Saturday, June 18, 2011
IN THE DEEP MORASS OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE
By Joga Singh
The assertions made in "AT THE CROSSROADS OF LANGUAGE" by Geetanjali Bhagat and others (The Tribune, Chandigarh, Monday April 25, 2011, p. 9) are good evidence that many people even working in the field of English teaching are living in a mythical linguistic world. Since the issue is of paramount importance to society at large, these myths need to be revealed.
The honorable commentators make following assertions: i) that English "has become one of the most important skills for advancement"; ii) that "A major reason for the rural students not being able to speak well in the English language is their late exposure to the language...." and; iii) that "we should have a uniform system in which all children, rural and urban, must have access to education in English medium...."
Firstly, if English was to be so essential a skill for advancement, India, then, would have been a far more advanced country than countries like China, Korea and Japan, because our higher education has been largely in English since independence, but this has not been the case with any of the above countries, along with many others more advanced than India.
Secondly, almost all of the numerous studies carried out throughout the world on language learning amply demonstrate: i) that starting late is not a handicap, it is an advantage rather (see below); ii) that one learns a foreign language better if ones mother tongue was medium of instruction and the foreign language is taught as a subject and not as a medium of instruction, that too starting late (after about the age of ten). The following statement from 'The Improvement in the Quality of Mother Tongue - Based Literacy and Learning' (UNESCO, 2008) should be an eye opener (This study was funded by the World Bank and is based on investigations from twelve countries from all of the continents. The study includes India too):
"What seems to be standing in our way is a set of myths about language and learning, and these myths must be revealed as such to open people’s eyes. One such myth is that the best way to learn a second language is to use it as a medium of instruction. (In fact, it is often more effective to learn additional languages as subjects of study.) Another is that to learn a second language you must start as early as possible. (Starting early might help learners to have a nice accent, but otherwise the advantage goes to learners who have a well developed first language.) A third is that the home language gets in the way of learning a second language. (Building a strong foundation in the first language results in a better learning of additional languages.) Clearly these myths are more false than true, yet they guide the way policymakers tend to think about how speakers of other languages must learn dominant or official languages." (p. 12)
This UNESCO study is not an isolated one. The results of almost all of the studies on the issue, during the past 50 years at least, are very consistent.
Rural children lack in English not because of a less and late exposure to English, this is because they are not being taught. There is no evidence that the present day English medium educated Indians are better at English than their earlier peers who didn't have English as medium of instruction and who were exposed to English in the sixth standard. Evidence is certainly available for the opposit.
Finally, I would request the learned commentators and the media too, very humbly, not to publicize myths in the name of learned opinions, and that too on issues of seminal importance such as language. The English medium education is not only ruining our education, it is also the biggest hindrance in acquiring an appreciable competence in the English language, lesser said the better about its other societal curses. Also add to this the findings of professional educationists and the agencies like UNESCO that education can be imparted successfully only through the medium of mother tongue. Furthermore, English as a medium of instruction is on the wane world over, except in the minds and regions of slavish (unpatriotic would be a better word) ex-colonial middle classes.
Professor & Head
Department of Linguistics and Punjabi Lexicography,
Punjabi University, Patiala