March 14, 2012
Source:The Crust Edition
For students moving from vernacular schools to colleges, poor English skills can be a traumatising hurdle. The Thorat panel's suggestion that remedial classes be held to help such students has been implemented only by the IITs so far.
Shyam Menon, vice chancellor of Delhi's Ambedkar University, speaks fluent English, no thanks to an English medium school. Menon went to a Malayalam medium government school in Kerala. His transition from Malayalam to English was smooth and effortless. "English was introduced as a subject in class III. By class V, a few subjects were taught in English. We began reading classics in secondary school, “said Menon.
But government schools that teach English are now a thing of the past. Menon points to change in education policy in the 1970s and '80s, with state governments doing away with English in regional language schools. As a result, generations of children have to grapple with poor English skills. This is a handicap when these children enter the largely English medium higher education system in India.
Little wonder, then, that over two crore children have opted to study in English medium schools, with English overtaking Marathi and Bengali as the second-largest medium of instruction. Parents believe that poor English is something that will haunt their children through life.
Anil Kumar Meena, for example, was a bright young dalit from a village in Rajasthan who stood second in the all India medical entrance examination in the reserved category. After a year at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), he killed himself over poor academic scores, largely due to his inability to cope with English. He had often complained to his classmates that he could not understand the lectures. Another dalit student at AIIMS, Bal Mukund Bharti from Madhya Pradesh, had committed suicide two years ago, after failing in his exams.
In 2006, Sukhdeo Thorat, former chairperson of the University Grants Commission, wrote, in his report on allegations of caste discrimination at the institution, that AIIMS "has not taken the initiative to arrange remedial coaching in English, basic courses or any other spheres for SC/ST students..."
Little has changed since then. Thorat has, once again, been appointed by the government to look into the recent suicide. "It's not just AIIMS, but nearly all medical institutions which lack remedial education in English, unlike engineering institutions like the IITs, " says Thorat.
Jawaharlal Nehru University is among the few institutions that take steps to integrate students. "JNU conducts free classes to help students improve their English. A student of mine from a village is now studying at JNU, where his English has greatly improved thanks to the remedial coaching, “says Krishna Kumar, former chairperson of the National Council of Education Research and Training.
But institutions like JNU remain exceptions. Nilesh Nimkar, director, QUEST (an organisation that provides quality education to children in rural Maharashtra) empathises with students like Meena. Nimkar, who studied at a Marathi-medium school, could barely speak English when he passed Class X in Chiplun, a small coastal town. While studying in a Pune college, Nimkar had to struggle with both the culture shock of big city life as well as English. "None of my professors paid any attention to what students like me were going through, " adds Nimkar, a former consultant to the government of Maharashtra. Ironically, several elite Mumbai schools now consult Nimkar on education.
"People have questioned why our professional education system is in English, whereas in Israel students learn in Hebrew and in Japanese in Japan. These countries have translated the curricula into their own language. Till India translates its higher education curricula into Hindi and all regional languages, it is important for the government to ensure a smooth transition from the mother tongue to English at the school level, " says Menon. He adds that even when it comes to the social sciences, much debate and frontier research takes place in English.
The Central Institute of Education, Delhi University, is one of the few places where students can choose between English and Hindi medium. The dean Anita Rampal, who teaches Hindi medium students, says that one of her biggest challenges involves weaning students away from poor Hindi readings and guide books, "We help them understand the original English material or source original documents in Hindi".
"Several teachers in urban universities are themselves from English medium schools and often neglect or look down on students who have studied in regional languages. Students who write answer papers in Hindi have, for long, complained that their papers aren't read carefully before they are assessed, " she adds.
In the 1970s, the central government did set up Hindi academies whose mandate was to translate the higher education curriculum into Hindi. But this remained a half baked attempt. "While they did translate traditional subjects such as social sciences and pure sciences, they did not do the same for technical subjects such as management, which were not so popular at the time, " says Kamal Nayan, head of the history department at a college affiliated to Rajasthan University.
But when it comes to liberal education, Nayan says that in Rajasthan it is possible to study right till the PhD level in Hindi. However, at the bachelor's level, students have to appear for one compulsory paper on the English language, which deals largely with grammar and comprehension. "Many fail the paper and keep attempting it, even after they are done with graduation, " says Nayan.
Many question the quality of education provided to the over two crore children studying at English medium schools. Educationists like Rampal believe that education should be in a child's mother tongue, with English as a second language. "There is a misconception that the greater the number of years for which a child studies English, the better he will know the language. Research shows that when children are well-versed with their mother tongue, it becomes easier for them to learn English, " she adds.
The crux of the matter is not whether a child studies in the English medium, but how well he understands the language, says Krishna Kumar. He feels that much of the problem is because of the inability to attract good teachers at the school level, since teaching is no longer a coveted profession.