Saturday, October 21, 2006

The "Language of Instruction" debate

Off late I have had numerous discussions (read arguments) about the "language of instruction" issue. Below are a few points I would like you to consider before taking sides in this argument :-)

1. Every body learns better when taught in mother tongue.
I feel that a solid understanding of Maths and Science in the early years of primary education is a pre-requisite to any discipline of higher education. This determines a persons ability to think logically, dissect information and make informed decision. These skills learnt that early in life become part of one's psyche (or subconscious).

World over, not one study shows that learning "Basic Maths and Science" in English is better than learning the same in your mother tongue. There is no denying the fact that you home is your first school. It is obviously better to extend this comfort of home (at least in language) into the early years at school.

Unfortunately, I have seen people trying to solve the problem by resorting to speaking English at home. It's a solution, alright. But that creates a bigger problem that I will discuss later.

2. It's not hard at all to learn new languages
I have heard people tell it is very difficult for students to switch to English as the medium of instruction later in their study. Thats not true at all. Unfortunately this point was put forth by a school head-master on TV. I think, it reflects badly upon him and his teachers only. Everybody knows that children are very receptive to new languages. A high school student could learn a new language much easier than a man of his age. No Doubt.
The very fact that VETA, Rapidex, Max Muller Bahvan or Alliance Fran├žaise are in business (and good at it) shows that you can learn a new language almost at any time in your life.

3. "English speaking ability" is totally over-rated.
People have sighted the "English speaking ability" of Indians the major factor in India's success in the Information Technology sector. Believe me this ability is thoroughly over-rated. The French, Germans, and Japanese are much more advanced speaking very little (or no) English. Ask any Infosyian business manager to list top 6 points that have won him his last few projects:
A. Operational Efficiency
B. Quality driven execution
C. Huge talent base (read bench strength)
D. The Time Zone. As a company the client would be working the full 24 hours.
E. Cost

Did you see the "English speaking ability" in the list?

Well, by now you would be ready to hit me on my face for having left out the entire BPO/Call center business. I do agree that our "English speaking ability" gives us an edge in this sector. But, those who fear that China would put us out of business contradict themselves. If Chinese can learn "English" so fluently that they can challenge Indian business based on 3-4 generations of speaking experience, then it must be very easy. Isn't it? Why do you make such a big deal of learning English later in life?

Secondly, the BPO/Call-center model is not sustainable. The cost difference is soon will be wiped out when employee cost will go up. China, Philippines, Singapore, Korea will soon catch up with our "English speaking ability" sooner or later. More and more processes will be automated leading to lesser and lesser people required.

Thirdly, Is that the direction we want our country to go? Be a big huge factory providing cheap labour to the world. This will only take us to the second place. Never the first.

4. Language is the carrier of culture.
You want to kill a culture, kill the language.
Wisdom of generations are passed on through books. You need to know the language (be able to read) to imbibe the knowledge and wisdom (yes, translation is a option. But, there is always some loss in translation). If children are not taught to read the "native" languages, the entire wisdom learnt over generation would be lost in a couple of generation. Don't believe me? Look what happened to Sanskrit. All the worldly wisdom in the field of medicine, yoga, music and every other discipline is locked in scriptures that we hardly understand. Yes, the damage is not apparent immediately. With respect to Sanskrit, it may have happened over centuries of Mogul rule, closely followed by systematic dismantling of Indian education system by the British.

5. Not all of us need English.
When we talk about globalization and meeting the world, English speaking ability gives us a tiny edge. But, you can not deny that local business is best done in local language. Guess what, only 1% or 2% of Indian population is in businesses that *require* them to speak English. More than 50% (of the employed) are working for Government or other organization that interact with people directly. How can you expect a person who does not know to read or write an Indian language be equipped to do this job efficiently? Should we sacrifice efficiency in Indian (people oriented) offices only to be well equipped to make some foreign offices faster?
If you pick 50 random students from any average school, I guess 30 of them will end up doing business or get employed in occupations that definitely need read/write knowledge of at least one of the Indian languages. If you deny 30 of them that chance, on the pretext that you want 50 of them to make big in IT (or similar fields), I think you can clearly see the flaw in that logic.

My solution:
1. All Indian schools must teach Indian languages at least a compulsory course if not the medium of instruction. I am stressing compulsory because, given a choice a child would opt out of anything that is difficult. At the age of 10 you really don't know what is best for your own future.

2. If a child is going to a school where the mother tongue is not the medium of instruction, then they must provide ample coaching at home in mother tongue.

3. Indian IT Managers must find an alternate business model that does not rely entirely on our head start in "English speaking ability". Innovation and adaptability must take precedence to taking short term profits from out-sourcing low-tech jobs.

I know, this medium of expression is totally one sided. Rebuttals are welcome at prashanth_k_blr at yahoo dot com.

Finally some questions:
When was the last time you read a book written in an Indian Language?
In what language does your mind think?
Do you enjoy Kabir's Dohas or Sarvajna's three liners or Thiruvalluvar's wise sayings? Do you think it is important to read them?
Do you have a Plan-B for your child?

The answers may help you to chose which side you are on


anandanubhava said...

kota.. changed ur super duper thug pic eh? :-) put it back man... it was amazing!
I've felt this language issue MUCH MUCH more now tht i'm in my present job where the company is made of french, germans, spanish & uk ppl. there are tonnes of docs in those languages in the company. when a uk guy calls a french guy, he tries hard to greet him & say a few words in french. when ashwin goes to germany he's forced to learn german. i REALLY wish it was this way in india wrt sanskrit/hindi/kannada or any langauge... imagine what profound influence it would've had on the world... & on proud we wud've felt...
Maybe, it hasnt happened due to reasons like - indians arent really proud of their culture to an extent other cultures are, too many languages in india destroys unity even within..british/mughal & other rulers destroyed the fabric..etc...
whaddya say

Shubha said...

I agree wit most of it.. But I do believe English should be the medium of instruction... Most of the latest research is in english and its more universal than any other language... But you should know your mother-tongue... I am more fluent in english than kannada... but thats ok... and never let a 10 yr old decide what he/she wants to learn.. thats ridiculous...