Navigating the English medium conundrum in Karnataka

State budget has announced that 1,000 Karnataka Public Schools will start English-medium sections in Class 1, in addition to the Kannada medium, in pilot mode, Is the vision behind English mediums schools justified?

Ravi, all of five, frowns when he is asked which medium he would opt for in his government school. “English, of course,” he says firmly. It is a “wish” echoed by all the small boys and girls near him though it stirs fire and brimstone in high circles far away.

The February 2019-20 budget session has announced that 1,000 Karnataka Public Schools will start English-medium sections in Class 1, in addition to the Kannada medium. This is in spite of the angry reactions to the 2018-19 budget pilot project plan that aimed to introduce English medium in 2019 for 1,000 lower primary classes, selected from more than 35,000 government and aided schools.

In January, former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had promised that he would accompany a delegation of the Kannada Sahitya Parishath to the government demanding withdrawal of the notification. President of the 84th Akhila Bharata Kannada Sahitya Sammelana, Kannada writer and English Professor Chandrashekhar Patil, said that Chief Minister Kumaraswamy is behaving like ‘Katharaswamy’, or one who uses an axe, to cut down the “big tree of Kannada”.

However, the final call will still be taken by the Chief Minister, who is also in charge of the Department of Primary and Secondary Education (DPSE). Even though he says that he has ‘an open mind’ to listen to all stakeholders, he is firm about his plan.

Work in progress?

Thus, the language issue is teetering to maintain the balance among diverse and contradictory statements. Some senior department officials have maintained that Kannada would be the first language, but English will be the medium of instruction, which seems rather puzzling for many who are not exactly sure of the difference. It is not clarified either by S. Jayakumar, Director of Public Instruction, Primary Education. He explained to Citizen Matters that in spite of the announcement during last year’s budget, the procedures related to the shift in the medium are still under discussion.

“The government has come to a decision on the change of medium, but we are still awaiting a government order informing us about the methodology, the instructions, how to go about it, when and why. What methods should be adopted, what are the processes, textbooks that we need to take up, which teachers need to be selected for the change or do we need to appoint new teachers… all these are modalities that have to be worked out,” he says.

The Government Order

So far, a few things at least are in place. The government asserts that it is “firm” about the switch in medium, even if the model is yet to be worked out. Pointing out that the government bears the cost of educating more a lakh children in private schools under the RTE act, Kumaraswamy defends the switch to English in government schools as a means of ensuring employment and easy access to global avenues for students. However, the students have the option of taking up the Kannada medium too if they wish.

A related Government Order (GO) was sent on October 26, 2018, to the Department of State Education Research and Training (DSERT), after the announcement in the July 2018 budget. The GO stated that the English medium would be introduced in lower primary classes along with Kannada in a 1,000 government schools on a pilot basis. An additional note said that the step was taken to ensure that more students would enroll in government schools rather than move away to private English-medium institutions.

Government schools that teach through the Kannada medium in upper primary classes, as well as in 276 public model schools should get the preference to switch to the English medium right from first standard, said the Government Order. After that, the switch is expected to happen progressively in a phased manner for every grade each year. Shortlisting and training proficient English teachers and developing e-content has also been included in the GO.

The process has begun and 12,000 teachers who have been trained at the Regional Institute of English will be screened to decide on further training. About Rs 14 crore have been set aside for the plan.

Reasons for the switch

Claiming that the plan is his brainchild, N Mahesh, former Primary and Secondary Education Minister in the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) government explains to The Print that English-medium education would “attract” students. The poor and marginalised, especially dalits, want to expose their children to English, but cannot afford private schools. This is the best way to give those children the opportunity to English education., he feels.

Moreover, switching to English education is necessary for sheer survival of government schools, according to Mahesh. Enrollments in class 1 to 10 in government schools dropped by nearly 12 lakh from 2010 to 2017, according to the Grassroots Research and Advocacy Movement (GRAAM), a public policy research organisation.

The Karnataka State Primary School Teachers Association (KSPSTA) president, V M Narayana Swamy, welcomes the move. He told The Print pointing out that it has been a ‘longstanding demand’ that the state should follow a common education policy.

Atishi Marlena, Advisor to the Delhi Education Minister, who was in Bengaluru last week told Citizen Matters that she appreciates the plan as a step in the right direction. She points out that Delhi’s government schools too have started parallel media of instructions in a number of schools.

Is Kannada given stepmother treatment?

However, as the idea of making the switch is unprecedented, it has incensed language lovers. Jnanpeeth awardee Chandrashekhar Kambar has accused the government of neglecting Kannada culture and traditions and continuing an administrative process in a foreign, colonial tongue.

Professor V P Niranjan Aradhya, education expert and fellow at the Centre for Child and Law, National Law School of India University, told Citizen Matters that he opposes the transition. He feels privatisation and globalisation being unfortunate practices that have undermined the dignity of the regional language. He does not agree that the regional language medium deprives students of exposure to a global tongue, even if it holds sway in almost three-fourths of the world.

“That is just a perception. You cannot ensure better competency level through English,” he said. “It is possible to encourage English as a second language, but it is baseless to have the English medium, especially as there is very little research being done for the shift. It is important to encourage the optimal use of language.”

He says the mother tongue could not only be the basic tool of communication, but also a symbol of individuality and identity. “Look at the examples of China and Japan. They have created a technological revolution through their language. It is possible to translate all the best books into Kannada,” he says. “Knowledge is knowledge, after all. You learn the same content even if they are dispensed through different tongues. Newton’s laws remain the same in every language, isn’t it?”

Acharya emphasises that improving the translations and equipping children with better tools to grasp global knowledge can win the war. After all, it is an administrative issue and can be done if the government shows the political will. The state government should show the drive to do it efficiently.

In a speech at Mangaluru, Niranjan Aradhya also quoted some facts on the closure of Kannada medium schools. There were 47,670 Kannada medium schools in 2010-11, but the number has fallen to 43,895 in 2017. Meanwhile, the number of private English medium schools have shot up from 10,215 to 13,438 schools today. However, his argument is that there is “critical danger” to language-medium schools, so the government should take steps to improve the schools instead of changing the medium of language.

‘Language only a tool’

Even Shukla Bose, who is successfully running five free English medium institutions for underprivileged children, tells Citizen Matters that the switch in the medium is not necessarily a guarantor of good education. After all, generations ago, our fathers studied through the mother tongue and switched later. However, their English language skills are so much better than ours, she says. “Moreover, if you do not teach in English medium, it does not automatically rob you of a safe future. The Scandinavian countries, for instance, do not teach in the English medium alone. Aren’t they doing well?”

She agrees that teaching children in English does improve their confidence, but it is possible to run great Kannada medium schools that have good facilities with an earnest attempt to teach children the basics of language. “There is very little child-friendly literature in the regional languages,” she points out. “It is important to ensure that the fundamentals are put in place.”

She is convinced that ‘converting’ to English will be more of a problem than a boon to education if it is executed without proper thought or planning. What about the costs of new books, teachers and the entire system itself?

“I know so many private English-medium schools that are substandard,” she explains, to Citizen Matters. “They are just piggy-backing on English language.”

Does the mother tongue improve cognition?

A number of middle-class parents, who studied in the English medium, have already shifted their children to Kannada medium schools, as many feel that it enhances the comprehending skills of the child. Learning through English only paves the way for more struggle, is their belief.

For instance, Chandrashekhar Patil, Kannada writer and English professor, sent his grandson, Chaitra Patil, to Kannada medium school. “Not for a moment have I ever felt I lost the competitive edge,”, he told The Hindu. He is convinced that a child learns best through its own mother tongue.

Interestingly, the children of a number of software engineers, doctors and teachers are learning through the Kannada medium. Their parents studied in the English medium but feel that they are “un-rooted” and the “worse off” for it, as the explained to The Hindu. They struggle to comprehend issues that are better understood by those who studied in the mother tongue.

Still, the primary school switch to the English medium is going to happen, whether it enrages Kannada lovers or not. Over time it would get clearer whether the benefits outweigh the harm or not.

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