Thursday, March 31, 2011

Importance of Learning English as Second Language

Early days 

According to the census of 1971 the literacy rate of West Bengal was 38.86 percent (Office of the Registrar General, India). Children living in the rural areas and belonging to the marginalized section of the society did not go to schools. Education was primarily restricted to the urban and semi urban areas and was the privilege of the moneyed section. The have-nots had no access to education. The education policy being followed before 1977 had no commitment towards mass education. When the Left Front government came to power in 1977 one of the biggest challenges it faced was to restore some semblance of normalcy in the world of education and to improve upon the rate of literacy.

Importance of teaching in mother tongue

To achieve this Herculean task the government decided, after thorough research and extensive study, to do away with teaching of English in the primary levels. It was decided that students would be taught English from class VI onwards. This particular decision of the government has met with criticism and ridicule down the years. In this article we would like to highlight the reasons why the government took this particular decision.
In an education system riddled with inequities, language can be an obstacle that comes in the way of learning. Educationists, the world over, agree that it is best to teach in the child’s mother tongue. Besides the three states of Mizoram, Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir which use English, all the other states of our country use the regional language as the medium of instruction.

Countries like Japan, China, France and Germany have been able to progress without the help of English. But, it is the legacy of colonialism, which has stood in the way of Bengalis respecting themselves.

Udaya Narayana Singh, director of Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, says that internationally, experiments by experts have pointed to the fact that one learns best through one's mother tongue. Singh cautions, that when English is the medium of instruction, many children could get "thrown out of the system" if they have not been exposed to the language in domains such as homes or playgrounds. He points to a study conducted in Nepal by Nepalese Scholar K P Malla on the high dropout rates in higher secondary schools. According to the study, English as a medium of instruction was in itself such a frightening prospect for many of the students that they chose to drop out of schools. Closer home in Hyderabad, pass percentages in areas dominated by the Muslim community (such as Old City) point to the fact that many of the children — who are more conversant in Urdu — drop out because the medium of instruction is Telugu.

The National Policy on Education, 1968, clearly states: the energetic development of Indian Languages and literature is a sine qua non for educational and cultural development. Unless this is done, the creative energies of the people will not be released, standards of education will not improve, knowledge will not spread to the people and the gulf between the intelligentsia and masses will remain if not widen further. Urgent steps should now be taken to adapt them as media of education at the university stage. Seconding this educationist A. K Jalaluddin notes that if children learn in English, they are often not exposed to the literature in their mother tongue. "A major part of the linguistic experience comes from literature," he emphasizes.

In 1864 the US Congress prohibited native American children from receiving instructions in their own language. Seventy years later, the verdict of Congress was defeated and receiving instructions in one’s own mother tongue was accepted as a basic human right. In fact, the United Nations General Assembly Convention of 1989 clearly stated that a child’s education should be directed towards developing his / her cultural identity. Article 30 also furthered the cause by stating that children had the right to use their ethnic language. The imposition of foreign languages for written communication within the systems of education and administration creates unnecessary barriers to the participation of a large part, often a majority, of the population (Bamgbose, 2000, Ouane 2003). United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) have encouraged mother tongue instruction since 1953.

There is a large body of research to show that the development of personal and social literacy is greatly impeded by the fact that literacy is promoted in an official language that is seldom spoken and even less frequently written, thereby excluding a large proportion of the population from participation in literacy based social activities (Fagerberg – Diallo 2001, Lopez 2001, Prah 2001). Literacy training in a language in which learners have no competence condemns a majority of children to failure ( Heugh 2005, Alidou and Brock-Utne 2005, Brock_Utne and Alidou 2005 ). Being taught in a language other than one’s mother tongue results in resistance by learners. Signs of resistance can be high illiteracy rates due to low attendance rates, high drop out rates, high repetition rates and low performance in exams. Success in learning enhances self-esteem and motivation to attend school. Stress and anxiety are detrimental to learning.

According to Noam Chomsky (1951) all children do have equal degree of competence in their mother tongue and they are perfect in using it. A child acquires his or her first language without any formal instruction, even without knowing himself/herself that he or she is learning a language. Even the parents and the members in his/her surroundings do not care that the child is learning a language. He learns the language comfortably and swiftly and becomes a full-fledged member of his or her speaking community.

We can safely say that in our country English is the language of the elite. So, forcing all the minorities to learn in such medium is no more than curtailing their fundamental rights. If a nation believes in social inclusion mother tongue instruction can be the best means for incorporating minority groups because ‘a language can become or be made a focus of loyalty for a minority community that thinks itself suppressed, persecuted, or subjected to administration’ (Britannica, 2005).

According to UNESCO report (2007) mother tongue instruction is also important for promoting gender equality and social inclusion. The researches show that girls stay in school longer and more girls enroll in school when they can learn in a language that is familiar to them. Similarly, researches in Africa and Latin America have found that girls, who learn in familiar languages stay in school longer, are more likely to be identified as good students, and do better in achievement tests than girls who do not get home language instruction. Girls prefer to be taught in their mother tongue in their early years because they have less contact with the people who speak other language. This is especially applicable for girls of minorities and indigenous communities. So using their language as the medium of instruction might increase their enrollment rate.

Ying Lao and Stephen Krashen (1999) who carried out a research in China reported that, ‘in spite of the initial opposition from parents, students, teachers and administrators mother-tongue teaching has provided a positive, non-threatening learning environment for students. Students in Chinese-medium programs appear to be more active, appear to learn more subject matter, enjoy school more, and are improving in English’.

“If children of aadibasi/janajati had the opportunity to learn, read and write in their own language, it would help reduce the dropout of aadibasi/janajati children from the schools” (Limbu 2003). One of the biggest obstacles to Education for All remains in place: the use of foreign language for teaching and learning (UNESCO 2007).

As stated above forcing children to learn a new language before they can learn anything else creates an educational handicap that should be avoided. Use of the home language in school increases parents’ participation and influence. The parents are happy when their children use their mother tongue in learning new knowledge because their identity largely lies in the language used by their ancestors. Moreover, the parents are likely to help their children if they acquire education in their mother tongue.

The most significant merit of mother tongue instruction is that once a child can read and write one language, the skills are transferred to other languages (UNESCO 2007).

Myths busted

The fear of English is one major reason for the large number of dropouts from primary classes, particularly in the villages. Several national education commissions headed by Zakir Hussain, Radhakrishnan and D M Kothari, have recommended the study of English only after primary level.

Studies have shown that adolescents are in many ways better at learning a new language than children, except in the area of pronunciation. This is probably because they are already literate in their first language and can use some of their knowledge about language and language learning.

One researcher (T. Scovel, 1999 The Younger The Better Myth and Bilingual Education) talks of the dangers of double semi-lingualism for early learners of a second language; i.e. the child does not develop full proficiency in either of the two languages. Current research says that the best age to start learning a second language is early adolescence, so about 11-13.

Experimental research in which children have been compared to adults in second language learning has consistently demonstrated the inferiority of young children. Even when the method of teaching appears to favor learning in children, they perform more poorly than do adolescents and adults (e.g., Asher & Price, 1967).

A study of 17,000 British children learning French in a school context indicated that, after five years of exposure, children who had begun French instruction at age eleven were more successful language learners than children who had begun at eight years of age (Stern, Burstall, & Harley, 1975). The investigators in this study, the largest single study of children learning a second language in a formal classroom setting, concluded that older children are better second language learners than are younger ones.

Similar results have been found by other studies by European investigators--studies of Swedish children learning English (Gorosch & Axelsson, 1964), of Swiss children learning French (Buehler, 1972), and of Danish children learning English (Florander & Jansen, 1968).

French immersion programs in Canada, where English-speaking children in late immersion programs (in which the second language is introduced in grades seven or eight) have been found to perform just as well (or better) on tests of French language proficiency as children who began their immersion experience at kindergarten or grade one (Genesee, 1981, 1987).

National Policy on second language instruction after independence

  • Committee on Secondary Education in India, 1948 (the so-called Tara Chand Committee), recommends that, “The teaching of the Federal language should be started at the end of the Junior Basic stage”.
  • The first syllabus for the Primary schools published by the Directorate of Education, West Bengal in 1950, contains no agendum of teaching a second language till class V.
  • The first school Education Committee ( President Rai Harendranath Chaudhuri ) of 1948 decided that “ English should not be taught in the primary classes [ I- V] ”.
  • The Himangshu Bimal Mazumdar Commission, set up during the Congress government in 1974, had suggested abolition of English from the primary level. The committee submitted its report in 1979 and its recommendations were implemented by the Left Front government from 1982.

These arguments should be enough to silence the detractors who have been screaming themselves hoarse that the abolition of English from the primary level has harmed two generations of students in West Bengal. On the contrary, the introduction of mother tongue as the medium of instruction has been an enabling factor to increase the rate of literacy from 38.86 percent in 1971 to 68.64 percent in 2001. Education has reached the masses and is no longer the sole prerogative of the privileged section of the society. This has led to the empowerment of women and other vulnerable section of the society. Mother tongue instruction has proved to be the vehicle for social integration and a means for reducing social stratification. So-called standard language is the language of elites. Mother tongue instruction is better for creating social equality. It helps in preserving cultural diversity and helps to promote gender equality by empowering women of underprivileged groups. High literacy rate has ensured low infant mortality and drop in child marriages. A substantial percentage of women have become economically self sufficient ensuring an improvement in the quality of life both in the urban and rural areas. And all this has been possible because education was imparted in a language that made it interesting to all sections of the society.

Reasons for re-introducing English at the primary level

Fishman says, “Languages are rarely acquired for their own sake. They are acquired as keys to other things that are desired. ” A similar statement has also been made by Traunmuller who says; “…… a second language will be learned if and only if the presumptive learner estimates the advantages of knowing that language to be higher than the costs.”

The One-Man Committee on English in Primary Education (1998), headed by Prof. Pabitra Sarkar, observes that land reforms, distribution of vested lands to the landless cultivators, fixation and revision of the minimum daily wages for the labourers, decentralisation of administration through the panchayats, expansion and improvement of surface communications and transport, opportunities of education made more plentiful have all contributed to the burgeoning of the middle-class. These neo-middle class as also the aspirants expected their children to rise up the social ladder, and English is perceived as a tool for this ascent. This led to a demand for teaching English from the lower classes.

The other reasons which led to the re-introduction of English from the primary level are the introduction of Information Technology and rapid computerization which led to the demand in the number of English knowing employees. Moreover, Computer, as a subject was introduced from lower classes which made introducing English from the primary level very important.

Bangla and Bangaliana

Bengali is steadily losing ground to English. A generation of Bengalis from Kolkata, sent to English-medium schools, has grown up without much knowledge of Bengali. It will be interesting to survey how many young Bengalis going to English-medium schools know the Bengali alphabet well! Many read Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series in English translation. The vast repository of Bengali literature is out of bounds for many of this generation. Even in social dos, Bengali and Bengaliana seem to lose out to English. What is captivating is the fact that no one has till date ever made a demand to make Bengali compulsory in the English-medium schools from class I. No political party has ever called a bandh on this issue. Is it because parents are indulgent if their child is not very fluent in Bengali? Being fluent in English is more fashionable than being fluent in Bengali. So no hue and cry is made to force the government to compel these English-medium schools to teach Bengali.

Along with increasing influence of globalisation the number of language in the world is decreasing dramatically. Graddol (2007) states, that the number of languages in the 15th century was more than 14,000. This number has now fallen to only 6000. What is worrying is that “90 percent of these are in some danger of falling into disuse” (Educational Encyclopedia 2000). Now the question is would we allow Bengali to be a part of that 90 percent? Should we preserve linguistic diversity or let the homogenization of language in the name of globalisation? It is time to ponder.


  1. Very well researched, and well written!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.