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New Delhi: Until 1979, St Michael’s High School was one of the few schools in the thickly populated rustic settlement of Kurji in Patna that used English as a medium of instruction.

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This changed when the Society of Jesus, or Jesuit fathers, which ran the school, announced the school would use Hindi as its medium of instruction to reach out to children from disadvantaged sections.

Marie MacDonald, then a 34-year-old teacher of Eurasian parentage and a resident of the eastern Indian city by choice, taught English at the school.

The day the new system was put in place, MacDonald, in response to a question on what the school’s education policy would be 30 years on, had told the school assembly: “We will be back to square one."

Language flip-flop: After having Hindi as the medium of instruction for the last 30 years, the 142-year-old St Michael’s High School (left) in Patna is turning to English; Mary MacDonald (right), a retired English teacher, had predicted in 1979—when the first language switch took place—‘We will be back to square one’. A.P. Dube / Mint

Today, the 142-year-old institution, which has taught students in Hindi for the last 30 years, is being restored to English medium—the buzzword nearly synonymous with quality education in India.

St Michael’s turn from English to Hindi coincided with several other schools in the city adopting the local language as the medium of instruction, following the call of a socialist government that chose to keep English out of its schools.

Bihar has since missed the development bus and so did other states, mostly in northern India, which chose to shun English even as the Indian economy boomed in an increasingly globalized world.

“It was largely political. A coalition government in 1968 led by socialists such as Karpoori Thakur announced that English be done away with to make way for language of the masses, which was Hindi. ‘Pass Without English’ became the slogan of the day," says Saibal Gupta, sociologist and founder of the Asian Development Research Institute in Patna.

Such vehement socialist opposition to English, says linguist and author David Graddol, whose yet-to-be-released book English Next India studies the evolution and growth of English as a language in India, was a combination of fear and linguistic jingoism in the political class.

Language politics

“In states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it was also part of language politics around Hindi. Politicians didn’t want English because people once educated in the language would understand their politics. They wanted to keep the electors ignorant. It’s politics of the vote bank," says Graddol.

Consequently, “what came out of schools after that were generations of people who were not so confident in English," says Gupta.

The latest Annual Status of Education Report for 2009 quantifies the gap: a good 56% of children in class I in India’s schools cannot read even capital letters in the language.

This is the first time the annual report—launched in 2005 by Pratham, the largest non-governmental organization in the education sector—has mapped the learning level of children in English.

In Bihar alone, a mere 33% of children in class V can read simple sentences in the language. In states such as Assam, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Orissa, the percentage hovers between 7% and 31%.

The journey of English in India has been chequered. On the one hand, it rose to eminence in a few states, mostly in southern India, which refused to accept a pan-Indian linguistic dominance of Hindi. On the other hand, it declined in other states as socialist state governments adopted anti-English rhetoric to garner votes.

Linguists say what emerged then was different varieties of the language. “What is emerging in India are varieties of Indian English, each to some extent different from the others, and all of them distinct from American or British Englishes," says Franson Manjali, professor of linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

The spread of English in some states also meant the task of making Hindi the official language of a multilingual India remains unfinished, says Graddol.

In states such as Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Assam, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala, which adopted regional languages as their official language instead of Hindi, English became the second language. States with no clear linguistic majority, such as Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Puducherry, also designated English as the official language.

In northern states though, opposition to English in states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh meant a rise in the number of Hindi speakers.

Rise of Hindi

Census data shows that from 1971 to 2001, the percentage of Hindi-speaking population in India has grown from 37% to 41%. The rise has been more visible in northern states.

For MacDonald, now 65 and retired from Patna’s St Michael’s High School for four years, the rise of Hindi as the medium of instruction became a turning point in the way she taught English.

In earlier years at the school, MacDonald wrote sentence constructions on the blackboard, read aloud and the students would take turns for the English lessons in class. The change in its wake gave way to a class in which most children had never heard anyone read or write or speak English at home—a set of first-generation learners.

“This is when I used the translation method to teach English. I would write pronunciation of most English words in Hindi on the blackboard. It was a great challenge," MacDonald remembers.

The adoption of Hindi in Bihar was also surmised on various committee reports of then governments in states such as West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, which recommended the use of mother tongues in schools at the primary level for better learning.

MacDonald disagrees with the concept. “Instead, it is only at the primary level when one can expose children to a multi-linguistic experience. Their minds are sharp and receptive at that stage," she says.

Deborshi Mondal, chairman of the West Bengal Board of Education, still remembers the day in 1981 when state-run schools opted to teach children in Bengali instead of English or Hindi—on the recommendation of a committee led by noted educationist Himanshu Binoy Mazumdar. “State board schools prior to this had English as a subject from class I. But even Tagore (noted poet and social reformer Rabindranath Tagore) supported teaching in the mother tongue... However, after (a) few years, there was mass demand for English and it became a political issue," he says.

In India, where different states have different languages, the reason for agitation against English takes newer forms. Recently, the Karnataka government asked all private English-medium schools in the state to adopt the Kannada medium. But its order was struck down by the Supreme Court, the apex court, in July. The court said parents were free to choose the medium of instruction.

In Maharashtra, opposition to English is often directed at north Indians in the state. In 2008, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a regional political party whose stock is rising, removed English signboards from the streets of state capital Mumbai and replaced them with the ones in Marathi.

Grim fallout

Havovi Kolsawalla, head of the British Council’s Project English in western India, says Maharashtra is still to collaborate to introduce English in its schools. “We have been in talks with them for long, but each time we have been told that there is fund crunch... Don’t understand what’s the problem here," she says.

The council has been contacted by states such as Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Punjab, Goa and Gujarat to introduce English in their schools and colleges. But other states have evinced no interest as yet.

Graddol finds a corollary for political opposition to English in the way Thomas Babington Maucaulay, the British administrator, used the language to create a class of interpreters to facilitate business in India. “Maucaulay introduced English to do business in India. Today, there is no real political will to promote it," he says.

The opposition to English in states for decades has had a grim fallout: as call centres, cellphone companies, organized retail stores and banks expand, newer employment opportunities have emerged, but mostly for those who can speak English, says Manoj Prasad, owner of Language Lab, an institute that teaches spoken English in Gandhinagar.

“With the IT-BPO (information technology-business process outsourcing) revolution moving to smaller towns, the demand for English-speaking people is going to swell. But it will be difficult to find people," says Prasad, whose institute has grown to eight centres in Gandhinagar, within two years of beginning operations.

The IT-BPO industry in India currently employs two million people and is expected to add six million more in the next 10 years.

The rise of Hindi speakers has also meant challenges in workforce training in English. Graddol in his book points to the rising population in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which would essentially mean an untrained workforce. Southern states, he says, will have an educated workforce because of rapid growth of urbanization.

“The gap (between those who speak English and those who cannot) is quite significant even in institutions of repute. We have students from all over India and when they come to us, many of them aren’t fluent in English. The English-speaking skills matter a lot during placements," says Abhishek Nirjar, who teaches at the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow.

Yet, doing away with English still figures high in political discourse. The Samajwadi Party, a party with influence mainly in Uttar Pradesh, spoke about doing away with English in schools in its manifesto for the 2009 general election. Ghanshyam Anuragi, a leader of the party, articulates the need to keep the language out: “This is not our language in the first place. This is a language of the outsiders, the British.’’

In part 3 of the series, which will appear on Monday, read about English’s emergence as the language of social emancipation.


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