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