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The enigma of English: the way it’s taught, not from when

In which language do you have noses that run and feet that smell; a slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing but a wise man and a wise guy are opposites; overlook and oversee are opposites while quite a lot and quite a few are alike' English, of course!

Described playfully as a crazy language, English can fox the cleverest because, to cite just a few examples, there is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. It’s a language in which you start a watch when you wind it up; but when you wind up a speech, you actually end it. While the rest of Bengal appears largely indifferent to the commotion being caused by this foreign ‘lingo’ in the state capital, the city just cannot stop debating the issue. Worse, we cannot make up our mind about how to learn the language, from whom and, indeed, when. It was riveting, therefore, to watch, what else, another panel discussion on the subject.

For the uninitiated, the language is now taught in government schools from the “latter half of Class II”. Effectively, therefore, the discussion is centred on whether children should learn it from Class I itself, as the chief minister and many others insist it should.

Learn English to save your life' Dr Pabitra Sarkar appeared outraged at the suggestion. The academic could barely hide his contempt. “If people learn English from Class I, they will not meet with accidents or die' What utter nonsense,” he spat at the hapless fellow panelist on a TV show, a college teacher.

He was equally dismissive of a point of order raised by Dr Nemai Sadhan Bose, former vice-chancellor of Visva-Bharati. Bose argued that the government was pursuing a discriminatory policy. The rich, the elite and the privileged are allowed to get ahead in life by learning English earlier and more intensively, while the poor and the under-privileged are patronisingly allowed to learn English later, or not at all, and that, too, cursorily.

Sarkar contended that children of the rural poor or the under-privileged in the districts would have greater difficulty if they are put on par with children in the cities.

Essentially, what he possibly meant was that there is a great deal of difference between a boy from the city learning English from Class I and another boy from a Murshidabad village forced to learn it.

To be fair to the college teacher who prompted Sarkar’s ire, he had merely said that even those who drop out of primary school need to know enough English, to be able to read and retain the registration number of the vehicle that may have knocked down someone in front of him or to read the expiry date on the medicines he purchases.

Sarkar slammed the idea that a delay of one-and-a-half years would make it impossible to learn the language. He could have cited the example of St Lawrence School in Calcutta itself, which earlier followed the Bengali medium till Class VII, introduced English in Class III and switched over to the English medium from Class VIII. The arrangement, apparently, worked like a dream.

It was left to Sujata Sen from the British Council to hit the nail on the head. It, she said, really did not make the slightest difference whether the language was introduced in Class I or Class III. What was material and important, however, is whether schools have the wherewithal, including trained teachers, to teach the subject. The British Council, she pointed out, was training 1.8 lakh primary school teachers in the state to ensure that they teach the language well and make the exercise as interactive as possible.

What was left unsaid during the discussion is the level of English that is required at each level. The question really is how much English should an average boy know. Should a Class V dropout be sufficiently familiar to be able to identify the alphabet, read and follow simple words and numbers' By Class VII, perhaps, the child should pick up the language enough to be able to write simple sentences. By Class X, he should be able to write coherent paragraphs, translate and, possibly, acquire a vocabulary of 300 or 3,000 words.

Once this level of requirement is determined by experts, the rest can be left to each individual school. They can decide whether to introduce English in Class I, II or III.

In the short run, there is obviously a need to teach ‘spoken’ and ‘commercial’ English as evening courses for professionally-qualified doctors, engineers, nurses and housewives. What is needed is for the universities and institutes of repute to come together and evolve a credible, short-term programme and keep the fly-by-night operators out of the business. Why should we allow ourselves to get confused between our long-term and short-term needs'

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