English, Tamil: The 'modernization' agenda (2 of 3)

A significant problem in using languages such as Tamil as the medium of instruction is the acute paucity of academic reading material. In 1981 the Government of Tamil Nadu established the Tamil University in Thanjavur. One of the important objectives of this University was to produce ‘reliable’ reference works and textbooks in Tamil for such courses as medicine and engineering. But as the University website proudly proclaims only a “half-a-dozen Engineering books and a few medical books have been wirtten in Tamil and published by the Tamil University” since its inception (typo theirs). Neither the government bodies nor the academic institutions have been able to constitute scholarly, peer reviewed journals in Tamil. So translations and original works, especially on science and technology, tend to be non-standardized.

Even these translated volumes, invariably, rely on terminologies that are merely phonetically reproduced with little depth in their concepts vis-à-vis the ‘regional language’ (Tamil in this case). Consequently, the students undergoing instruction in the regional languages at the university level have to rely on textbooks of dubious quality. Besides the technical problems of translation, translations on a large scale can neither keep pace with the growth of knowledge nor are they financially viable.

The Report of the Education Commission (1964-66) discusses the MOI issue in great detail. It is well worth our time to go over a few parts of the report to appreciate how poorly the government(s) and the educational institutions have fallen behind from their recommendations:
11.58 The Medium of Education. The problem of teaching and evaluation in higher education is inextricably linked with the medium of education and examination. It was pointed out earlier *136 that, as a part of the development of education in our country, we have to move energetically in the direction of adopting the regional languages as media of education at the university stage, that careful preparation should be made for the purpose, that both the manner and the time of transition would have to be left for decision to the university system. We shall now deal with some other aspects of the problem from the point of view of practical implementation:

(1) We would like to emphasize that the medium of classroom communication and examination should generally be the same. The present arrangement under which a large proportion of students, at the first degree stage and even later, use the regional language for purposes of examinations although the classroom instruction is given through the medium of English, is educationally unsatisfactory. If the student can be expected to express himself in the regional language in his examination, it should not normally be difficult for a teacher to do the same in the classroom. In fact, the student's understanding of the fundamental problems and issues would be better and his performance in the examination would improve if, in all cases where the universities have taken a decision to adopt the regional languages as media of examinations, they also decide to adopt them as normal media of classroom communication. However, it must be remembered that the hold of English as a medium in the universities is linked with the use of the regional languages as the languages of administration in the States. So long as the prize posts in administration go to students who have good command over English, it will not be surprising if a substantial proportion of students continue to prefer education given through it.

(2) While the goal is to adopt the regional languages as media of education, we should like to stress again that this does not involve elimination of English. In fact, English, as an important 'library language' would play a vital role in higher education. No student should be considered as qualified for a degree, in particular, a Master's degree, unless he has acquired a reasonable proficiency in English (or in some other library language). The implications of this are twofold: all teachers in higher education should be essentially bilingual in the sense that they would be able to teach in the regional language and in English, and all students (and, particularly postgraduate students) should be able to follow lectures and use reading materials in the regional language, as well as in English.

(3) Great care has to be taken to ensure that the progress of the student entering the university is hampered as little as possible by complexities relating to the media of education. In a student's life, the change from school to college is a crucial stage. On entering college, he finds that there is a greater demand on his powers of understanding and concentration than at school. When to this is added the difficulty inherent in a sudden change in the medium of education, it is not to be wondered at that many students feel bewildered and lost and lose zest in their studies. At the earlier stage of the undergraduate course, it will be an advantage if the bulk of the classwork is done through the regional language. As one goes higher up the educational ladder and as the student's command over English and his familiarity with its use as a medium of education increases, more and more of the class-work could be in English. At the postgraduate stage, at least for some time to come, the bulk of the class-work will have to be in English. (Emphasis mine.) page quoted from
It has been over 40 years since the report was published and the governments, state and central, have clearly failed to create a system in which non-English languages could retain their significance in higher education. This failure is pronounced in states like Tamil Nadu because one would expect to see a considerable amount of development of a language that underpins the mainstream political discourse in the state. But on the contrary, Tamil Nadu was one of the first states to virtually erase Tamil from the 'professional' courses. Even though the disproportionate rise of 'self-financing' colleges may appear to be the reason, it should be noted that government run engineering and medical colleges don't fare any better. Either way, it's squarely the governments' failing -- to adequately regulate private institutions and to develop the language proactively.

The status quo, given all the ironies and disconnects, is rather complex and one has to wonder if the current state of affairs is simply a result of historical trajectories, poor governance and post-colonial apathy. A closer look at mainstream, electoral politics may help us understand the case better.

(continued in next post)


murthy said...

thank you so much for this really enlightening post. i can't believe that the education comission had made these recommendations so many years ago and nothing has been done about it.

you are absolutely right about engineering and medical colleges. it is ridiculous for someone to learn something in english after going to a tamil medium school all their life. i think it's an open and shut case. don't know why many still talk about tamil medium education and all.

Prabhu S said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Prabhu S said...

I completely agree. However I have come across few folks at my work who were educated in Tamil medium and at the same time are brilliant/exceptional in their technical grasp of things.

Anonymous said...

Suresh, podcast eppo pannuve?

Anonymous said...


As an entity within India, none of the regional languages can be a choice, except for hindi.

Personally, I have always thought that political driving influenced the exterior notion of Anti-Hindi sentiments in Tamilnadu at that time. What to say, MK is a wonderful politician. Otherwise, the same intensity, if not more, can be seen outside of Tamilnadu, if the public sentiment is aroused. Knowing Telugu and Malayalam, I have seen the worst being said by natives of both languages. One only has to look into community forums to see this...

Unfortunately, South India's own inferiority complex with its identity and history, and Central Operations motives, have never helped the valid points made by people like Annadurai.

Granted, in today's globalized world, English is the optimal medium of instruction. But at this point, the matter lies more in resource scarcity for teaching in any other language, than it actually being a handicap to the learner. There is nothing wrong with regional language mediums, otherwise.

How many Russians, Chinese, Germans or Indians have come English speaking nations with minimal language knowledge in their late teens and early 20s, and become successful as doctors and engineers?

Not that I totally disagree with you. I myself am partial to English, both the language and the people. But arguing against regional language education based entirely on the concept of globalization doesn't make sense to me. Those that nod their heads on this argument, will likely vehemently raise objections if we were to suggest changes to their social norms based on globalization:-)


Anonymous said...


We met at the Tamil Studies conference this year. Add me on Facebook (search: Amarnath Amarasingam) when you get this, or email me at amar2556@wlu.ca

I want to run some ideas by you.


Anonymous said...


I think this is a very useful and well written critique, please finish it. thanks.

Post a Comment

©2009 english-tamil