The Passport called English Medium!!!

Hindi Medium for the uninitiated is a Hindi film that hit the screens last week sans the trappings of the typical Bollywood fare but which holds a mirror to the society with a strong social message. Without any of the leading “Star Khans” but with just Irfan Khan as the lead star, I am not sure how far the film will reach eventually. After 3 Idiots if there was one Hindi film which leaves you thinking as you left the cinema hall about your kid’s education this must be it. In the film, the lead couple go to unimaginable lengths just to secure admission in one of the Top English medium schools in the city.  Because in the lines of the mother, “If the child goes to a Govt. school, she can’t learn anything. If anybody talks to her in English, she will not be able to fit in the society. Hence she will be lonely and will get depressed.”  The extremes the couple stretch themselves to secure that admission in a top English medium school like even trying to transform themselves to poor people to take advantage of BPL quota as per RTE act may sound preposterous.  But the message – that “English medium” is a mandatory passport for one’s flight to success in life is not lost on anyone.

Not just this one, but there were other films like Chetan Bhagat’s novel turned film – One Half Girlfriend and Sridevi’s super hit – English Vinglish dwelling on the theme of the need to master English to get recognized/get ahead in life. Ironically this is not some typical Bollywood fantasy but stark reality of India being mirrored in films.  At workplaces today, one’s command over spoken English is considered essential to rise up the corporate elevator whether you like it or not. There are very few careers I can think of today where one can still succeed without mastering the English language. Probably politics (where being oblivious to the English language can become your calling card) or some creative fields could be those. Otherwise even in medical field the reality is, you feel comfortable of a surgeon’s ability if he is able to explain the diagnosis and treatment course of your patient in eloquent English!!! Narayana Murthy of Infosys once controversially observed in the context of IITs that with Indian politicians “rooting against English”, the task of getting good English speaking students at IITs gets more difficult and that affected their quality .  He was being practical and honest. In urban India the caste system based on Manuvaad is gradually on the wane. But in its place there is a new caste system based on “Medium of Instruction” – English medium being forward caste and any other being backward!!!

However this is not the case in many other successful countries. In Germany you don’t need to master English to head an organization. In Japan, though knowledge of English is an asset particularly in an Export driven economy like theirs, lack of flair in English has never been a liability.  Same is the case with China.  It’s another matter that they probably now realise that if they had imbibed the English language they could have ruled the global commerce not just in Mfg. but even in services!

But then India is not a homogenous state with one culture, one lingo like Japan or Germany. We are “United States of India” where our culture, language, food habits,…,.. keep changing every 500 kms. We sort of got stuck in the middle where we couldn’t have Hindi or for that matter any other Indian language as a universal Pan Indian language due to our cultural diversity. At the same time English being a language imported due to the colonial rule couldn’t achieve the universal reach across the board. Result – we have a language divide. If we have to get out of this situation, it’s too late or virtually impossible to go back to a Japan or Germany universal Indian language model.  So it looks like adopting English language universally in India is only the practical option left with us to go forward from here.

“Universally” is the key. It was the very articulate Shashi Tharoor who once said, “Denial of opportunity to learn English to our children would be tantamount to destroying their future” and I agree. It’s unanimously accepted that India’s command over English has been one of the key attributes to our success in Software business worldwide. So why not we build on our strengths and leverage the same? That is certainly not by keeping English a privilege of few and sowing the seeds for another conflict. Instead a way forward could be to make ‘All” schools in India – English medium schools and phase in English as the universal medium of instruction from a particular year in the very near future. This is not to shortchange our own native languages which still needs to be taught in the same schools but need not be the “Medium of instruction”. We could expect politics to play and outrage factories running on full capacities over this move.  But then have we seen wards of politicians who get educated from Non English medium schools?  By the way in our neighbouring Pakistan in 2013, I heard that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province took a call to switch over from Urdu to English medium gradually in a period of four to five years!!! This could be a significant reform in the field of education that would ensure English not just being a passport to economic, social and educational advancement universally but a ‘Visa on Arrival” for growth, the likes of Donald Trump notwithstanding!!

This reform may not be “the” only cure for all the ills in our education system but would be a good place to start.

Postscript: While on this, just after the ascent of Mr. Chandrasekharan as the Tata supremo, a picture of him and his 2 brothers has been doing the WhatsApp rounds. It talks of the fact that the 3 brothers are actually are from Tamil medium schools from a village in Tamil Nadu and that today they were head honchos. The message being, one doesn’t need to be necessarily from English medium schools to get to the top. Well, not sure even if Natarajan Chandrasekharan will accept that premise today and forward that to his WhatsApp groups!!!

0 thoughts on “The Passport called English Medium!!!”

  1. Arunmozhi Balasubramanian

    Anand – You are wrong …The true understanding of a subject is really good when done in the native medium. I studied in Tamil Medium school till +2 and that never stopped me in getting ahead. because I also had good English language teachers who taught good fundamentals of English as a language. My father is a linguist and he was very sure of this based on his research of the languages and how brain works around languages. So if you want to encourage creativity and natural understanding it is better to do the education in the native language.

    In the education field, often Nordic countries are quoted as the best education system. Here again they do better than many countries – they do their fundamental education in their native language but do have a great English teaching track record.

    1. Hi Arun, Thanks for reading and leaving your views. What I have proposed as a way forward is a bitter pill, pill nevertheless. You may be right on your personal experience. However for the current and next generations, reality is different. If you lived in India, I am not sure if you will apply the same logic and put your daughter in a Tamil medium school today. Thats the reality. So better to do away with this “Class divide”. Having said that this is just not the only panacea to improve our education but could be a good place to start.

      1. Arunmozhi Balasubramanian

        See the problem you are talking about is the quality of schools not the medium of education. For example if a PSBB or SBOA offered to educate in Tamil medium, I would not mind putting my children in that. in Chidambaram, where I grew up, the public schools were very good and every one used to put their children – even the well to do middle class. But I hear even in Chidambaram things have changed where most of the kids go to a mushrooming amount of private schools – I think this trend is not good.

        1. Hi Arun, In India today, even among BPL category people, if given a choice they will opt only for English medium. Because they see that as a platform for mobility. After 12th anyway, unlike other countries here, the medium of instruction is English for any course. So till 12th, having diff. Mediums is only creating a class divide. In my opinion this could be a 1st reform in education. Addressing the quality of schools, education (primary, secondary, higher education) is another problem.

  2. Anand agree with u. In Chennai many schools send their teachers to British council to get trained in the language understanding the importance of mastering it.


    i agree with Anand and Mr Arun both , We need to know English as a medium of communication , but could not deny that some things are better taught when do it through native language. So no extremity. The problem is that these days when we study though English medium, we brag for not knowing the native language . This might be corrected.

  4. WoW! So Well articulated
    Always a great pleasure reading through your blogs
    Thought provoking! I went to Parle College (Now Sathaye College), where there was a quota for Tilak Vidyalaya Boys (Marathi Medium). They obviously were weak in English, but as Science students they were sharp in Maths and Science, and achieved great success in their academic careers as Engineers, Doctors and so on. If you have the determination, you can succeed anyhow. Language is a Limitation you wish to draw upon yourself.
    Marwaris are best examples of how they adapt to local cultures as businessmen speaking the native language.
    South Indians (especially Tamilians) who have moved across may have a typical accent in Hindi, but sure enough have adapted the language too in the areas they live.

    1. Thanks for that perspective Sudharshan. Our generation or the previous could manage. For current and next gen – I do feel that the medium of Instruction is becoming a class divide which one can do away with. In our time that divide was not stark and we were open to people from all mediums provided other things matched. Today I don’t think it is like that. A random survey of BPL families (small sample) told me that none, none will put their kids in local medium if they had a choice and they all wanted their kids to be in English medium.

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