Monday, November 01, 2004


Times of India, Oct 31, 2004

An attractive lady from Shanghai showed up in Delhi last week in a Chinese delegation and told us proudly about her government’s mission to teach English to every Chinese by 2008. She was confident they would succeed, just as they would win the most medals at the next Olympics. I tried not to feel envious or fearful. Although, I didn’t think learning English would be so easy, I couldn’t help but admire the ambition. I consoled myself with a hope that in India the market might succeed in teaching us English where our government had failed

One of the cheerful things happening around us is the quiet democratising of English. It has, of course, been our ‘power language’ for 200 years, but it was always the pursuit of the classes. Even after Independence, mothers yearned to teach English to their children, thinking it a ticket to the middle class. But its spread remained limited, as the middle class was tiny--as late as 1980, it was only 8 percent of the population. Now, of course, the middle class is around 25 percent and it’s growing rapidly. By 2020, in more than half our states the middle class is expected to reach 50 percent of the population. Moreover, with call centre jobs at the end of the tunnel, Indians of all types are rushing to learn English.

Unlike my generation, today’s young are more relaxed about English and think it a skill, like learning Windows. No longer does it fly the British or American flags except in the minds of the Left or the RSS. Bollywood, television, advertising, cricket—indeed, all our mass culture is conspiring to take English to the masses. Hinglish has become the language of our bazaar. Gone, too, is the ranting against English by swadeshi intellectuals and politicians. Although English is now an Indian language, the ‘English teacher’ is the main impediment to its spread. Which reminds one of RK Narayan’s charming novel of the same name. This sad, Chekhovian tale of gentle humour about the ‘sweet and bitter fruits of life’ is still a worthy read.

Today’s English teacher earns big sums giving coaching classes, even in small towns, for there is a link to jobs. Generally, when there are profits to be made, the market responds by increasing supply, but this is not happening fast enough. Hence, call centres report that 97 out of 100 candidates get rejected--which is truly heart breaking! I am surprised that cable channels haven’t discovered this entrepreneurial opportunity because the BBC made good money teaching English to the Chinese on television, topping up with revenues from books and CD Roms. In India, NIIT is struggling to teach English in the bazaar with the aid of technology through its famed franchisee model. Rajendra Pawar, its CEO, says that teaching English is proving more difficult than teaching programming for a language is embedded in culture and needs constant use. This is why Japanese kids still can’t speak English after 150 years of trying ever since the Meiji Reforms.

In India, the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages in Hyderabad is the institution officially charged with spreading English. I spent half a day there recently, and found that it had not had a Vice-Chancellor for two years. Under these circumstances, I cannot think of a better use for the two percent Education Cess that we are all paying than to pass it on to private schools to create English teachers, especially to teach Dalits, and nip at the same time the insane demand for extending reservations to the private sector.


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