In English Please…

All children I have voluntarily tutored (often, first generation literates from low income families)  over the last several years yearn to become fluent in English irrespective of the languages they speak or study in. And their parents’ common refrain "Yenga pasangalum ungala maari dasu busu nu English lo pesanum" (our children must also converse fluently in English like you) has compelled the children and me to make frequent attempts to use English.


But, considering that they mainly converse in their mother tongue and/or the principal language of their neighbourhood, it is a challenge for them to find an environment where they can speak and hear English constantly. This limits their opportunity to practise conversational English thereby affecting their self-confidence. Further, the rote learning methods, pedagogic teaching style and the high standard of English literature extracts in their school lessons reduce their chance and ability to learn common usages. Also, in Byrasandra and R.T. Nagar where I’ve been teaching primarily English medium students, I’ve observed that a break from school accelerates their lack of contact with the language. They frequently forget even basic words, phrases and sentences. Of course, a few of the kids like Sridhar from Jaynagar have attended "Spoken English" courses and do their utmost to use English with people who are fluent in the language.


Interestingly, teachers in the Pottery Town Government Primary school had requested me to speak in English with the students although they usually address the children in Kannada, the school’s prescribed medium of instruction. But the children’s body language forced me to switch between Telugu or Tamil (the predominant mother tongue) and English to ensure that they understand and interact in class.


I agree that English has become a universal and essential medium of communication and sometimes do not support its detractors completely. But the prevalent supposition of its superiority and the divide it creates continues to bother me. It seems more than a colonial hangover!


While I advocate the need to know English well and its criticality for various jobs, I always remind my students that they must continue to be proud of and keep in touch with their ethnic and indigenous languages and backgrounds. I also try to make them understand that the lack of a good command over English does not make them inferior. In fact, while discussing the topic of elections with some Tamil and Urdu speaking children in R.T. Nagar recently, I highlighted that one cannot connect with the masses without knowing the vernacular. And I told them that several literary and technological masterpieces continue to be created in various other languages increasing the demand for translations and interpreters. Additionally, I mentioned how even computer, telephone and internet based utilities and services are available in various Indian and foreign languages just like road and shop signboards. This seems to be gradually urging some children to accept their identity better and increase their attempts to express themselves in English (despite some mistakes) thus making them at least bilingual. In fact, many of them are polyglots who are enhancing my familiarity with the local language!

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