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)

English, Tamil: Linguistic Capital (1 of 3)

The notion of ‘linguistic capital’ is related to Bourdieu’s view of ‘cultural capital.’ In terms of education and schooling, the cultural capital thesis argues that some students possess the social class, family, cultural background and dispositions that enable them to utilize the school environment and its facilities more efficiently than those who do not. They are better acclimatized to the curricula and other benefits that branch from it. Those who are disadvantaged in this regard, on the other hand, tend to have a weaker grasp of the same knowledge as it is culturally alien to them, thereby affecting their learning and, in turn, their growth prospects. Thus social stratification and patterns of domination and subordination are reproduced, despite the school system’s apparent intention to provide equal opportunity to all.

The same holds true for linguistic capital: it can be defined as one’s fluency, expertise and comfort with a language which is used by groups that possess economic, social, cultural and political power and status in local and global society. The linguistic capital thesis, then, states that students who possess, or develop linguistic capital, thereby have access to better life chances. Schools that teach (in) a language associated with a higher socio-economic status, in effect, provide better opportunities for those who can take up that language. Even if it is offered democratically, there exist a number of barriers that promote selective inclusion. Schools, through their medium of instruction (MOI), are implicated in the production and reproduction of certain advantages in the society; linguistic capital is both the medium and outcome of the pursuit of enhanced life chances.

It is important, however, that we understand the dynamic nature of linguistic capital. It is something that can be acquired even by those who do not have ancestral precedents. So it is not impossible for a Tamil boy with Tamil speaking parents to acquire linguistic capital that is grounded in English or Hindi. It will be inaccurate to suggest otherwise, given how so many of us who went to English medium schools never once conversed in English with our parents.

English, in contemporary India, is essential for white-collar employment and is a key component of the ‘cultural capital’ of middle class Indians. As a significant cultural resource, English language proficiency is an imperative goal for the poor and middle class people to achieve social mobility beyond a point. Many of the jobs available in government and government-aided service sector stipulate knowledge of English as essential. The private sector, even before the economic liberalization since 1991, adopted a similar approach keeping in mind India’s multilingual markets. The outsourcing era has further substantiated proficiency of English as a necessary skill set in the urban employment sector. And the jobs that do not require the knowledge of English, both in organized and unorganized sectors are significantly low paying.

The language divide between those proficient in English and those who are not is also a mirror image of broader class and spatial divisions in India. Simply put, the elite and urban professional classes are well acquainted with English; the urban and rural poor, the farmers, and the local traders and merchants are not. In India, the ability to speak in English is not simply about jobs or economic growth, it's a significant marker of social status. As with many indicators of social mobility in India -- such as property ownership, annual income, employment rate etc. -- the upper castes also tend to be most proficient in English too; as they attend private, English medium schools the most. So a lower caste parent has multiple reasons to want his/her children to be educated in English. As many Dalit scholars have argued, it is a real means of empowerment.

This is a relatively unique situation in India in comparison to countries like France, Germany, or Japan. Although it needs to be mentioned that such 'admiration' for English is common in several other countries, especially in Southeast Asia. It is disingenuous to suggest that there’s a possible parallel between aforementioned countries and India. India is also different in its market structure and the technical modernization (or the lack thereof) that the ‘regional languages’ have gone through.

(continued in next post)

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