Learning our languages: Inability or disability?

One afternoon last week I decided to walk from my Department to the campus school to pick up the little brat. It’s a pleasant 15-minute walk, especially at this time of the year when the campus wears its best, riotously verdant look, thanks to the rains.  The magnificent beginnings of a sublime Nature poem (cough cough) were, however, snuffed out when I heard someone run up behind me.  A young man whom I had taught last semester. After the customary greetings he blurted out, “Everyone says I should improve my English.” “So you should!” I responded, smiling to take the sting out of my words.

This kid really drove me up the wall with assignments that had, among other things, articles and prepositions all over the place – everywhere except where they belonged! And when chastised and explained the errors, he would turn in the next one pristinely devoid of both.   

As I’d expected, he talked me into more of the remedial work I did with him last semester. And then, looking at me sheepishly, he said, “Ma’am I’ve enrolled for Creative Writing this semester.” Laughing to acknowledge the irony and my raised eye-brows, he continued: ” And what I realize is that I know neither my mother tongue nor English well enough to be able to write creatively in either.” For me, this disarming confession is a reminder of one of the biggest shortcomings, tragedies if you will, of our education: the abject neglect and deteriorating importance of language study. 

Take the case of my home state – Andhra Pradesh. It is reputed to have the largest number of engineering colleges in the country. Students from Andhra grab a sizeable chunk of seats in the IITs and BITS every year.  All of this is the result of the “coaching regime” that has the entire high-school system in its stranglehold.  Right from class 10, children and their parents start preparing, mentally, financially, physically, every which way, for the entrance examinations that constitute the gateway to an education in the coveted streams of engineering, medicine and the IITs. 

When I was in high school there were “institutes” that coached students for these entrance exams. Now, we have  “corporate schools” that charge  astounding fee to prepare students for these entrance exams, alongside the regular high-school curriculum. Coaching is now institutionalized!

What baffles me is this. These entrance exams are supposed to test students on what they learned at high school. Why would a normal, reasonably intelligent student need extra “coaching” to clear these entrance exams, over and above what is taught in school?  Doesn’t such “coaching,” tailor-made for these exams, defeat the very purpose of the exams?

But supporters (and benefactors!) of this regime would probably argue that the intense competition for berths in these professional courses demands the extra edge that coaching provides. Even if we grant this (and I don’t!) there are other things falling by the wayside, thanks to this regime. Language skills for instance.

Colleagues teaching at the IITs, BITS and other national institutes of technology tell me that students from Andhra are very often the pits when it comes  to language, communication and other “soft” skills. I’d say that is to be expected. A system that rewards the ability to answer multiple-choice questions in the shortest possible time leaves little scope for expression and communication.

Languages do not even count in the overall percentage scheme – it’s just the ‘Groups’ (Math-Physics-Chemistry/Biology-Physics-Chemistry) that matter! English is important only because it is the medium of instruction. As for the other languages, the less said the better.

Perhaps the situation for English is improving. The realization that English is as important as an engineering degree in the job market is catching on. (Which is why the Andhra Pradesh government has decided to make English the medium of instruction in all government schools.) But what kind of English?  

 As part of a project on English for Science teachers, a colleague and I interviewed a cross section of teachers of Science and engineering in the city last year.  They were unequivocal about improving their English, but most of them felt “correctness”, especially pronunciation, was what they needed most. While that is not untrue, my assessment is that these teachers actually lack fluency – the ability to paraphrase, to explain a concept in at least two different ways, using different expressions and illustrations. Very often, they repeat definitions and explanations from standard text books. (Aside: I can imagine a bewildered student saying, “Ma’am/Sir I didn’t get that. Could you explain it again, please?” “Right,” the teacher would say and start all over again – saying the same thing, albeit more slowly!  No wonder our students don’t ask too many questions! Who wants to listen to the same crap twice over?!)

While the demand for English of a questionable variety is perhaps increasing, what of our Indian languages? They are mere “subjects” in school, second or third languages (telling nomenclature!) to be forgotten as soon as we ‘pass’ them and leave school. Which leaves a sizeable section of the population tongue-tied: inadequate English, barely adequate mother tongue.

But why is this important enough for me to blog about? Why am I harping on the study of languages, Indian languages ? Well, I could give cultural reasons, about how they’re endangered species, these vehicles of our culture, but I will desist.  This post is about languages in the context of technological education and I’ll stick to that.

 Although English is the language of choice of only a miniscule section of our society, it is the language of science, technology, medicine, nay all that is modern and progressive.  But all of this ‘knowledge’ can only be made available to the masses through their own languages. How do we effect the translations, then? Especially if knowledge of these languages is reduced to the level of second/third languages left behind in school? 

While globalization brings more and more ‘knowledge’ to our doorstep through English, such knowledge will remain the property of a few if the means of their dispersal – our indigenous languages – are not strengthened. 

Successive National Policies on Education (which you can read here) have unfailingly stressed the importance of language study. The Policy document of 1968 says:

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 the masses will remain if not widen further. The regional languages are already in use as media of education at the primary and secondary levels. Urgent steps should now be taken to adopt them as media of education at the university level.

Interestingly, English is mentioned in this Policy as part of other international languages which should be strengthened for the purposes of the study of Science and Technology.

The Policy of 1986 adds very little: 

8.7 The Education Policy of 1968 had examined the question of’ the development of languages in great detail; its essential provisions can hardly be improved upon and are as relevant today as before. The implementation of this part of the 1968 Policy has, however, been uneven. The Policy will be implemented more energetically and purposefully.

And the revised policy of 1992 retains this bit as is.

These documents are studies in vagueness, I must say. But then one must remember that they are Policy documents; they specify what  should be done, not the nature of implementation.

Take, for instance, the policy on free and compulsory education for every child up to 14 years.  What has this achieved?  Today, quality of education is directly proportional to cost and access. The same holds for our policy on languages. Laudable policies that have achieved zilch. Nada. Nil. A reflection of the complete abdication of responsibility by the state. And the result – crass and appalling commercialization of education.

Have we accepted this as inevitable?  I often hear people decry the undercutting of “merit” due to reservation policies in educational institutes. How many of us will decry the “commercialization of merit” in institutes that provide education for those who can afford it, irrespective of merit?

Again, while we debate the merits of primary/secondary education in the vernacular medium and higher education in English, do we realize that this division serves only to deepen inequalities? Children with such a fractured education are at an unfair disadvantage when compared with those who have seamless access to English education.

Are we breeding a privileged, isolated class – with access to the best education either because they have the money or because they were born with silver spoons? A class without a twinge of conscience for their culpability in perpetuating the status quo.




























  1. Quirky Indian said

    I have a slightly different point of view, something that you may have touched upon in an earlier post.

    The quality of teachers we have is probably the most important factor here, and the less said about the quality, the better. Somehow, over the last 30-40 years or so, teaching has moved to the bottom of the totemic hierarchy of professions. It’s a cliché, but teachers actually hold the future in their hands…..and teaching has become such a neglected profession that the future can be nothing but bleak.

    We desperately need the best to come back to teaching.

    Quirky Indian

  2. asmokescreen said

    Yes, QI, we teachers are responsible for the mess our education is in. For all that’s wrong with it. And of course those who do well do so in spite of us. 🙂

    I also think teachers are part of a larger problem: our approach to education is one that stresses explicit teaching rather than implicit learning. Which places the teacher at the epicentre, whereas it would be more useful to make available, facilitate, a wide range of resources for learning so that learners take charge, direct their own learning, at least to some extent.

    Vis-a-vis languages: when learning is restricted to the few hours and few sentences that the teacher provides in class, inadequacy results.

  3. Quirky Indian said

    I really need to learn to articulate myself better.

    Completely with you on the approach to education, and on the fact that when it comes to languages, a few hours a day result in inadequacy.

    But even if all these things were perfect, wouldn’t it finally boil down to the teacher – whether in her role as epicentre, or facilitator/resource-provider?

    SmokeScreen, we need more people like you out there – and, critically, at the primary education level.


    Quirky Indian

  4. asmokescreen said


    Chill. I got your point. And agree completely about the criticality of teachers. It’s just my fond hope that a change in approach might make the teacher less important. And education less teacher-dependent.


  5. AlexM said

    Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

  6. Prasanth said

    A very delayed response I know, but as the Latin saying goes “late but in earnest”

    I am a bit skeptical about the your point in the response to QI’s comment on the need to make education less teacher-dependent. I too believe (don’t we all) that teachers do share a huge responsibility for the current situation. However I do not believe the attempt to reduce the role of teachers is the best option possible. Such attempts are already being made by a lot of Publishing majors who strive to bring out books which are so clear, so pointedly specific about what they say that the role of the teacher becomes immensely limited.
    This, I posit, will only make things worse. For all the limitations of a teacher-centred approach, I believe it is much better to the uniformity the publishing industry would impose. I suspect that the approach of the industry is not what you meant when you put forward the idea(i can actually think of a couple of experiments which have succeeded in putting into effect your idea in a marginal way) but it is inevitable that the idea would be gleefully taken over by the market and its so many allied interests.

    Here is an interesting article on the effect of China’s one child policy and educational expectations on children

  7. asmokescreen said


    That’s a valid point you make about the market imposing its interests. And no, that’s not what I had in mind.

    What I meant in my response to QI was not really about “reducing the teacher’s ROLE” but reducing the exaggerated importance we attach to the teacher herself. (The teacher’s word alone counts for knowledge, for what is “correct”, etc.)

    I do not for one moment advocate that the teacher be sidelined or made to do less – something that both you and QI seem to think I’m suggesting. No, what I’d suggested is more resources in addition to the teacher. That would perhaps make us depend less on the teacher herself.

    And these resources need not be market-produced books alone. The real world, learners’ own interests or experiences, cultural and community knowledge, oral traditions, etc etc. … several other resources. (The CBSE Board for instance has introduced ‘Work Experience Projects’ from Class 6 onward. That kind of thing.)

    Also, the publishing industry is not really separate, different or even opposed to the academic one as you say. Professors from reputed educational institutions are still the preferred choice of all big publishing houses when it comes to authoring academic books. There is a very definite nexus between the academic and the publishing worlds – a nexus that hinges on the importance we place on teachers as arbiters of knowledge. 🙂

  8. Richa said


    I am Richa from SiliconIndia. I am also an avid blogger for a while now and participating actively in Indian blogosphere. I read your blog posting and found them very interesting and informative. We would love to see a copy of your blogs posted here, whenever you are posting it on blogger.com. Here are some of the benefits of posting your blogs here:

    We have a strong community of 500,000 Indian professionals
    Best blogs of 2008 to be published in a book “SiliconIndia bLoG PrinT”
    Best blog to be printed in SliconIndia & SmartTechie magazines each month
    Chance to be featured on homepage everyday

    We appreciate your community initiative here and in helping build a more powerful India! Also, if you have any ideas or want to volunteer to help for SiliconIndia, we would be more than excited to get your help. Pls mail me back at richa@siliconindia.com with your suggestions and feedback.

    Blog Editor – SiliconIndia

  9. asmokescreen said

    @ Richa:

    Thank you for the appreciation.

  10. Nova said

    U r so right…

    I totally agree with the importance of language study!!

    In fact your statement “Colleagues teaching at the IITs, BITS and other national institutes of technology tell me that students from Andhra are very often the pits when it comes to language, communication and other “soft” skills.” is so true!!

    Its quite surprising that at my work place, technically excellent people have abysmal levels of English. I have personally started coaching them on English now… But the standard of education has to improve. More importantly, the medium of instruction in English medium schools and even convents MUST be English!!

  11. asmokescreen said

    @ Nova:


    Medium of instruction – that’s a hoary debate. Unfortunately, those who argue for mother-tongue instruction are more likely than not to send their own children to English-medium schools!

    Good luck with the coaching. We need more Samaritans like you.

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