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Queen’s language, a barrier in the method and the mind

The story of Satyarup Banerjee, reported by The Telegraph last week, would have shocked many readers. For those who might have missed the report, the boy studied in a Bengali-medium school and performed brilliantly in the Madhyamik examination. He switched over to his “dream school”, RKM at Narendrapur, to prepare for his Higher Secondary exams; but within weeks discovered that he was unable to cope with lectures delivered in English, prompting him to pack his bags and leave for a Bengali-medium school in Bankura.

Going by his experience, the transition from a Bengali-medium school to an English-medium school is not just difficult, but possibly impossible to make. That last statement is, of course, not true. There are thousands of students who make the switch every year, with or without having to put in a superhuman effort. From his own Bengali-medium school, there must be scores of students who graduate to RKM at Narendrapur and cope with lessons in English reasonably well.

Satyarup’s story, therefore, is shocking. Had he been a poor student, it would have been easier to understand his plight. Is there something wrong with him and his teachers' Or is the school or the system to be blamed'

A frequent flier to Europe provides a clue. A few years ago, he was astonished to find taxi drivers in both France and Germany conversing with him in English, something he did not expect in either country. A German driver, he recalls, explained that what had done the trick was making English compulsory in school for two years. What makes these taxi drivers in Europe learn English in two years and learn it well enough to carry on a conversation' In Calcutta, he points out, public discourse and debate among pundits have both concentrated on the desirability of introducing English in Class I or Class V. What the policy planners must decide is the level of language skills that is required and expected at each stage.

A student appearing for his Madhyamik examination, for example, should be able to read and follow English fiction and text, write correct English and possibly conduct brief conversations in English. Once this level of proficiency is agreed upon, the schools can then be left to decide in which class they would like to start teaching English. It is possible that some schools would be confident that their students would attain the level in five years while others may like to take 10 years to reach the same level.

Factors like availability of able teachers and infrastructure, background of students and societal requirement could influence the decision. But then there would be a certainty that a student who has passed the Madhyamik examination will have a definite degree of language skills.

The heart of the matter is our attitude and approach to not just English, but to languages. The degree of seriousness associated with learning English is rarely to be found when it comes to learning other Indian languages, or even the mother tongue. The average student passing out of Bengali-medium schools possibly finds writing in the language just as difficult as writing in English. And despite the importance attached to learning English, not all students passing out of English-medium schools are able to speak or write in English well.

The barely-disguised contempt for learning languages has actually been compounded by equally thoughtless methods of teaching and the syllabi. The emphasis on English poetry and literature in schools, some would argue, is entirely misplaced and places unacceptable burden on the students. Most of the good schools used to encourage students to read at least one English book and another in Indian languages every week. Reading classes were mandatory where students took turns to read aloud English texts and there were also innovative teachers who helped students hone their language skills by taking recourse to games like Scrabble, define a word, crosswords and so on.

At a time when the Chinese are flocking to surgeons demanding surgery which they believe would help them speak English better, and Buddha’s Bengal is claiming to have a large reservoir of people having command over the language, Satyarup Banerjee’s plight would hopefully prompt some soul-searching.

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