Saturday, June 18, 2011


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.

Joga Singh
Professor & Head
Department of Linguistics and Punjabi Lexicography, 
Punjabi University, Patiala; +91-99157-09582


Kapil said...

Thanks for an informative and insightful article. No doubt, mother tongue has an immense value in one’s socio-cultural development. However, the article ends on a blunt and unconvincing note. Calling the advocates of English education “slavish” or “unpatriotic” sounds traditional, and conservative too. In the global context English is imperative, not only for jobs but we must remember the fact that English serves as a rich language for translation of world literatures. Thus, an early taste for and training in the English language cannot be overlooked. Moreover, imparting education successfully “only through” mother tongue is overstating the fact. With growing capacities of human mind and new ways of learning things it is possible to internalize foreign tongues in native atmosphere. I don’t think Bhagat and others present a very comprehensive study of English language teaching in India. All the same, I would like to remind Prof. Singh that the first two of the three “assertions” that he draws from this study are logical enough. English is, indeed, “one of the most important skills for advancement” and “late exposure to the language” is a major handicap for rural students. This at least I can vouch for because I have taught for nearly a decade in a small town. Even many of the teachers that I interacted with in bigger places had the same experience. So the arguments of the “honorable commentators” are not altogether baseless.

Anonymous said...

Dear Kapil, thanks for your comments. But I am saddened once again. Your comments are rooted in the same myths I talked about in my write-up. Please go through the quotation from the Unesco book once again and see what it says (Better read the whole book. It is available on net free of cost). And, as I had stated earlier, this is not an isolated study. Hundreds of studies carried out on the issue, during the past 50 years at least, have proven again and again that (other things being equal):
i. A child educated through mother tongue learns a foreign language better than the one educated through a foreign language medium;
ii. One learns a foreign language better if one starts after a good grounding in the mother tongue (after about the age of ten) than starting it very early;
iii. One learns a foreign language better if it is studied as a subject and not as medium of instruction.

I know you, like most people, are finding these statements very strange. But so is the case many a times with knowledge. What I have stated has been proven by hundreds of empirical studies. Could you please quote any empirical study in support of your assertions? Impressions and faith are the real enemies of knowledge. Most of the people believe in the existence of God. Does it prove that God really exists? Same is the case with our thinking about English language. People are keeping believing in myths about English language without empirically exploring them and, what is most saddening, without even reading the empirical studies carried out on the issue. It is an unethical academic practice to make a statement without researching it or without quoting any competent research.

I don't find any of my arguments negated by your comments because you have just restated what Bhagat and others have said and have not quoted any empirical study which vindicates your views. As for your experience, this too is an impression. In our latest Ph.D. study of B.A. 1st year students of a reputed Patiala college, we found no marked difference in mastery of English between rural students coming from Punjabi medium schools and students coming from English medium schools situated in the rural area. (And remember the other qualitative differences between these two sets of schools). So, English medium has not made any difference. Dear Kapil, read something on the issue. There is a plenty available. I will welcome your comments but these should be based on some actual research done and not on mere impressions.

If arguing in defense of native languages and cultures, in defense of what has been empirically proven, in defense of a scientific language and education policy, and, above all, arguing against a dogma is being "traditional" and "conservative", I would gladly choose to be one. I have no doubt that when an Indian person prefers to talk with another Indian in English and not in an Indian language, in which he/she can communicate even better than English, it is because of the slavish and unpatriotic mental make up and nothing else. Regards. Joga Singh, Professor in Linguistics

Kapil said...

Respected Prof. Singh, thanks for your detailed response. I truly appreciate as well as share your love for mother tongues. To be sure, the better one knows the mother tongue, the sooner one learns other tongues also. I also agree that a child should be brought up in the culture of its native language, till about the age of ten as you point out. Then English can be introduced. Even this, to my mind, is not a late exposure. But if English is taught only as a subject throughout one’s schooling, then s/he can hardly communicate in it. And the older s/he grows, the harder becomes the problem. Hence the need for English medium education. There is no denying the fact that just a handful of convent-bred kids can actually speak English simply because few hours in school don’t suffice. Then how can a class per day suffice? I don’t say that instruction in English is an infallible method of teaching the language. But at least it is modelled after one basic concept of learning language, i. e. through listening. Moreover, it is the best available way of teaching the language, despite all its flaws. Like democracy has often failed to come up to public expectations, but it is considered better than any other system. I humbly admit my lack of empirical evidence to support these assertions. But I think years of conscious teaching, interacting with teachers and students, reading books and attending seminars on language teaching qualify me to have a little say in this matter. As for Indians’ infatuation with English as a status symbol, it is both shameful and ridiculous. I condemn it as much as you do. Thanks once again for sparing time for this wonderful interaction.