Sunday, September 13, 2009


New situations, sometimes engineered, may bring about new divides among people, marginalizing many who cannot benefit from them. It is difficult to anticipate what might cause a serious social divide: people’s body weight or height or complexion, the body language they use, or the cultural practices they follow. Or the language they speak!

One often tends to ignore that like religion, race, caste, etc., language too could give rise to exclusion. It is generally viewed as a harmless, innocent thing, just a medium of communication. So, despite evidence from time to time in the form of language-based violence, etc., one is not always alert about its negative potential.

Alongside so many divides in our country, there has been, for sometime, the “English divide”. It has intensified now, with computer having entered the society as the main instrument with which to gain best access to the resources of what has been called the “knowledge society”. Literacy stands redefined, and has now come to mean computer literacy. And computer literacy is not just about knowing how to operate the computer; it is about knowing English as well. The computer has bolstered the English divide considerably.

There is yet another social phenomenon that has contributed to strengthening the said divide. In the recent years there has emerged in our country a parallel educational system for a host of reasons. The so-called tutorial colleges constitute one of its most visible institutions. These non-degree awarding institutions aim to offer quality training so that their students qualify for admission to the best institutions in the country or get attractive jobs. These being expensive institutions, many cannot join these, and stay excluded from these opportunities. The dominant language of instruction here is English.

The way English is taught at school complicates the problem. The traditional method of teaching the language by the so-called “grammar-translation” method was discredited some years ago as being unscientific. Its success was ignored. The method that was recommended in its place emphasizes the idea that a language must not be taught with the help of some other language, except perhaps very minimally; so English must be taught almost exclusively through English. The expensive English medium schools are better equipped to adopt this method than the government schools. The latter cannot also go back to the earlier grammar-translation method, thanks to the prevalent negative attitude to it which is reflected in the present policy of English language teaching. The result is that in the non-English medium schools learners hardly have the opportunity to learn English reasonably well.

Our response to the English divide has been emotional and inadequate. Many tend to hold English responsible too for the neglect the Indian languages have suffered. Some still think that the solution lies in doing away with English, and developing the Indian languages, the scheduled ones, to start with, so that they successfully substitute English. Apart from the fact that it is easily said than done, this leads to exclusion – speakers of the non-scheduled languages get excluded. Besides, substituting English by the Indian languages does not eliminate the need for a link language for interstate interaction, and a global language for international communication. Our refusal to learn English would lead to our exclusion from the rest of the world, and making English available to only those who would need it for international communication would amount to promoting a small section of our population.

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