Sunday, April 3, 2011

English and me

I think it was in one of the episodes of Dadagiri hosted by Sourav Ganguly which I happened to watch. A well known Bengali film actress was an invitee in this episode. She was giving forthright answers to the questions she was being asked and when asked if she had any regrets in life she said yes ; one of her regrets was not studying in an English medium school.
Her answer struck a chord in me. She did not explain or elaborate, but I felt I understood what she meant. From whatever I knew of her from the newspapers I knew she was a smart and educated person. Someone who lived in Mumbai for long periods in different spells, has attended numerous International Film festivals and must have had interactions with people in English over the years and from the few expressions of English that she used in the episode while talking, I could see that she knew English well. Then why this regret ?
We are a country with many regional languages. Though Hindi has been and continues to be promoted as an official language, English retains its importance as a link language, a language you need to know to pursue higher education and to have better job opportunities and greater career options. More importantly, in the common perception all over the country, anyone who knows English well is considered an educated person and in fact some amount of 'superiority' is attributed to a him if he speaks and writes in English with some amount of fluency - this may be a legacy of 200 hundred years of British rule which we have not been able to shed off yet.
As a result, someone with just a smattering of English learnt through indifferent schooling may find it hard to move up - in careers or in social circles. He may have to do a lot of hard work to brush up his English to be able to belong, and till then suffer from a feeling of inadequacy for no fault of his.It could be a he or she, but the position remains the same and a regret is quite possible.
I faced some problems myself. English literature was one of the subjects we had in our Intermediate Science years in the college. I used to feel quite uncomfortable in the class of one our English professors who taught us English poetry. I did not have much of a problem in following his lectures even though they were at times in quite a flowery language and had too much T.S.Eliot thrown in for a first year student to comprehend, but he had this habit of asking one of the students to stand up and narrate in his own language some points he had been explaining. Being unable to speak in English, I used to be afraid of being called up. More so because, branded as a good student, I dreaded being exposed as one who could not express himself in that language. Instead of facing up to this challenge- after all a bit of broken English would not have mattered that much and in any case, most of the other students were facing a similar situation   - I chose an easier route, a psychologically weaker one I must admit, I started skipping his classes.
The problem lay in the way we were taught English at our Bengali medium schools. We learnt the letters of the English alphabet more or less at the same time we learnt those of our own language and English was a major subject we were taught in school. In our time in the fifties out of eight papers in the School Final, two and a half were of English. But no classes were there even at the senior level on spoken English nor were there classes to teach you how to write in the language on your own. Some schools or some teachers might have been exceptions, but what I am saying was generally true. There was some emphasis on grammar, rightly so, but otherwise we had to answer question from texts, prose or poetry, which the teachers more or less explained in a class. We prepared the the answers either from some notes given by the teacher in school, or from a private tutor (for those who could afford) or from the numerous books- the so called 'notebooks' - that were available in the market with suggested questions and answers. So, it finally came down to memorising some of these answers and hoping for the best in the final exams.
The situation may not have changed much over the years. In fact with 'objective' questions where you have to choose from multiple answers and less emphasis on composition, the situation could have only got worse. When the Left Front came into power in 1977, it banned teaching of English in primary schools and the primary sections of the Govt. or Govt. aided schools. There was a lot of uproar about this at that time and a section of the intelligentsia came out strongly against this policy. I thought at that time that the debate missed the main point. It is not when you start teaching a student a language, but how you you teach him is more important.
My own experience is quite illustrative in this regard. When we were in class VII, we were for the first time required to answer questions from English texts in English only. Our English teacher would come to the class, write out a question from a prose or poetry piece on the blackboard and then its answer from a notebook he kept for the purpose. We used to copy whatever he wrote and memorise the same. That is how we were being taught the language. I wish he had acted differently and taught us in those preparatory years to write on simple and familiar topics, including those in the textbook  and tried to develop our speaking and writing skills, but I realise now that he was just a product of  a system, an exam oriented mindset and a syllabus that did not leave him any time or inclination or for that matter much of a scope to do so.


  1. Your post made me think of another aspect which is a bit amplified in our family(mukherjee para to be precise :), that of being too self critical ,be always thinking of what the other person will think of my actions and also critise others when possible.I think one of the problems I face in many cases is what will other people think and the reason is because I think too much when I observe someone doing something, I am too critical of others. For example in my field I have seen many successful employees use bad grammer while speaking. Although I had been laughing about him in my mind , it really didnot matter to him as long as he could convey his thoughts. Neither did it matter in his career path and I can bet that soon he would have fixed his problem of speaking properly. What is more worse is the feeling about what people will think which deters us doing things taking chances, risks etc. For example in your case you dropped off the classes, however if you had continued it would have benefitted you rather than harming you. I agree that the teaching mechanisms are faulted however there are other problems we have within ourselves which we need to rectify. I also have the same problem so I am not blaming you. I guess we need to be less critical of ourselves and others.I find this aspect a bit amplified in our family and I am worried I will pass it on to my daughter unknowingly. I feel being critical forces oneself to be perfect and forces others to be perfect, but pushing oneself and others in the pursuit of perfection is a useless endeavour especially when it creates rifts and tension and most of all in cases where we really dont need perfection.

  2. Dwiju

    You have highlighted an issue which West Bengal Govt will have to tackle if the Bengalis will have any chance of competing against other Indians, let alone Americans and the British.Emphasis in learning spoken English is more in other parts of India than in Kolkata, I think.

    I have met many Indians over the years coming over to the UK from the various parts of India and I have found by and large Bengalis are less proficient in spoken English compared to those from other states. It does not mean that Bengalis are less clever it often indicates their upbringing and the way they have been taught English, both spoken as well as written. I have found generally Bengalis to be shy and do not do as well in jobs and in other fields. Against that, prople from Bombay, Delhi and Gujrat do a great deat deal better.

    Whether one likes it or not the reality is that if you cannot speak a language properly you are at a disadvantage compared to a native speaker. Also speaking English like an Englishman is an important criteria for success both in India , unfortunately, and in the UK. This is a legacy the British has left behind in India and the Bengalis have been slow to join the bandwagon. Since coming to the UK I have made it a point to speak in English with other Indians(not Bengalis). I feel we are at least on the same boat, although I can get by in broken Hindi.

    My experience was similar to yours and probably worse. I didnot skip the class but I kept quiet.

    On call centres there is a constant criticisms in the UK that businesses are going to India and the local people donot understand the Indian accent. I understand that in the field of call centres in India candidates are taught how to speak English the way Americans and the British speak. To me that makes business sense and you can ignore the fact that it is the Americans who are controlling the purse and that will remain for some time.

    As for me I started speaking in English after I arrived in the UK; in fact a few days after my arrival. My first arrival was in Heathrow airport where I had to wait for 10 hours to catch my flight to Edinburgh.Mind you there were not many Indians working in Heathrow at that time unlike today . I did not know how to ask for sandwitches and I had to remain hungry. I could not mobilise the strength to speak in English as I had not done it before. It begs the question why did I come to the UK, that is another matter,

    I believe if you are to learn English properly, particularly spoken English, you will have to learn from someone whose mother tongue is preferrably English.In England if they teach Hindi in a class they employ a Hindi speaking Indian. Don't think all English people speak speak good English either.Here a lot of parents send their children to elocution leassons to learn good spoken English. I hope more and more affluent Bengalis should do likewise.


  3. Dadamoni, If half of what I read in the papers is true, it will be difficult for any Govt. to stem the rot that has set in in our education system in Govt. or Govt.aided schools.That's why there is such a rush for English medium private schools even though they are quite expensive.The concept of sending children to the neighbourhood schools which was the case in our time, is practically gone except for those who have no option.
    I can appreciate the problem you faced on landing at Heathrow some 35-36 years back, but you were breaking not only the language barrier but other mental barriers which a middle class upbringing must have created. You are right about this 'upbringing' and not only the lack of proficiency in spoken english which adds to it in our social setting, that makes most Bengalis timid and diffident, since they are never encouraged independence in thought and action in their growing years whether at school or in the protective but critical custody of their parents.

  4. Dwiju
    Just to correct you- over 45 years in the UK not 35 or 36 years.

    On a more serious note, having been in two continents I have realised what the shortcomings of our educational upbringing were. Our system, in general, only produces morons, it teaches us to read but not to learn.

    If I am to bring up children I will concentrate on four important things, which are not in any priority order:

    To learn

    - to listen
    - to think independently.
    -to speak clearly and independently
    -to write clearly and independently

    I found that I learned none of the above and it is not easy, even impossible, to learn at a late stage.

    We talk but donot listen and donot know when to stop. This is symptomatic of the many Indians I have met over the years.

    In schools and colleges I remember writing essays only during the exams. I can't remember ever having to speak to a group in India except reciting when I was few years old. Perhaps you were different.

    Despite the above how did I survive in an alien environment? It was not easy.


  5. Anindya, I agree that we have problems within which need to be addressed.Being social animals,we need to take into consideration what people will say,but if that becomes the major factor in decision making or action,there is undoubtedly a problem.Yes,I have had such problems and I am aware this may be due to low self-esteem or lack of self confidence which is surprising in my case because I didn't have any lack of early successes in life but maybe it is a genetic code or a childhood implant reinforced by some early adverse experiences which had greater impact than the successes,which contributed to it.If you have this, you exorcise it through conscious effort.
    Being self critical is not bad per se.It may lead to self improvement if one is ready to admit mistakes.Striving for excellence is not bad either, but going for perfectionism,even in small matters, and expecting others or pushing others to do so, is surely a problem which as you say, can only lead to tension and strife.May be we should try to develop a more flexible approach to life which admits of failures and mistakes not only of ourselves but of others too.
    As regards children, I think we should be less of a controller and more of a facilitator to allow their own potential to flourish and grow.I am increasingly coming to the belief that sports is a good educator.In individual sports, you compete not only with an opponent but also yourself for improvement and in team sports, you learn to adapt with others.And in both, you learn to cope with successes and failures, more importantly with failures.

  6. Dadamoni,Sorry for the mistake.My arithmetic is getting jumbled up.I agree with you,that is what I meant also when I wrote about independent thinking and writing.
    My public speaking, speaking from a dais, came at a late stage and that was a struggle.Eventually, I did give a talk in England too.