwork because he is Hindi-educated and his children are studying in English.

He cannot even tell if his children are actually understanding their lessons or simply copying from the blackboard and memorising them. He relies entirely on the teacher to tell him how they are doing. So unless he is an exceptionally fortunate man, his children’s teacher will be one who is content if they copy and memorise well.

Misplaced goal

English is proposed as a corrective against existing social disadvantages. But it is more likely to accentuate these disadvantages. The obsession with English determinedly ignores what is impossible to ignore, that a majority of Indian children leave school without the basics of old-fashioned reading, writing and arithmetic, in any language.

This cannot be fixed by teaching them English or in English with, among other things, teachers who themselves are unskilled in the language. To reverse this trend, policy makers need to re-think mass education from the perspective of children and their socio-economic situations.

Right now, all Indian children are forced into a school system designed for a tiny proportion of the population that has an inter-generational education advantage. What they need instead is an education system that helps them acquire language skills early and learn in a manner that will allow them to close the gap with the educationally advantaged.

“English is a language; it is not a test of your intelligence," the actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui replied, when asked by a journalist if his not being an English speaker had made it harder to establish himself as an actor. This is something policy makers and promoters of English should consider seriously.

Learning a language, any language, is about gaining a skill that’s necessary to gain an education, it’s not an education in itself. Moreover, done badly, it deprives a child of a proper education.

A lesson in English vowels, taught in Telugu

A primary school teacher in Bihar makes a valiant effort to teach English, a language that she does not herself know.