The West Bengal higher education department has asked the principals of government and government-aided colleges to take suitable steps towards enhancement of students’ “communication, reading and speaking abilities in the English language”.
A government order issued on Tuesday says: “It has been discussed during the meeting held with the vice-chancellors that despite students of colleges/universities being good in academics, they are not able to perform to their level of competency, at the national and international level due to lack of proficiency in the English language.
“It was felt that an effort be made....”
According to some academics, the lack of proficiency in English among students reflects a decline in the standard of teaching. They think the decision to drop English from the primary curriculum in the eighties is now showing its long-term impact.
Some academics said steps should be initiated from the school level to improve the students’ proficiency in English.
The government’s call “that an effort be made” makes it clear that West Bengal is producing a large number of students who are hamstrung by their inability to follow instructions in English and/or communicate their thoughts in the language.
Malabika Sarkar, vice-chancellor of Ashoka University and former professor of English at Jadavpur University, said there is a need to change the mindset on the subject because it is not enough to be proficient in English.
“Communication is a skill that has to be acquired. There is an aspect of performance, which is reflected in the way a person communicates. We need to impart skills among students on how to communicate effectively,” said Sarkar.
Academics also said bright teachers need to be recruited to improve the student’s proficiency in English.
Bikash Sinha, former director of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, said the erstwhile Left Front government’s decision to drop English from the primary curriculum can be blamed for the absence of teachers proficient in English.
“Over the years we have had teachers and students who are least proficient in the language. I have come across students who are meritorious, but struggle to present papers owing to lack of proficiency (in English). I might antagonise many by saying so. To pursue science, one must develop a command of English,” said Sinha. “The effort should start from the school level.”
Anup Sinha, former teacher of economics at IIM Calcutta, said these days a good communication skill is a must even to get the job of support staff at a shopping mall. “But the skill has to be imparted from the school level,” said Sinha.
The principal of a city college said, a course called “Ability Enhancement Compulsory Courses” is being taught at the undergraduate level over the years for students of all disciplines under the choice based credit system. A student has to study environmental science and English Communication/ Modern Indian Languages (Bengali or Hindi or Urdu). Earlier students had to choose English (50 marks) and English/Bengali (50 marks).
Though now a student can opt for a course called English Communication, classes are hardly conducted, he said.
Sugata Bose, professor of Oceanic History at Harvard University, said it took the Left Front two decades to realise their mistake. “An entire generation did not learn the language. If we desire to develop proficiency in a language, it must be taught at the elementary level. So the decline started from there,” said Bose.
In 1980, the Left Front government had banned the teaching of English till Class VI even as Left leaders got their children enrolled in private English-medium schools. English returned to Class I after 24 years following an intervention from then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.
Pabitra Sarkar, an ardent supporter of the ban on English at the primary level, continues to justify the decision. He blamed the lacuna on irregularities in the teacher recruitment process. “English was eventually returned to the level of Class I. If that was the solution, then why do we have a situation where the government has to admit that students are failing at the national/international level owing to lack of proficiency in the subject. The irregularities in the recruitment of teachers, which is being widely discussed today, is at the root of the problem,” said Sarkar.
The Left Front government had in 2008 decided to introduce an English-medium section at government schools. But the decision could not be implemented following protests from its teachers’ associations.