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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sour Grapes and Sweet Mangos

Mary Roy explains how the craze for an English-medium education in a country that is not an English-speaking one is killing, well, education in that country:

Watching these children being taught is to be amazed, and horrified. In an English recitation class in lower primary, for example, you will hear 40 children chanting in unison, with accompanying actions, “The fox jumped and jumped and jumped. The grapes were too high. The fox said, ‘The grapes are sour’.” The intonation must be just right—but understanding what you are saying is not a requirement.


Indeed, the grapes are too high—India, a country which has consistently failed in providing even the basics to its people, would never be able to get enough of its people to speak the English language well enough—a fact that is at odds with the status that we accord to English. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we have to lie about the grapes being sour; nope. We just have to realise that the fruits that we have are good enough and we don’t need no grapes.

***

An earlier write-up on this topic: Talk English, Walk English

20 comments:

Siddharth said...

While still not totally convinced, I can see where you're coming from in the this English thingy.

Indophile said...

She evidently has got more sense than her illustrious daughter.

English is actually here to stay, as most of the states in India consider Hindi as some conspiracy by the
badass Hindi heartland politicians.

Hades said...

Indophile,

I didn't think anybody would know exactly which Roy she was:P

most of the states in India consider Hindi as some conspiracy by the badass Hindi heartland politicians.

And because of this they are leaving their native tongues, trying to mug up English and screwing themselves royally? Ok.

Indophile said...

We all need to communicate with each other even the one who doesn't speak our language.

If learning/mugging/raping English can get you a job, by all means learn it, even if it is the only language you will learn . Maybe it will also help in getting rid of at least one chauvinism among the millions we currently have.

Ambedkar was a very smart man ,he gave the best advise to all the the Dalits 50 years back , learn English and be Buddhist. That would have taken care of both the social as well as economic problem.

vicious said...

the grapes may be too high , but not sour .. they can be reached ... we no longer have to stop ourselves and be satisfied thinking they might be sour ...

i kind of believe in the story of the spider ...try , try , try , never say die ( much like the fox jumped . jumped n jumped ...the results are quite different though !!)

Rakesh said...

But Hades, its not only about education. Everybody loves Englis... be it a customer in a hotel who looks at the waitress in awe as she speaks in English or the air hostess or any suave business man or a cool teenager...

What's a parent gotta do then? Obviously, put their children in an English medium school... What else are we gonna do.

Imagine, even Mein tumse pyaar karta hun... feels so odd, I love you feels so cool. No?

Hades said...

Rakesh,

What's a parent gotta do then? Obviously, put their children in an English medium school... What else are we gonna do.

You are right there and I can't pretend to know the answer to that.

Vikram said...

I hope you see the irony here.

You write in English about a report in English in a magazine that is published only in English.

You may be onto something, but I think your diagnosis of the 'problem' here is flawed. I think the problem is that people like us dont read or write Indian languages rather than the poor folk wanting their kids to learn another language.

Hades said...

Vikram,

I hope you see the irony here.

You write in English about a report in English in a magazine that is published only in English.


Surprised this didn’t come up earlier. Now, IMO, there is no irony because I don’t think I am “anti-English”, whatever that means (Also, the Outlook is, I think, published in Hindi :) ). If tomorrow, by some means, we could make every Indian an English speaker, it would be quite, quite brilliant, and I’d be quite the English fanboy.

But, of course, that’s a pipe dream. Therefore what I’m saying is that we could, since so few of us speak the language, bring English down to the status of a normal language. So that, all else remaining equal, an English speaking MBA would have the same chance in the job-market as a Telulgu speaking MBA. I know what I’m saying is toug but it has to be done sooner or later—just decolonising the land isn’t enough, or minds need a bit o’ decolonising too.

You may be onto something, but I think your diagnosis of the 'problem' here is flawed. I think the problem is that people like us dont read or write Indian languages rather than the poor folk wanting their kids to learn another language.

I do not think that the problem is that the poor folk want their kids to learn another language. That’s a symptom.

It’s just that English is an indicator and a facilitator of social status. Till that goes, people who can learn English will not want to go back to Indian languages (no pecuniary incentives to learn Bengali) and the lower middle classes would strive to get their kids an English-medium “education”.

Amit Sondhi said...

You're crazy

Amit Sondhi said...

Your motivation seems to be eerily like disguised chauvinism for Indian languages, regardless of their utility. Your overt argument that teaching English consumes huges resources and is the cause of poor education in India holds no pani. I for one would be horrified at the prospect of not being able to converse with the multitude of very intelligent people from the anglosphere who I know from the internet.

Hades said...

Amit,

I for one would be horrified at the prospect of not being able to converse with the multitude of very intelligent people from the anglosphere who I know from the internet.

Now imagine how horrifying it would be if you couldn't converse with the multitude of very intelligent people from your very own city. And because of that you couldn't get a job beyond a certain level or get a good education.

Horrifying isn't it?

Welcome to how 95% of Indian feels (or most of the urban/semi-urban classes at any rate).

:)

Amit Sondhi said...

How? I have not forgotten Hindi while learning English. And if you don't like my mentioning foreign countries, I wouldn't even be able to converse with people of southern India here at XLRI if I (and they) didn't know English. Do you see no advantage in having a language that connects people? Further you haven't answered my main objection. You make a cluster of arguments at different points which I will try to consolidate below:

1) Teaching English is a huge drain on resources which is a prominent reason our education in suffers - you have provided no substantiation of this claim.

2) We are not good at teaching English, and examples to prove that - I don't know how the solution to that is stopping teaching English

3) Not knowing English deprives intelligent people from positions/professions they could have held - again, no substantiation of the claim that people who are smart enough to learn complex concepts of science/medicine/business are rendered handicapped because they just can't learn English

4) English can only be learnt by the privileged section of the society and is discriminatory towards the "comman masses" - counterexample: none of my four grandparents could be said to be from the "privileged section" by any stretch. Both my parents are highly educated and learnt very good English just fine.

5) It is just odd (and perhaps dishonorable) for English to hold such a prominent position in a country in which there are no native English speakers - chauvinism?

Or perhaps I am just a self-hating Indian suffering from slave-mentality, while you speak from the experience of the tremendous wave of intellectual development that has swept West Bengal due to the Left government's anti-English drive over the past decades.

Hades said...

Amit,

1) Teaching English is a huge drain on resources which is a prominent reason our education in suffers - you have provided no substantiation of this claim.

What exactly do you want me to prove? Learning any language apart from your mother tongue is a drain on a person’s resources.


2) We are not good at teaching English, and examples to prove that - I don't know how the solution to that is stopping teaching English

Amit, we discussed this earlier. At no point in Human History have we abruptly taught a whole people (and here we are talking about one-sixth of Humanity) a whole new language. India can’t even do the basics right like feed its population much less accomplish a feat that has never been done before.

3) Not knowing English deprives intelligent people from positions/professions they could have held - again, no substantiation of the claim that people who are smart enough to learn complex concepts of science/medicine/business are rendered handicapped because they just can't learn English

Again, I’m going by a very simple principle—there is nothing called universal intelligence. So it does not mean that a mathematician would also be a political scientists who in turn would also be an auteur. To give you a real world example, just because Sachin is a genius at batting it doesn’t mean he would even be passable at Geophysics. Hell the man’s not even a very good bowler!

The primacy of English, OTOH, requires everyone to be a linguist (unless you’ve picked up the language as a child, which means you’ve been to a nice little snooty public school).



4) English can only be learnt by the privileged section of the society and is discriminatory towards the "comman masses" - counterexample: none of my four grandparents could be said to be from the "privileged section" by any stretch. Both my parents are highly educated and learnt very good English just fine.

You’re making a very common mistake—you’re superimposing one data point (your family) and using that to draw out a whole pattern. Not surprisingly, you’ve got less than brilliant results.

Now, IMO, there would be an exceptionally strong correlation between English education and income levels and there is an explicit barrier that people face when trying to learn English.

What you are saying, that there are no barriers to learning English education is absurd when you see so few Indians who know English—a language that could open innumerable doors for them and is an indicator of status in society. If the language is all that easy to learn why does ~95% of India have no clue about it? Why are more Hindi newspapers sold (many times more) in our National Capital than English? Surely it’s not because people don’t want to learn the language—you’d be mad not to want to learn it with the positions of privilege that English enjoys. The reason is, of course, that learning a foreign language requires time and most importantly, money and very few poeple have that.

Hades said...

5) It is just odd (and perhaps dishonorable) for English to hold such a prominent position in a country in which there are no native English speakers - chauvinism?

No, that is not what I’ve said. Read my reply to Vikram. However my point is that it is odd (and perhaps dishonorable) for English to hold such a prominent position in a country (such that it acts as a solid barrier to social mobility) in which there are so few English speakers

Also, here’s what Chauvinism means, as per the Concise OED:

excessive or prejudiced support or loyalty for one’s cause or group or sex

Now, in this context, three groups would apply to me: Hindi Speakers, English Speakers and Bengali speakers.

Am I supporting any language in a prejudiced manner? If you think so, then you haven’t got what I’ve been trying to tell you. Please try and re-read para 10 of Talk English, Walk English where I’ve argued that no one language (neither Hindi and obviously not Bengali) can be applied to India to replace English. To replace English with any other language (even Hindi) would take us back to square one.


Or perhaps I am just a self-hating Indian suffering from slave-mentality, while you speak from the experience of the tremendous wave of intellectual development that has swept West Bengal due to the Left government's anti-English drive over the past decades.

Perhaps. But I’d rather think of it as a simple difference in opinion.

Also, about the Bengal jibe, I find the argument advanced that the withdrawal of English at the primary level is somehow responsible for Bengals’s sorry state quite absurd.

FYI, only a handful of states have English as a language at the primary level. Most of those are NE states. Tamil Nadu is the only major state with English as a language at the primary level. Kerala doesn’t have it (highest HDI), nor does Gujarat, Maharashtra (highest GDP), Bihar (lowest per capita GDP), Orissa or Punjab which basically means that there is NO correlation between English primary education and income levels/development levels.

Reference: http://www.indianexpress.com/ie/daily/19980423/11350714.html

Hades said...

Hope that's enough to convince you, Amit. :D

Amit Sondhi said...

What exactly do you want me to prove

I want you to cite any study conducted by the government or any international agency or anybody else that provides empirical data to prove/suggest that if the money expended by the government towards English education is withdrawn and used for other subjects, the level of literacy/education/research quality would improve dramatically.

I repeat, "any study", rather than amorphous claims such as "learning a language is a drain on a person's resources". You have used this as your primary claim - so you need to cite figures. I will be super glad to change my opinion and actively support banishing English if you could provide any such data. Btw learning any skill "is a drain on a person's resources". Do you mean to say learning engineering doesn't demand resources, or is useless because of demanding resources?

At no point in Human History have we abruptly taught a whole people (and here we are talking about one-sixth of Humanity) a whole new language. India can’t even do the basics right like feed its population much less accomplish a feat that has never been done before. - You are just repeating what you said earlier - "it can't be done, so let's stop trying it". Ok let's stop trying to improve the standard of living of our people too, and provide health and sanitation and education to everyone in the country too - because, you know, it can't be done. And who said it had to be "abrupt"? So your argument of "unprecedented in history" is a bit weak. It's just your speculation that teaching people English, at least to as many people as we can, is a lost cause.

there is nothing called universal intelligence - Learning a language requires far from "universal intelligence" To take your example, Sachin is a genius batsman doesn't mean he doesn't know English. Provide me with one example where an otherwise intelligent person(in any specialised, non-universal sense) tried to learn English and failed.

The primacy of English, OTOH, requires everyone to be a linguist - Knowing a language is the same thing as being a linguist? That's a new one.

unless you’ve picked up the language as a child, which means you’ve been to a nice little snooty public school
It means no such thing. I went to no public school. I went to a Kendriya Vidyalaya in a remote village and my parents went to state government schools.

You’re making a very common mistake—you’re superimposing one data point (your family) and using that to draw out a whole pattern - oh really? Somehow i can't locate the "drawing out a whole pattern bit". I provided a "counterexample", if you read carefully. The burden of proving your assertion that knowledge of English is nothing more than a filter insidiously used for the purpose of selectively hampering socially disadvanteged groups lies on you.

What you are saying, that there are no barriers to learning English education is absurd when you see so few Indians who know English Eh, did I say there are "no barriers"? All I said was that barriers were no different than barriers to education in general, to healthcare services, sanitation, housing etc. Your argument leads to the absurd conclusion that we should outlaw houses because there are so many people who face barriers to getting a house.

"there would be an exceptionally strong correlation between English education and income levels" - yes there is. There is also an exceptionally strong correlation between education in general and income levels. What conclusions do you draw from that? That we should ban education because it creates a barrier for socially disadvantaged people?

"If the language is all that easy to learn why does ~95% of India have no clue about it" - because we are not doing a good job of teaching it, or teaching anything for that matter. You think it means we should give up trying to teach it. I can't see how that conclusion follows.

Hades said...

want you to cite any study conducted by the government or any international agency or anybody else that provides empirical data to prove/suggest that if the money expended by the government towards English education is withdrawn and used for other subjects, the level of literacy/education/research quality would improve dramatically


I repeat, "any study", rather than amorphous claims such as "learning a language is a drain on a person's resources".


Please see Mary Roy’s article. I’m afraid I can do no more than that. If I have to “prove” that teaching a foreign language (when we, as so many other nations on this planet can do well without it) to 1.3 billion people is a drain then help me God!


Btw learning any skill "is a drain on a person's resources". Do you mean to say learning engineering doesn't demand resources, or is useless because of demanding resources?

If it was mandatory to learn Engineering in India for social mobility then I’d oppose engineering too. But you see Engineering is not mandatory for social mobility. Nope. You can be a doctor, an entrepreneur, a politician or you can be a born to a rich father. No such luck for languages!

You are just repeating what you said earlier - "it can't be done, so let's stop trying it". Ok let's stop trying to improve the standard of living of our people too, and provide health and sanitation and education to everyone in the country too - because, you know, it can't be done.

Your confusing means with an end. English is not an end to anything. There are billions of people who exist just fine without English. Some of the richest, most developed nations on Earth are not English speaking nations, so there is no explicit need to learn English, per se. Improving living standards, OTOH is a universal goal, something that we have no choice in, so no matter what we have to try and achiev it. Get my point? English is a luxury, a fool’s errand for a country without the basics. Improving living standards is what we do; it’s our bread and butter which can’t be compromised.


And who said it had to be "abrupt"? So your argument of "unprecedented in history" is a bit weak. It's just your speculation that teaching people English, at least to as many people as we can, is a lost cause.

Not Abrupt? Ok, so just how many generations of Indians will have to live with a system where social mobility is dependent on a skill which only the rich can acquire?

Provide me with one example where an otherwise intelligent person(in any specialised, non-universal sense) tried to learn English and failed.

It is sad that you identify so strongly with English and intelligence. But the thing is as we speak millions of Indians are struggling to learn English and not all of them “succeed”, whatever than means. However, since you ask here is an example where prolly one of the smartest people in our country (in an amoral sense, if you will) struggles with the language:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ano-E6lcChA

This might be a bit humorous but I think I can see where you come from when you can’t understand how difficult it is top pick up a new language. I’ll tell you what Amit, why don’t you try a different language? Totally unrelated to anything you’ve spoken, say, Japanese. Let’s see how quickly you can master it, so that you can speak the language a fair bit. And remember, this ain’t no joke. Your salary depends on how well you pick up Japanese. As a personal example, I’ve known friends who’ve done two year diplomas in French and after that could speak the language haltingly at best.

Hades said...

It means no such thing. I went to no public school. I went to a Kendriya Vidyalaya in a remote village and my parents went to state government schools.

How many people in that remote village with a KV knew English?


yes there is. There is also an exceptionally strong correlation between education in general and income levels. What conclusions do you draw from that? That we should ban education because it creates a barrier for socially disadvantaged people?

Sigh, to repeat: You’re confusing the means with an end. English is not an end to anything. It’s a medium of communication. There are billions of people who exist just fine without English. Some of the richest, most developed nations on Earth are not English speaking nations, so there is no explicit need to learn English, per se. Improving living standards, OTOH is a universal goal, something that we have no choice in, so no matter what we have to try and achieve it. Get my point? English is a luxury, a fool’s errand for a country without the basics. Improving living standards is what we do; it’s our bread and butter which can’t be compromised.

Amit Sondhi said...

Mary Roy's doesn't seem to say anything except that English should be introduced in second standard instead of first.

I am not yet convinced by any of your arguments, but I will think over your opinion and (sincerely) try to figure out how teaching English or teaching in English could be harmful to the country. Meanwhile perhaps you should think about my position that the benefits of teaching English are real and substantial, and just because some rich countries don't teach English (actually all the ones I know about do, but I won't enter that debate again) doesn't mean we have nothing to gain from English. Furthermore, if you think we are not able to do a good job of teaching English anyway, then perhaps you haven't given a thought to the calamitous transation entailed by driving out English from our education and communication. Trust me, it's not all going to fall into place. And you can trust Indian polititians to do permanent damage while "managing" that. Now wouldn't that be a fool's errand?