Presidency University is set to introduce special English classes for freshers considered weak in the language, a problem seen to impede the progress of even meritorious students who have grown up taking lessons in the vernacular.
The decision was taken at a meeting convened by vice-chancellor Anuradha Lohia following reports from teachers that a section of students had been struggling to follow lectures and write their examination papers in English.
The admission committee’s move makes two things clear: Presidency is learning to be pragmatic and Bengal is producing a large number of meritorious students who are hamstrung by their inability to follow instructions in English and/or communicate their thoughts in the language.
Many might argue that proficiency in English is overrated but the flip side is that it does limit career options in an already job-scarce state. Some national-level competitive exams can scare off those who cannot write in English, a prospect that Presidency wants to correct and give each of its students a level playing field.
“The time has come to rid students of this habit of requesting teachers to give them some leeway in terms of English. It does more harm than good. You don’t have too many good reference books in Bengali and many students steer clear of all-India entrance exams out of the fear of the English language,” said a teacher who didn’t wish to be named.
The teacher admitted that though the medium of instruction at Presidency had always been English, colleagues in several departments such as philosophy, history, mathematics and statistics had over the years been forced to allow students not proficient in the language to interact in class and write their answers in the vernacular.
The handicap lingers beyond the classroom and the examination hall. “Students who aren’t able to follow and write properly in English struggle while facing potential recruiters on the campus,” said a professor from the humanities faculty.
The need to introduce remedial English has increased because Presidency now has several teachers who are from outside Bengal and find it difficult to communicate in Bengali. “You can’t ask them to take classes in Bengali, can you?” the professor said.
Presidency isn’t the first to decide that students from vernacular institutions need a little help with their English. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) offers “remedial lessons” in English to students coming from institutions where the medium of instruction is an Indian language.
“JNU gets MPhil and PhD students to take classes in remedial English. Those who teach get a token amount as honorarium and students who attend these classes benefit immensely from the experience,” said a former JNU student now teaching at Presidency University. “At Presidency, it could be a partial implementation of the JNU model.”
Vice-chancellor Lohia had told Metro recently that she planned to start “additional classes” in English from the second semester. “The plan is intended to address deficiencies in the language so that our students can emerge globally competitive after they leave Presidency,” she said.
The university will identify undergraduates who need to brush up their English after admission and put them through special classes in the second half of their first year on the campus.
According to some experts, the lack of proficiency in English among those coming from vernacular institutions reflects a decline in the standard of teaching the language.
The trend started in the early Nineties, with the majority of the students being victims of a period when English was taught from Class VI in state-run schools in Bengal.
The state revised its language policy after Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee became chief minister and reintroduced English in the primary section. Students now study English from Class I. “The decision to drop English from primary education in the Eighties contributed to the decline in the students’ proficiency in the language. The rot started showing in the mid-Nineties,” a senior professor said.
Presidency’s predicament suggests that the standard of English teaching still hasn’t improved in schools where the medium of instruction is Bengali, Hindi or some other Indian language. “If Presidency, which attracts the best of students, is facing such a problem, imagine how serious it could be in some of the other colleges,” the professor said.
Prasanta Ray, emeritus professor of sociology at Presidency University, said the Left Front must take the rap for the language mess. “It was once said that the standard of English-teaching in government schools was higher than in the so-called English-medium institutions. But a gradual decline set in because of ill-conceived policies.”
Anup Sinha, who teaches economics at IIM Calcutta, said: “In our days, some of the best students would come from Hindu, Hare, Ballygunge government and other state-run schools. Mitra Institution and Sailendra Sarkar Vidyalaya too produced students who didn’t face any problem studying in English.”
Rajat Kanta Ray, emeritus professor of history at Presidency, lauded the decision to offer additional classes in English. “I don’t know how effective it will be but the effort deserves to be appreciated.”