Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Study of English in India: An Educational Appraisal

M. V. Rajagopal

An Educational Appraisal

M. V. RAJAGOPAL, M. A. (Cantab.), I. A. S.

This paper is the attempt of one interested in qualitative education to see how a competent teaching and learning of English in our schools and colleges can be promoted strictly within the framework of an approved national policy of education. No political prejudice either for or against English will be imported into the discussion as far as it is humanly possible. The place and importance of English in our curriculum will be estimated purely on the basis of its usefulness to our educational progress. This is very necessary because the popular debate on this matter has considerably clouded the issue and the politically uncommitted section of the public such as parents and teachers have been rather bewildered and quite a few of them are frankly asking whether English is being banished from the Indian curriculum. It is therefore, necessary not only to clear the misconception in the public mind with the help of recent official reports and pronouncements on language policy but also to outline the methods by which the shockingly low standards of teaching and learning of languages in general and English in particular, now prevalent in a majority our schools and colleges could be arrested and superior levels of comprehension and expression attained in the learning of English. It might be helpful in this connection to attempt a brief historical sketch of how and why English came to occupy the pivotal place which it enjoyed until recently in our educational system and how it has been disintegrating and petering out as an educational medium in the last two decades without anything equally or approximately as good being developed to do its function.

The controversy over the medium of instruction in this country is almost as old as the East India Company. After a good deal of public resistance put up even in those days, the Company authorities finally decided that English was the only possible medium for “Education in European Literature, Philosophy and Science.” With this enthronement of English as the medium of higher education, it was but natural and even necessary that the Indian languages gradually ceased yielding place to English as the medium even in secondary education, despite the view contained in Wood’s despatch of 1854 that English and the modern Indian languages would together become the media for the dissemination of European knowledge. Regardless of the merits or defects of such an educational system, it had at least the understandable advantage of a common medium of instruction both at the school and collegiate level. In the fifty years that followed Wood’s despatch, the English language was fastened to the educational system of the country with hoops of steel, as it were. It meant that not only English became the sole medium of instruction but it also became the sine qua non of culture, an uncritical value to which the Indian mind became to a very great extent enthralled. The I. Q. of children at school came to be measured by the almost sole criterion of their competence in the English language. The study of every other subject was subordinated to the study of English. By the beginning of this century, the climax of this process had been reached. Indian languages no doubt existed in the curriculum in some manner but pale as the watery moon in a morning sky dazzling with the brilliance of the rising sun. An official publication called “The Progress of Education in India” published in 1902 observed: “The English secondary course aims at giving school education. The teaching of English is the prime object throughout the course and in the higher classes, instruction in all the subjects is given through the medium of English.”

It would appear therefore that by 1902 the triumph of English as the medium of education both at the secondary and collegiate levels was complete as well as irreversible. For at least the next twenty years nothing in the educational world of India happened to disturb the supremacy of English as the sole medium of secondary and university education. It was in 1921 that a political change came over the country through the introduction of diarchy at the provincial level. A significant consequence of this change was that education became a transferred subject and passed into the hands of the elected representatives of the people. In retrospect, we could regard this as a momentous change because it marked the beginnings, however faint then, of the revival of Indian languages as the media of instruction in secondary schools. Commenting on this historical change, the Gokak Committee, appointed by the Government of India to report on the study of English in India, has observed as follows: “The change came gradually and unobtrusively all over the country. It began probably with permission being given by the examining bodies in a State to pupils in secondary schools to answer the question papers in subjects like history and geography in the mother tongue. The next step was taken when instructions were issued permitting the use of the mother tongue as an alternative medium for the teaching of certain subjects. There were hardly any text-books on any of the prescribed subjects when the transition began. But the demand for such text-books increased with the increasing use of the regional languages as media of instruction and the book trade began to co-operate and meet the demand by publishing text-books in the regional languages. Very soon even subjects like mathematics, physics and chemistry began to be taught through the regional medium. The transition culminated in a last measure, as it were, when, in some of the States, the training colleges followed suit and permitted the regional languages as a medium alternative to English in the lectures delivered on some curricular subjects.” This should not, however, be taken to mean that the pace of regionalisation of the medium of instruction was in any sense rapid in the years intervening between 1921 and 1947. English was still the prima donna of the time-table in schools and colleges and the educated upper classes were the chief patrons and beneficiaries of the English medium in education. The advent of independence, however, changed the linguistic pattern as well as the policy of the country. English, no doubt, continued but its supremacy and permanence were challenged and at the secondary school level the pace of regionalisation of the medium gained a vast momentum. For instance, in the State of Andhra Pradesh where there are about 2,800 secondary schools, the medium of instruction and examination, in all but a handful of exclusive schools in the bigger towns and cities, is the regional language. English is, no doubt, still being studied in all the schools of Southern India as a compulsory second language but the ubiquitous nature of its presence in the curriculum has been eliminated. In order to follow the later discussion in this paper on the future study of English in India it is very important to bear in mind the virtual elimination of English as the medium of instruction dominating the school time-table and its relegation to an isolated period of 40 minutes every day.

While English was gradually being eliminated as the medium in secondary schools, no such corresponding change tookplace in the medium of instruction in higher education. The colleges and universities continued instruction through English and in course of time this led to a serious dichotomy the repercussions of which are being increasingly felt particularly in recent years. Every year the number of students with no power of comprehension or expression in the English language entering colleges and universities is increasing and the first year in the university is practically spent by a great majority of these students in improving their power of comprehension of the English language so as to follow the text-books and also lectures delivered through that language. As a former Registrar of the Andhra University, I had occasion to observe that the real percentage of passes in the P. U. C. Examination, before it was bloated by moderation, was 19. This is a staggering wastage by any standards and the main reason is the complete polarisation between the school and the college in regard to the medium of instruction. It is not only that most of the students entering the colleges do not have a pennyworth of English in them but a stage has been reached when even the younger lecturers in the universities speak and write the English language incorrectly, signifying thereby the complete breakdown of English as medium of higher education. Taking stock of this melancholy situation in Indian education, the Gokak Committee ruefully observes: “In the country of Panini who gave the science of linguistics to the world, there are hardly any pupils in our regional medium schools who can write a correct sentence in English. If we speak of a group of sentences, the statement can be extended so as to include our colleges in spite of English being the medium of instruction and examination there. Scripts are assigned marks by university examiners not for what the examinees have said but what they meant to say. The English language has itself a ghost-life in India. It lingers in our examination scripts as the ghost of a ghost, like Plato’s work of art.”

Here is probably the knottiest problem of the century requiring the most careful handling by both educational experts and statesman of some calibre. Regionalisation of the medium of education both at the secondary and collegiate levels is the obvious answer but to leave it simply at that, without clearly stating what are its implications and now they should be guarded against so as not to impair the quality of our secondary and higher education either immediately or in the long range, is to shirk our responsibility to posterity. This requires the formulation of a language policy which will protect as well as promote the national and international requirements of an educational system aiming at real quality. It cannot be denied that a serious effort has been made in the country over the last many years to determine the main features of a language policy applicable to the educational system. The Radhakrishnan Commission, one of the earliest in this regard, observed: “Both from the point of view of education and of the general welfare of a democratic community, it is quite essential that the study of educated youth should be through the instrumentality of their regional language. Education in the regional language will not only be necessary for their provincial activities, but it will enable them to enrich their literature and develop their culture.” Beyond making a broad statement of principle the Radhakrishnan Commission did not attempt anything by way of more detailed guidance regarding a language pattern for the country’s educational system at various levels or even the mechanics of a switch over from English to the regional language in higher education and the role of the English language itself after such regionalisation. The Kothari Commission, however, which came nearly sixteen years later and took a more synoptic view of the educational pyramid unlike the Radhakrishnan Commission whose terms of reference confined them to one segment of education, gave the country both the core and the contours of a realistic language policy. They declared in un-ambiguous language that they are convinced of the advantages of education through the regional languages and that they regard the development of regional languages as vital to the general progress of the country and as an important step towards the improvement of quality in education. At the same time they also sounded salutary warning against any single-track approach to the problem of regionalisation. They emphasised the importance of both English and Hindi. Of English, in particular, they emphasised its importance to the quality of education in words which immoderate language enthusiasts and some teacher-politicians in particular will do well never to forget. They said, “The introduction of the regional languages as media of education should not be interpreted to mean underrating the importance of English in the university. For a successful completion of the first-degree course, a student should possess an adequate command over English, be able to express himself with reasonable ease and felicity, understand lectures in it and avail himself of its literature. Therefore adequate emphasis will have to be laid on its study right from the school stage. English should be the most useful Library Language, in higher education and our most significant window on the outside world.”

The case for the teaching and learning of English in India even after regionalisation of the medium could not have been stated with greater clarity or force and it is precisely to this statement that we have to draw the pointed attention of parents, teachers and educationists who are at the moment confused on the future place and significance of English in the Indian curriculum. The Parliamentary Committee which studied the recommendations of the Kothari Commission has also recommended a three language pattern of which English is an integral part. It is, therefore, evident that all shades of opinion in the country, from the pedogogic to the popular, have emphasised the importance of continuing the study of English in our schools and colleges even after the medium of education has been completely and successfully regionalised. If India is truly committed to the goal of establishing a modernising society based, among other things, on science and technology, she cannot afford to turn her on the study of a world language. While this world language could be Russian or German for some other country it has to be English in the case of India, in view of the enormous advantage that the nation already has for the pursuit of this language. The Kothari Commission speaks of the study of other international languages also and even recommends the establishment of Japanese, Russian, French and German colleges. While no one would take any exception to such admirable suggestions, it is certain that English will be India’s largest window on the outside world and it will be therefore worth-while to know what is the basic quantum and quality as well as the objectives which we should prescribe for the study of this language in our schools and colleges.

The Gokak Committee report which is the latest to arrive on the scene has undertaken the job of spelling out such a practical programme for the study of English in India. In fact, the following terms of reference were given by the Government of India to this committee among others, namely, (1) the position of English in school education as it would be when English would cease to be the medium of instruction, (2) the extent of knowledge of English which a student should have at the end of the secondary stage and at the university stage with a view to maintenance of standards, (3) the reorientation of courses in the teaching of English at the school stage in view of the findings on (1) and (2) above, and (4) the problems involved in the teaching of English at the school stage such as (a) the class in which the teaching of English should begin, (b) the methods of teaching to be employed, (c) the preparation of text-books and handbooks for teachers and (d) the preparation of teachers of English for schools in adequate numbers. As the purpose of this paper is mainly to relieve the doubt in the public mind about the exact place and significance of the study of English in our school curriculum, of the future, I do not propose to examine in detail the chapters of the Committee’s report on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th items of the terms of reference above as these chapters are largely technical in character and deal with points like the exact class in which the study of English should begin, the advantages of the structural method of teaching English as compared with the grammar and translation method which earlier dominated the teaching of English in India and the role of training colleges, English Language Institutes, both regional and central in training English language teachers for both schools and colleges.

It would, however, be of some interest to the common man to know the broad assumptions of this committee in regard to the depth and extent to which English should be taught in order to develop in our students the required degree of both comprehension and expression. The Committee takes as the basis of its recommendations the emerging pattern of 12 years schooling followed by a three-year first degree. It envisages two levels of achievement in the study of English by the end of the 12th, namely, lower and higher. It envisages a minimum period of eight years of study both for the lower and higher levels, though the students aiming at the higher level will have to put in 8 hours of study per week at the higher secondary stage instead of the six which students aiming at the lower level are expected to do. The lower level aims at a reasonable competence in expression but a much higher standard of comprehension of both spoken and written English. The higher level, however, expects attainment of equal levels of both comprehension and expression. With regard to the method the committee clearly recommends the structural approach which is based on the most up-to date principles of linguistics and also provides in some of its appendices the number of items both structural and lexical to be mastered by the pupil at the end of each year of study. A comprehensive programme of teacher training for the stupendous task of teaching English effectively in the large number of middle (upper primary in Andhra Pradesh) and secondary schools has also been attempted by the Committee. As I already observed, these are matters of special interest and importance to the English specialist, the teacher-educator and the educational administrator charged with the exclusive responsibility of implementing an effective programme of English teaching in schools and colleges. But what should interest as well as reassure those interested in the quality of our educational system is that even after its replacement by regional languages as the medium of instruction in the universities, the study of English both at school and college will remain a must for all those who would like to keep pace with the tremendous explosion in knowledge in the world outside our parochial frontiers, in the sphere of not only science and technology but also the social sciences and humanities.

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