The Nehruvian state channelised vast resources for exclusive English medium higher education while keeping the primary education system consistently underfunded.
The whole system is rigged for the minuscule minority of people who can afford a private English medium education and whose families are bilingual.
The second deadly blow to the cause of Hindi and Indian languages was when Nehru imagined the ‘Temples of modern India’ – the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) – he exclusively believed English as the medium of instruction. This decision singularly cemented the status of English as the pre-eminent language of India and the only language of higher end jobs and advancement in life. Given that during those days English was spoken by barely two per cent of the Indian population, this was an extraordinary fraud perpetrated on our gullible masses.
The Rush For English Medium Education
This exclusive English medium higher education policy creates a scramble to learn English. The poor parents send their kids to English medium school as the language becomes the only route to upward mobility, power, and prestige. Speaking English with the right accent is the symbol of education and prosperity in independent India. The mushrooming ‘English medium schools’ across the country neither have English teachers nor the pedagogy to teach in an alien tongue. While the books and examinations are in English, neither the students nor the teachers can speak English, creating a generation of semi-literate Indians who are neither fluent in English nor their mother tongue. While the students think in their native language, they write examinations in English. Therefore, unable to express themselves cogently in an alien tongue, millions of our students are forced to memorise English answers from readily available ‘test-prep’ books to get through the examinations. And then our educationists claim that vast majority of our student learn by rote and lack capacity for critical thinking.
The Nehruvian state channelised vast resources for exclusive English medium higher education while keeping the primary education system consistently underfunded. The whole system is rigged for the minuscule minority of people who can afford a private English medium education and whose families are bilingual. Notice the backgrounds of our CEOs, successful businessmen, start-up entrepreneurs, almost all of them are educated in private English medium schools followed by English medium higher education.
To perpetuate the hold of English, our elite business schools including IIMs have an advanced English reading comprehension test as a criterion for admission! In India, it is almost impossible to achieve professional advancement speaking in your mother tongue. To alleviate this misery, the state throws some crumbs of reservation and lower cut-offs for ‘weaker sections of society’ as if this will compensate for a life time of study in sub-standard primary schools followed by a vicious form of linguistic discrimination in our higher education system.
We have almost internalised that English is the only medium of sciences, technology, and progress. One often hears clichés in defence of English starting with, “but in this age of globalisation…but in this age of technology…but in this age of multinational companies.” Did Japan build its Sony and Suzuki on English medium education? Did South Korea build its Samsung and Hyundai on English education? Did Israel build its agriculture and defence industries by English? Did China become a super power by English?
Why can’t our people aspire to become doctors, lawyers, scientist, chartered accountants, architects and even win Nobel prizes studying in their mother tongue? Why should the medium of instruction in our elite colleges only be in English? Would an engineer be less of an engineer if he studied engineering in Hindi, Kannada, or Marathi?
Mahatma Gandhi had expressed his anguish in his characteristic style:
“Is it not a painful thing that, if I want to go to a court of justice, I must employ the English language as a medium; that, when I become a Barrister, I may not speak my mother tongue, and that someone else should have to translate to me from my own language? Is not this absolutely absurd? Is it not a sign of slavery? Am I to blame the English for it or myself? It is we, the English-knowing men, that have enslaved India.”Mahatma Gandhi
Well even after hundred years English is the only language exclusively used in High Courts and Supreme Court of India. Any effort to introduce Hindi and other Indian languages in respective High courts of the states have been thwarted.
The Burden Of English Medium Education
Few of us realise that the task of learning English is not made easy by its extremely defective orthography – the spelling and pronunciation of words are completely different. Imagine the plight of boy educated in the so called English medium schools of towns and villages of India, to figure out the proper English pronunciation and accents. How would he know that English words – right, write, rite and wright – or the words - son and sun - have the same pronunciation? This is not a trivial problem. In a hierarchical and class conscious Indian society, you are immediately judged by your pronunciation and accents.
Millions of our bright young students have to make a switch to exclusive English medium higher education having studied all their lives in a vernacular medium. The results are devastating. Their time is spent mastering English language rather than learning concepts. Every year our elite engineering schools expel students because they cannot cope up with English medium education (see here). "Many students who are non-performers face trouble as most of their school education had been in Hindi medium. From class lectures to books at IITs, all are in English, and hence there's a gap in understanding," bemoaned IIT Kanpur, dean-academic affairs, Neeraj Misra.
Nineteen per cent of IIT Madras students recently failed the basic English language examination. Our engineering colleges have to teach engineering subjects in Hindi to first-year students. IIT-Delhi director V Ramgopal Rao said, “If they don’t grasp the basic concept, they face difficulties in exams. Hence, we have formed a support system, through which staffers of our Hindi cells explain the subject to them. We have launched it for first-year students.” IIT-Roorkee holds extra classes where professors fluent in both the languages explain scientific concepts to such students in chaste Hindi. “This will help clear their doubts, ensuring that they don’t lag behind,” said Pradipta Banerji, director of IIT-Roorkee. If this is the condition of our IITs, just imagine the state of affairs in second or third tier engineering schools.
Arguments Against Indian Languages
An argument is given that Hindi or our other languages do not have the requisite technical vocabulary for advanced scientific studies. Well, languages are not born with technical vocabulary, they are developed. English acquired it from Latin, Greek and built its own over the years. Our languages can be seeded with a common technical, medical, and business vocabulary built from Sanskrit or any other Indian source. Through the rules of Sandhi, Sanskrit has the algorithm to generate new words. We can even utilise English term and seed it into our languages after appropriate phonetic changes. But no, our languages are deliberately emasculated by devoiding it of sciences. As Dr Bachchan opined, “the underdeveloped state of Hindi was less of an obstacle to its progress than this attachment to English, a language that served the selfish purpose of the elite minority while being beyond the reach of the lumpen majority.”
The second argument is that it would be difficult to have engineering, medical, and technical schools in so many languages; teachers would need to be trained, books would need to be translated. Well just because something is logistically difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth striving for. We have a Hindi speaking population of 50 crores, more than double the population of England, Germany, France and Spain combined. And to think that there is no higher education available to them in their language! If this is not a deliberate ploy to keep non-English speakers in a state of backwardness, then what is! Israel has some of the best institutes of sciences and technology in the world, whose research output and tech start-ups will give any of our English medium IITs a run for its money. And all this in the language of Hebrew which is spoken by people whose number is less than half the population of Mumbai.
During the late nineteenth century, Hebrew was revived from a liturgical language to a living spoken language. In 1913, when the premier Israeli university, Technion was started, German was made the medium of instruction. The reasons given were usual – German is the language of sciences, Hebrew does not have a technical vocabulary, difficult to train Hebrew teachers, difficult to have international collaboration in Hebrew and many others. This led to a massive student and teacher demonstration across the Jewish settlements. The settlers knew without higher education in Hebrew, any hope of reviving the language would be a pipe-dream. The trustees reversed their decisions; a new Hebrew technical vocabulary was build up with many words taken from the German language. Fortified with sciences and technology, Hebrew has flourished since then.
Case for English As Secondary Language And Not A Medium For Education
A case is not being made for removal of English from our higher education, we have come too far for that. The point is there must be national level institutes for getting higher education in our mother tongues. A few states have promoted their state languages for engineering education, however, the resources expended to have a world class engineering education in the state’s language were so meagre that it was set-up for failure.
Students studying sciences in their language doesn’t mean they cannot learn English. He should have the capability to read and understand research papers written in English if translations are not available. But there is a difference between using English as a medium of education and learning it as a second language. There is a difference between “learning English” and “learning in English”. English can be learnt as a second language, but the student should not be forced to learn English as a tool to acquire knowledge of sciences and art.
The citizens of European countries learn sciences in their mother tongue while learning English as the second language for communication purposes. For example, the engineering superpower Germany teaches engineering to its citizens in German medium while also teaching English as the specialised second language needed for use in international communication or multi-cultural corporate environment. Similarly, the Israelis, Turks, Thai, Arabs, Swiss, Swedes, Danes and numerous other nationalities gain higher education in their languages while also learning English for communicating with other language speakers. Why can’t a similar system be adopted in India? As long as the employee can communicate well and have the requisite skills for the job, is it relevant that he studied in non-English medium university?
Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India, made a similar point regarding the medium of instruction. He wrote:
It was apparent to me that it (Indian education system) was rotten. Because of the medium of instruction being a foreign language, it involved colossal waste of time. It could not lead to that natural development of personality which can be so easily obtained through proper education given’s in one own language. It is not particularly wrong to learn a foreign language… But to study a language is one thing and to learn every subject through its medium is another. So, I have always expressed my opposition to making a foreign tongue the medium of instruction, but not to learning it for its own sake.Rajendra Prasad
Such is the present condition that the most likely station in life for a Hindi medium educated youth is to serve under an Englishwalla. And if he knows a bit of English, his accent and pronunciation will still not be good enough to get him a white-collar job in our English only private sector firms. Imagine if the same youth had access to higher education in Hindi along with specialised training in English for communication purpose, at least he could have had a fair shot at life. But in the current linguistic system, he is condemned to a life of servitude and menial jobs. It will take a few generation for his family to speak the English language of an elite bilingual Indian family. In the meanwhile, the richest one per cent English speaking elite of India controls 60 per cent of nation’s wealth - India’s extraordinary discriminatory language policy being the major driver of this inequality.