English for Progress Conference Speech


Hi All,

Thanks for your lovely comments from the last post. Read them all, and showed them to the Punjabi uncle too.

Last week, I made a speech at a British Council conference in Delhi, which was attended by several senior policymakers in the area of Indian education. English, and its role in progress, is an issue close to me. The speech I gave there is given below.

—–
British Council English Language Policy Dialogue
Speech by Chetan Bhagat
19 November 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me today and giving me a chance to be part of the English Language Policy Dialogue Summit. The spread of English in India is an issue close to me – not only because I write in English, but I know the ability of this language to empower millions of young Indians and giving them access to opportunities in the globalized world.

The desire for English in the country is underestimated. English is not a trend, fad or an upmarket pursuit. English helps me face an interview, read the best academic books available and access the world offered by the Internet. Without English, progress for a middle class youth is heavily stunted. However, the state of English education and the attitude towards it leaves much to be desired.

Let me talk about the state first. There is a tiny minority of English speakers who are extraordinarily fluent in the language, probably more than most Britons. That tiny minority is also millions of people in a country as large as India, and is what will be visible to this group most of the time. These people had parents who spoke English, had access to good English medium schools – typically in big cities, and gained early proficiency, which enabled them to consume English products such as newspapers, books and films, thus increasing command over the language even further. I would say English is so instinctive to them that even some of their thought patterns are in English. These people, the E1s if I may call them, are much in demand. Irrespective of their graduation specialization, they can get a frontline job across various industries – hospitality, airlines, media, banking and marketing companies.

However, apart from the E1s, there are a large number of E2s, probably ten times the E1s, who are technically familiar with the language and even understand it. However, their skill in English communication is not at a professional level. If they sit in an interview conducted by E1s, they will come across as incompetent, even though they may be equally intelligent, creative or hardworking. They cannot comfortably read English newspapers, thus denied of a chance to keep upgrading their command of the language. English films and TV are not enjoyed by them and hence not consumed by them. English books are a non-starter. They know English but they have not been taught in a manner or are not in an environment that facilitates this virtuous cycle of continuous improvement through consumption of English products. Thus, while the difference in English level of an E1 and E2 may not be too different at age 10, by age 20 it is so stark that an E1 can get many jobs while an E2 won’t even be shortlisted. For lack of proper teaching, an entire world is closed to the E2s. After E2s, there are people who don’t have access to English at all. These people need to begin with basic learning. However, today I want you to focus on the E2s, as they are truly an amazing number of youth across the country that just need that extra push to take them to the next level and open opportunities for them.

Is this just a theory? Unfortunately no. I have given over fifty talks in the last eighteen months, at various colleges across the country. Many of these colleges are in smaller towns, places like Hisar, Raipur, Dehradun and Indore, to name a few recent ones. I’ve sat with the management of many of these colleges. I distinctly remember, an MBA college in Indore, which actually even has classes involving reading The Economist. The principal, an IIT graduate told me – “Chetan, my biggest concern, is that my students don’t know how to speak proper English. Sometimes I wonder, should I teach them Finance and Accounts, or should we just take basic English grammar classes. For come interview time, no matter how well they can analyze a company, they will not be comfortable putting a sentence together. What were their schools doing? And why should a postgraduate MBA college be doing this?”
That said, he hired ten teachers for his two hundred students for the sole job of teaching proper, MNC interview-ready English. My own books are simply written. One of the big uses of my books in small town India is that of using it as a tool to learn English. I was invited to a talk in Bastar, a backward area ten hours drive from the nearest airport of Raipur. I asked them who reads Chetan Bhagat in Bastar? They said tribal kids, they use your books to learn English. It shows you the hunger. For my recent book, we did a round of simplification editing, so that the book is more accessible to Indians. Of course, critics in India hate me for it. But that’s what critics do anyway, and if I am getting a chance to aid transforming a young person’s life, I am not going to pass up on that.

There is plenty of opportunity for BC here as well. There are sixty MBA colleges in Indore alone. There are a hundred and seventy five in the Delhi and NCR. A British Council program, to lift the E2s to E1s, not just teaching the ABCs will go a long way and the private MBA colleges will sign up for it in a heartbeat.

I talked about the state of English. I also talk about the second hindrance – the attitude to English. There are two kinds of attitudes again – there is of course some snobbery, something that comes with all things English. A section of people believe that English should be a high-class affair. Elitism and English are linked, and that has to be broken. I’ve tried to do that through my books, but have had to face a lot of heat because of it. You will too, especially if you do non-trendy activities like going out of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Programs will be harder to organize, and media coverage more difficult to get. However, that is where the action is. I don’t want to see British Council in the big cities. My wish is for British Council to percolate down to Tier II cities and towns, so that you can really make transformation happen. I know you are making change happen, and where ever you have touched local people, there has been a difference. Just do more of it. This is not Europe, where the British Council’s job is to spread English culture. No, you are not just spreading culture, you are transforming lives and changing them forever. And that’s way bigger than sponsoring Shakespeare’s plays. Push for grants, and people at the top, grant them.

The second attitude that causes difficulties is when English is seen as a threat to Hindi, or other local languages. I don’t think it is a threat at all. But that has to be communicated with sensitivity, and quite frankly going a little bit beyond the call of duty. Hindi and the local languages are neglected very badly in the country in terms of institutional support. There is no British Council equivalent to support them. When you go to a new place, you have to show you care for the people first, and care about English later. I am an English writer. However, the first newspaper column I started doing was in the biggest Hindi newspaper, and now I do it in an English newspaper as well. I was advised against it, as my image could take a beating. However, to reach my people and change their lives was far more important than my illusory image. The Hindi column started, it had a terrific response and the English newspapers automatically followed, and now I have a column with the Times of India as well. No harm to image. Similarly, British Council can help Hindi too. Who says you cannot? If you support Hindi, you will get a buy in from the cultural community in your cities. Don’t do debate competitions in English only, do them in Hindi as well. I’d say go as far as to have a Hindi cell. You know you are going to be in India, and to make a real difference, you need to be in touch with the Hindi speakers as well.

That’s all I have for now. I may have given too many suggestions, but I wanted to be specific and actionable in what I talk to you about. This is only because I really respect your organization, and if I may say it, treat it as my own. You guys are passionate, and get things done. And maybe that is why I feel you guys have it in you to make English reach across the country, and do what only this language can do in the world – make a difference.

—–

Aftereffect: Post the speech, several policymakers came up to me on their own. This included people from the NCERT, SCERTs and Education Department staff from Indian universities. They’ve invited me to come and give ideas on how our current teaching methods can be modified and updated to reflect modern times. I told them I will only come if people are open-minded and will be committed to change. Most agreed, and in the coming months, I will be sitting down with them to see what can be done. It will still be challenging given the rigid Indian system, but a start has to be made somewhere.

Love and Regards,
Chetan

PS: As always, your feedback is most welcome. Do let me know your thoughts. Will pass on any good suggestions to policymakers as well.


72 Comments

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  1. Hi Chetan,
    Read ur books perhaps except for the 3 mistakes…
    Tremendous Zeal and enthusiasm I find in your words…
    You can make trivialty to sound sense and a sense for a reason…
    But sorry to say Chetan I am not here to praise you for your books and ur creativity, thats perhaps either God Gifted OR developed with Time…
    But on the speech you delivered at the British Council….

    I am surprised to see a person like you and those who have commented on ur blog….praisy fellows…
    Hmmmm… A candid question seeeking a prudent reply…Do you really think that English is important for Indians to rise???

    Well whatever you say I dont think so…If you think so your thinking might be wrong…

    I remember those days when I was attending a seminar in One of the Best and top seeded Multinational Corp…The faculty was a Japanese the only language, her tongue was comfortable with was her Mother Tongue…

    When I asked her what is the reason for the world class status of your country , she said in tooti footi English, we are japanese who know japanese well and dont want other we teach japanese to you if you wanna trade with us…

    Indians know all but they dont respect there own National Language…
    If you wanna communicate with me you need not to go for japanese, teach me Hindi not English and I will respect you..

    I hope you got the message…

    The Lnaguage is not the parameter for Success dear…
    Its you and me who can change this thinking rather being a part of the crowd…and singing the chorus of English…

    After all I am Professionally and Personaly an Indian…

    Your message doesnt sound soothing to my Ear Drums…

    Do you have the determination to change this thinking about English, Perhaps I have and I know you also have…

    But perhaps we are bit too much protective and defensive…

    Live the Life of Japanese for One day and Indians will get to know where they lack…

    When I was in school and my college I used to think, why the teachers teach and why we we all study the crap formulae…
    The best teacher is he/she who inculcates the interest in his/her student to for anything, and I am very sure that impulse is what is needed to drive this gate trigger…

    Yeah, for the authors and the teachers ; Books and lectures and the thoughts are just for self motivation in a way that they get Global Recognition and place in the heart of the readers…Nothing Much….

    What you say??? Is English Important???

    • kuldip says:

      ambarish,

      Problem is from parents side and some people who believe that English speaking people are talented. problem is in our education system. most of the cbse schools is English medium. These type of schools pressurise their students to speak only and only in English (not regional language or hindi). but, actually schools should be streak in education not an english speaking.

  2. GMS says:

    Hi Chetan,

    I picked up ‘ 2 states’ yesterday, being a working mother to a 1 yr old i hardly have any time these days but will surely read up and let u know my comments. Actually am on of these who can’t pick a book which is more than 1″ wide :-) and the font also should not be too small! anyway, I too have had a very interesting life so far, being the youngest of 4 sisters, born into an Army family…have this dream of someday penning down the excerpts of my life with a bit of fiction(or rather calling the scandalizing moments as fiction even if they are not ;-)…you are really and inspiration…Keep writing!!! Chow,

  3. Hey there, Mr. Bhagat!
    I read your speech and then re-read it because I felt very happy to see “Our” ideas reflect in your words.
    “Our” here refers to me and my group of friends who almost daily have heated arguements on the usage and advantage of the English language.
    We were fortnate enough to go to convent schools, most of us have finished their post graduation and are now working. I study in an average (often referred to as B-grade) Business school. You are absolutely right when you say that people who are fluent in the English language have an advantage in interviews. Our placement season has just begun, and strangely, the brainers are still sitting warming the benches while those who speak unnecessarily assertively and use words they probably themselves don’t know the meaning of are recruited.
    The problem does not lie with the interviewers or the Business Schools in question. Fluency in English is not something you can now write in your resume (my dad did that 35 yrs ago). It is a pre-requisite for the corporate sector. English cannot be taught at post- grad level. The problem lies in the clear distinction there is between convent schools and government schools. Not ever parent can afford to send their children to a private school. But every government schhol can certainly work on concentrating more on the English language. We have a superiority complex if we talk in english and someone replies in a grammatically incorrect way. As children, we had groups of the english speaking kids and the “desi” kids. Yes, we weren’t even innocent at that age. We were brats. This HAS to be fixed in schools….by parents AND teachers. I know I wouldn’t send my kids to a government-run school. And that is sad.

  4. narendra says:

    Hi Chetan,
    I am so happy that someone is doing clear non-fuzzy thinking.
    Just think, one ability, to communicate in good English, can lift a guy like nothing else. Simple serials of “Saas-Bahu type” in English on TV would be a good idea. TV proliferation must be used beneficially.

    One has to think what is universally acceptable, as a teaching medium, with social acceptance for which, everyone will make time.

    You are 180 degrees apart from Karan Thapar, I love you…narendra

  5. Shrruthi says:

    Hi! Chetan, Its very nice feeling whenver I share my thoughts with you on this forum. Your speech was realy good and being an Indian I can understand how close we are with this issues.

    I am also E2 candidate, today I came to E1 level just becz of mom, I have studied in a english medium school only but there no proper teaching method was there so I was at E2 level, thenwhen my cousins used to tease me abt my english, then my mom send me to a tutor just for to improve my english n today I think I am far better than them. Today I am sharing my thoughts on such a big forum just becz of my english only.

    So we should all enourge or come up with some simple ideas where we can bring E2 level pepole to E1 leve which give them opportunity to grown which intrun help our India grow.

    Hope our policimake think abt the bigger picture rather than thinking abt that it will be threat to our Hindi.

    Keep writting and sharing your thoughts with so that we can exchnage our idea with u

    A idea can change everyone life’s

    Love shrruthi

  6. Dawn_Dusk says:

    Dear Chetan Bhagat,
    I really appreciate your pragmatism about English language. Who will better understand this than me who hails from a small town where English is almost invisible and visible within the Elite class of the society. Who has struggled a lot to acquire the skills on English language without formal English medium schooling. You are doing the best job by way of your novels.
    Whatever you have said is true.

  7. Rahul says:

    Sir, i also want to improve my english ..plz gide me how to improve and how to be fluent in english ..sir need your guidance

  8. chandrika sharma says:

    hi,
    chetan sir,u and ur books are great source of inspiration for me. ur books r fantastic.today i was really upset and was searching for some answers.as i was reading posts in ur blog,i read the one with partying word title,those lines wit inspiring words contained what i was looking for!i dont know what made me read it today only,but god is great.ur very positive person and i realy respect you for a kind of person.
    lots of luv n luck to u n ur family,GOD BLESS U.

  9. Rajeev says:

    Hi Chetan,

    I share your concern about the State oe English in India vis a vis China..Its really distrurbing to know that we are not doing anything as a country to improve the affairs…

  10. ila says:

    Thanks for bringing it out in open with the speech.
    I’m an english languge trainer and often wonder why the sudents cannot get their tenses right even though we have taken numerous grammar sessions.
    Turns out that the basic concepts which had been taught to them in school were wrong!
    I remember going through a kid’s english copy (M.P Board, English medium) where the answers dictated by the teacher were full of grammatical mistakes. Plus, the teacher’s interpretation of the lesson was wrong. Apart from learning wrong grammar, the kid was getting an incorrect explaination.
    Who’s at fault for this? Certainly not the children or their parents.
    Schools and colleges should be very very careful in hiring English teacers and faculties.
    Plus, doing fun inresting things in English helps (and I’d second Aditya on the F.R.I.E.N.D.S thingy..)

    ila

  11. SWAMINATHAN ELANGOVAN says:

    Hi Chetan,

    I am in agreement with your thoughts about English. But I have a concern. In India, you may agree, proficiency in English is often confused with “Intelligence”. Hai na? If a guy is fluent in English, people look with awe and brand him as intelligent, sadly, which is not true. Some E1s have this self-made aura behind them. That is why, English is frowned upon by even students of E3 and E2. We need to really concentrate on E3 than E2 because a guy in E2 will gradually graduate himself to E1. Even if not, no harm. So, may I request you to focus your suggestions in elevating E3?

  12. K.Preethi says:

    Hi Chetan,
    This was a great speech and good idea to be implemented.I too feel that the peopele with a good english vocabulary have better prospects comparitively.I did my schooling in a CBSE school till my 10th and shifted to a state board school later.The method of teaching and the way the english papers were looked upon was completely different.They expected things exactly from textbooks even for a language which involes so much creativity.The english papers shouldnt be bookish and should be set in such a way that students are expected to put in their creativity into it!!!

  13. Rahul Rane says:

    So true, we are all talking about the educational reforms to achieve a more research oriented approach in India. But at the bottom level, an educational reform is not going to happen unless we have reforms(spreading and understanding) in the language in which they are going to happen.

    cheers to having you discuss the future !

    Rahul

  14. Suchika Jain says:

    Chetan, very well said. The art of good communication has always been a key to acceptance and success and english plays a very big role, for it not merely helps one to face an interview but it is the language that is connecting the people of our country and also people across various countries. Unfortunately, in India certain sects still count english as a foreign language, though its existence on this land has been older than the age of the independent India. It needs a change of status from a snobbish daughter-in-law to a lovable daughter.

  15. RATHISH says:

    Your speech about English – Need of the hour.

  16. Shanta vaidyanathan says:

    31st dec,09
    Dear Mr Chetan,

    While I was browsing throguh some of the Innovative Practices awarded by NCERT, I could go through your speech at British Council.

    Wow! Wonderful speech. Something which touched my heart because I am one among those fortunates who try to evolve themselves from E2 to E1 category. I started trying it from the age of 15, having studied from a vernacular medium. I am 58 today and still passionate to learn the art.
    I shall be grateful if you could send me the details of your books/ CD which could be used for spoken English at schools.

    Regards,

    Shanta

  17. Ravish Kumar says:

    What a wonderful speech! I especially liked your thought process and reasoning on the necessity of English in non-Tier1 cities in India. Even if you want to make computers and internet accessible to rural India so that they can get access to basic healthcare information and educational materials on internet, they need to have a good to decent understanding of English language. BTW, I also read your other speech for HT Summit and I liked the sharpness of your thought process there. Good job! I accidentally came across your name and checked out your blog from google search. I will now be following your posts more keenly.

  18. Sanjeev Jain says:

    Dear Chetan,

    This is the first time I read something other than your books.
    Now I respect you as a great thinker apart from being a good writer.
    Well I was quite interested in starting english speaking classes in collaboration with VETA at Raipur sometime back…but sapna sapna hi raha gaya. Expecting your attention to following comments.

    1. I am somewhere in between E1 & E2.Educated in Oriya medium in a small town in Orissa…I started reading english other than my course books was during Grad( news paper and sherlock homes). I had to face lot of criticism and discouragement from people around for inablity to speak well in english. But thanks to my persistence and help of wellwishers..I am doing as well as many E1 after my MBA from a reputed institute..but english language still comes as a hindarance in many occassions…I still believe…had i were from english medium..I would have made it to IIMs( with a better score in reading comprehension and GD/interview).

    2. The snobbery attitude of E1s lead to second attitude of english being seen as threat to Hindi.The origin of the 1st kind of attitude is in english medium schools. To make students fluent in english..they are barred from speaking hindi/native languages in school..and then the rule of admission to kids of english speaking parents only. In thesedays…one should definitely have a great command over english language but not at cost of disrespect/negligience towards native language. Mr Naveen Pattnaik cannot speak Oriya…But he is one of best CMs of Orissa.At the same time Mr Modi does not have a great command over English Language but is a capable administrator.Your idea of British council promoting Hindi should also coincide with arresting genocide of native languages in English medium schools. We should make local language litreture and one subject ( I think it should be history) compulsory in all schools till class 12th.What a pity..learning french and not oriya/telegu/gujurati in school is matter of great pride.

    3. Another way, in which we can improve english speaking from primary level itself…if we can start providing these classes using VC etc through IT enabled platform. With success of e choupal/telemedicine/DTH etc..I dont think it should be difficult.Given the lack of good pool of english teachers ..this is a better option.

    I would be eager to join/contribute/participate in any venture/programme/activity that promises largescale improvement in our school education system & enhancement of english speaking skills (not at the cost of native languages).

    Sincere Regards,

    Sanjeev Jain

  19. Gund Hemant says:

    Hello Sir,
    yes, english is important for all but tere are only two sides involved in it.one who know the importance of english n they r fluent n on the other hand those who eager to speak but make mistakes.what abt others?
    we know what our litracy rate is,until they get literated how could they get to know about importance of english?

  20. Sireesha says:

    I am from Andhra Pradesh. My schooling and collage were done through telugu medium. I am doing job. But in my office all are insulted me about my English. So I want to improve my spoken English skills. Please tell me how to improve English? Please reply to my mail id. I am waiting for your reply.

  21. Aditya Thakar says:

    You are really an inspiration …
    you inspired me to learn english to make it more fluent for me….
    Thanks…..
    keep up the good work…

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