On Being Stupid in English

By Anjum Altaf

Learning a language and learning in a language are two very different things and not recognizing the distinction has a very high social cost.

I thought of this once again on coming across a news item that the Punjab Government School Education Department had converted thousands of its schools into English medium all over the province from April 2010. The motivation for the move is stated to be “a bid to bring the quality of education in government-run schools on a par with private English medium schools.”

The issue of the language of instruction, like many other issues in Pakistan, has been hanging fire since the creation of the country, switching back and forth at the whim of individuals seemingly without recourse to any scientific evidence or critical thinking. No one has computed the costs imposed on society by the absence of a coherent policy over the course of half a century.

Not that this is a new topic. Much evidence is available from our own experience if one wishes to look for it. It was in 1835 that Lord Macaulay mandated the adoption of English as the medium of instruction in British India from the sixth standard onwards. Even at the time this ruling was questioned on theoretical grounds by Prinsep, a fellow member of the Supreme Council of India, who asked how the English would have fared if they had been educated in Arabic rather than in Greek and Latin, the classical languages of Europe.

Prinsep was over-ruled but, to their credit, the British themselves picked up the downside of the policy in their review of its implementation. The 1904 resolution on education policy was quite explicit in its conclusion:

“It is true that the commercial value which a knowledge of English commands, and the fact that the final examinations of the high schools are conducted in English, cause the secondary schools to be subjected to a certain pressure to introduce prematurely both the teaching of English and its use as a medium of instruction … This tendency however should be corrected in the interest of sound education. As a general rule a child should not be allowed to learn English as a language until he has made some progress in the primary stages of instruction and has received a thorough grounding in his mother-tongue.”

Over a century later, a 2010 British Council report on education in Pakistan reaffirms the conclusion and offers this major recommendation: “Early years education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels (especially among girls), poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalisation leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities. Pakistan is considered to be one of the countries most exposed to these risks.”

We can indulge in our favorite pastime of looking for conspiracies. When the English told us in 1835 to learn in English, it was conspiracy to cripple our intellects and when the English tell us in 2010 not to learn in English, it is, of course, a conspiracy to cripple our intellects. This is a reflection of nothing more than our actually crippled intellects and our inability to consider any proposition on its theoretical merits or to be able to assess it against empirical evidence.

Take first the theoretical arguments. The primary objective in the early years is learning how to think and grasp abstract concepts. At that stage even addition and multiplication are abstract concepts and 7 minus 10 is an exceedingly abstract one. At this point, the most significant function of language is as a tool to facilitate learning. It stands to reason that the most effective tool would be the one with which the learner is most comfortable and in which he or she thinks about everything else in his or her world including discussing lessons with peers and parents.

Mandating the use of an unfamiliar tool is counterproductive because it unnecessarily adds an intervening layer of translation in the learning process. An assignment to subtract 7 marbles from 10 marbles requires both a translation of the commodity marble as well as an explanation of the term subtract or minus. Neither would need to be explained if the assignment were in the mother-tongue. (I am reminded of the equally ridiculous Pakistani college statistics texts that base their teaching on examples from baseball and poker.)

Even this very simple example illustrates the extra burden that can be imposed on a learner. Add to this the fact that the majority of the teachers teaching in English are scarcely more comfortable with the language than the students being taught and one can imagine the distortions that would be occurring in the learning process at the Government Boys English Medium Primary School, Jadeed No 1 Thatti Gharbi, Chiniot, which, according the news item mentioned earlier, the Punjab government has switched to teaching in English. The parents who are taking pride in sending their children to an English-medium school are in fact inflicting immense damage on their learning ability – they are making them stupid in English.

This is not to argue against the acquisition of a foreign language but to reiterate the point made at the very beginning of this article: Learning a language and learning in a language are two very different things and not recognizing the distinction has a very high cost.

For those who are not at ease with cognitive theory, there is a lot of empirical evidence to consider. Look at the countries that have shown the most remarkable progress since the Second World War. Take Japan, South Korea, and now China as examples. None of them used English as the medium of instruction at the primary level; all of them used their native languages instead. This puts paid to the mindless argument that the learning in English is absolutely necessary to progress in the present times. If that had indeed been the case, South Asians would have been way ahead of East Asians because of their much greater fluency in the English language.

The reality is not only that South Asians are way behind in general development, they are much less innovative in science and technology than East Asians using any relevant indicator like the number of patents filed per capita. And this is because South Asians have lost creativity by learning in English, turning, by and large, into babus spouting Shakespeare rather than into innovative and critical thinkers.

The point is that while learning English is indeed important in our times, learning in English is not the way to go about acquiring the skill. Almost all the leading scientists from East Asian countries have learnt as much English as they need at a much later stage in life. And this reiterates the general point that a tool is most useful when it is acquired at the appropriate time. Giving a loaded gun to a child is not likely to yield a great shot.

Yet another way to look at this issue is to think of individuals we consider exceptional in recent South Asian history, say, Tagore, Iqbal, Gandhi, Faiz, Salam, Patras Bokhari, Nazrul Islam. We think highly of them because of their intellectual brilliance and their conceptual clarity. Yet, how many of them started their education in English-medium schools? All of them probably learnt English later in their lives which should provide comfort that such late acquisition is not a barrier to success. On the contrary, it is quite possible that had they started in English-medium schools they would have ended up amongst the hundreds of pompous District Commissioners that no one recalls any more.

The issue of the primary language of instruction is not one that should be treated with the casualness that has been demonstrated thus far. There is a very high cost to society in the general loss of creativity and clear thinking and through the creation of an artificial barrier to entry for many creative individuals not superficially fluent in English. Very soon this decision might not be left to the muddle-headed few who have risen to the top only by virtue of having been to English-medium schools and who have subsequently grossly mismanaged the country.

A shorter version of this post appeared as an op-ed in Dawn, Karachi, on December 3, 2010. For more on the implications of Lord Macaulay’s 1835 decision see the author’s article, Macaulay’s Stepchildren, in the January 2010 issue of Himal Southasian magazine.

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53 Responses to “On Being Stupid in English”

  1. Vijay Says:

    The only problem with this approach is that the Subcontinent hasn’t really evolved an intellectual language of its own – a language that is capable of dealing with abstract Western intellectual concepts.

    The example of East Asia is an interesting one because both the Subcontinent and East Asia have encountered Western-style Modernity but the latter has come out of the encounter remarkably well, some would say rejuvenated. As Stefan Halper has argued in his book, The Beijing Consensus, China has actually succeeded in crafting a modernity all of its own – one that combines the market with autocracy.

    Anyway, what is required is a study of how East Asians have acquired Western knowledge, both social scientific and technical without having to learn IN English as you say – That is actually a very useful dichotomy you have introduced – Not having an elite trained to think and act in English must have helped.

    Having said all this, there is a palpable de-anglicisation of public discourse in India. This will inevitably have an impact on education policy. Unfortunately, I don’t think that impact will be positive because any decision to indegenise education policy will stem from populist/subaltern impulses to teach Indian Anglophones a lesson for humiliations past rather than from a principled commitment to sound pedagogy.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vijay: A lot of advanced abstract work was done in Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian at one time. Then the languages lost their vitality. It is conceivable that the languages lost their vitality because the societies lost their vitality – we can’t expect language alone to carry the burden of intellectual development and progress. Then we switched mediums and tried to re-learn things via an alien language. Clearly, it hasn’t worked well.

      A lot of abstract work was done in Chinese also at one time. The difference from South Asia was that the revival of learning was attempted in the same language in which all the heritage was sequestered. Not having an elite trained to think in English is a huge help for at least one simple reason – the society has to rely on its own intellectuals for the answers to its problems. In Pakistan, for every problem an English speaking expert is invited from the West; there is hardly any intellectual tradition in the country. To give a current example – the head of the official task force on education reform is Sir Michael Barber who was Tony Blair’s advisor on education. A small club of English speakers jetting in and out speaking to local English speakers is how policy prescriptions are put together.

      Let us see what kind of impact the de-anglicisation of public discourse has on education policy. In Pakstan, English is still considered essential to upward mobility and people can’t seem to make a distinction between learning English and learning everything else in English. I share your apprehension that language will become a means to settle scores.

  2. Anjum Altaf Says:

    This 2006 recommendation of the European Council on the place of the mother tongue in school education provides useful material for further discussion:

    http://assembly.coe.int/Mainf.asp?link=/Documents/AdoptedText/ta06/EREC1740.htm and http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/Schoollang_EN.asp

    Important excerpts:

    On the vehicle of instruction:

    6. The language which is the vehicle of instruction has a crucial role in that it is the key to classroom communication and consequently to pupils’ acquisition of knowledge. A great deal of research has confirmed that types of education based on the mother tongue significantly increase the chances of educational success and can even give better results.

    7. In European societies, everyday use of the official language is the main precondition for the integration of children whose main language is different from the official one of the country or region. However, a large amount of research yields common results on one point: immediate schooling of such children in a language they do not know well, or not at all, seriously jeopardises their chances of academic success. Conversely, bilingual education based on the mother tongue is the basis for long-term success.

    On bilingualism:

    9. There are various ways in which bilingualism in children can be supported by education systems. They can be distinguished by their political objectives: maintaining a minority language, revitalising a less widespread language or integrating children who speak a foreign language into the dominant society. There are appropriate bilingual educational models in all cases. Which is chosen will depend on prior reflection and a transparent decision on objectives, negotiated with those directly concerned.

    10. “Strong” bilingual educational models which aim to equip the future adult with real bi/plurilingual proficiency have many advantages over “weak” models which treat bilingualism as an intermediate stage between mother-tongue monolingualism and official-language monolingualism rather than as an end in itself. These advantages concern both the people who benefit from such models and the societies that provide them. In all cases, however, the condition for success is that bilingual educational programmes should last several years.

  3. CTMaloney Says:

    Not many have written so clearly on this extremely important subject. Just look around– the places that have the people’s language as medium of instruction at all levels- all of East Asia, 25 languages in Europe- are those in which the whole population has modernized together and fast. The countries using a foreign language- notably Philippines, Central Asian countries, most of Africa etc- are those in which there is almost no creativity in modern thought. It is clear as day. On Independence, S Korea decided to put 10% of GNP in education- in the PEOPLE’S LANGUAGE- and the whole population modernized in 2 generations and the country is far more influential than its size would suggest.
    Panjabi has more speakers (on both sides) than French and ranks probably 7th among world languages. So why the hell itsn’t it used in ALL levels, moving to English only for post-graduate work?

  4. Sohail Kizilbash Says:

    INFAQ Foundation faced this problem when it was planning to open a school at Korangi, Karachi. There was a lot of debate whether the medium of instruction should be English or Urdu. Arguments mentioned above were given in favor of Urdu. However, when a survey was conducted it was found that only a very small percentage (perhaps 5%) of the students spoke Urdu at home. In total they spoke eleven different languages. So even Urdu would be a second language for most of them.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Sohail: What is interesting is that the debate over the medium of instruction was restricted to English and Urdu. English would have been extremely unfamiliar to the children in Korangi so, in my view, it is the worst choice. Urdu would be a second-best for practical reasons if say, the students were evenly distributed over the 11 different languages. However, I would doubt that would be the case. My guess is that if the data had been examined further about 70 percent would have belonged to one language group. In that case, it would have made sense to use that language as the medium of instruction and to teach Urdu as a subject to promote a link language.

      The British Council report cited in the post mentions that over 20 languages are spoken in Pakistan but 75 percent of the population is accounted for by just 3 languages – Panjabi (50%), Pashto (12%), and Sindhi (12%).

  5. Sakuntala Says:

    Brilliant piece. But I am thinking of a place like Bangalore — thanks to globalization, we have a huge migrant population of north Indians ( from Bihar, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan etc) so “teaching in the mother tongue” becomes meaningless (or rather, impracticable ) for children of these families. I recently did an article for the Press Institute of India, on how 11 year old Sathya dropped out because she doesnt understand Kannada (the medium of instruction in Bangalore) She speaks Tamil. We cannot formulate a policy on medium of instruction, without reference to the complicated socio-cultural dimensions that go into shaping “development”. This is one more example of a concept of the west, getting imported to the east, without reference to the differences in eastern social patterns (we have far more social diversity)….

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Sakuntala: I think the European Council recommendation (cited in an earlier comment) deals with the issue of diversity and strong multilingualism in a sensible and practical way.

  6. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    Sohail Kizilbash is correct. Korangi Academy now gradually inducts the children into English which is used as the medium. I attended their award-giving ceremony recently and found that the children and teachers who spoke in Urdu were more vocal and articulate than those who spoke in English. Probably the latter must have memorised their speeches.

    What we should note is that teaching Urdu to a child speaking one of our local languages is easier for both — the teacher and the student — because all our languages have the same script with minor variations, have the same syntax and they share many words and terms in their vocabularies. When the mother tongue cannot be used for any reason — sometimes very practical reasons — Urdu should be less alien than English.

    But I must warn you that there are vested interests who support English and actually block the mother tongue.

  7. Anil Kala Says:

    First I want to be very clear about objective of education.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Anil: My view is that education takes place whether one attends school or not. At the level of the individual, the aim of early school education should be to increase the capabilities of human beings in the sense suggested by Amartya Sen. Knowing how to read opens up a whole new world of knowledge. Knowing how to think critically enables that knowledge to be interpreted intelligently. Knowing how to write enables the exchange of knowledge. At this level, we are asking what is the most effective means of achieving these objectives.

      At the level of the collective, education also has the role of promoting a sense of citizenship and shared purpose. Here the importance of multilingualism comes into play in a linguistically diverse society.

      • Anil Kala Says:

        Does primary education has no role in preparing the student for lucrative/successful carrier?

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Anil: In my view this aspect is included in increasing capabilities at the individual level. Early education should maximize an individual’s potential and enable its realization.

          The difficulty in talking about lucrative/successful careers is the subjectivity of the terms. What appears successful to one person may be considered a failure by another. Lucre may the prime objective of some and relatively unimportant to others. What is relevant is that education should enable a person to pursue whatever he/she wants to the best of his/her ability.

          Education should also give an individual the ability to value dimensions like success and lucre in the perspective of their lives. Whether one wishes to be a teacher of Hindi in Jaipur or a hedge fund manager in Mumbai should, in my view, be a personal choice not something that is predetermined by early education.

          Stanley Fish also addresses your question to some extent:


  8. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    This is with reference to Sakuntala’s comment. I am not very clear about the demographic composition of Bangalore’s population. If the Tamil speakers are in a minority and Kannada is the main language, obviously the migrants’ children will have to be inducted into Kannada. If the education authorities do it scientifically (it is done in bilingual or multilingual societies. Since the language of the environment is Kannada, the migrants will pick it up very fast. But the issue must be recognised and addressed with sympathy.

    If the migrants are in very big numbers and are concentrated in various areas then their mother tongue could be used in the areas they dominate. In the NWFP (now called Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) the government is introducing four languages. The districts have been grouped together according to the languages spoken there — Pushto, Hindko, Kohistani, Khowar and Seraiki.

  9. UVR Says:

    In reply to @Zubeida, in response to Sakuntala’s comment. With due respect, I believe you may be oversimplifying the issue, but clearly that is due to a relative lack of familiarity with Indian demographics. The problem is not one of merely teaching immigrants’ children (in) the local vernacular. If you teach every child living in Bangalore only (in) Kannada and teach every child living in Lucknow only (in) Urdu and everychild living in Kolkata only (in) Bengali … how are they going to be able to carry on an intellectually intelligent conversation with each other after growing up? Language is nothing if not a medium for expressing and exchanging ideas and thoughts with other human beings. For intellectually advanced communication and conversations to occur in a country such as India (or Pakistan), where there are significant segments of the populace which hold different languages as their mother tongue, it is critical to have those conversations in a common language. This common language does not, of course, have to be English. It can be Urdu. Or Hindi. (But will the Punjabis accept being instructed only (in) Urdu, or the Tamils in Hindi, or will they treat it as a move detrminental to their linguistic and cultural identity?) “Teach everyone in their mother-tongue” is a simple goal if you do have a single predominant language, but it becomes infinitely complicated if you don’t. Even in China, which the main article advances as an example of a nation that has gotten by very well without English-medium education, you have to realize that Mandarin has been pushed by the government as THE Chinese that everyone has to learn and use, regardless of what language or dialect of Chinese they speak at home. Such governmental support (some will call it heavy-handedness) for a single language is a must in multi-language countries.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      UVR: The central idea of the post was spelled out in its first sentence:

      Learning a language and learning in a language are two very different things and not recognizing the distinction has a very high social cost.

      Teaching in the mother tongue at the elementary level does not imply that no other language can be taught as a separate subject. The British Council report cited in the post suggests the following progression for Pakistan (see this news item summary):

      The report recommended that after initial education in mother tongue, “from class three to five Urdu is introduced and gradually replaces regional language as the language of instruction.” It added: “English is studied as a main subject for four years up to grade 9. At class 10 English becomes medium of instruction with Urdu and regional languages become subjects.”

      One can quarrel with the details but the point is clear that teaching in the mother tongue does not rule out learning other languages. The issue is to find the most effective vehicle for instruction at each stage. The European Council recommendation linked in an earlier comment has a practical suggestions for dealing with the concerns that you have raised.

  10. Arun Pillai Says:

    This is a deep and important topic. My view is as follows:

    1. To a certain degree, one has to separate the content of what is taught and thought from the language. In South Asia, by and large, this content is very poorly addressed in even the best schools and this is the primary reason for the relative lack of creativity in the region. This modern content has largely originated in the West since about 1500 and that is why levels of creativity in the West far outweigh those in the East. The issue of language is secondary to the ideas themselves though one cannot separate form from content completely. Ideas are abstract – whether it is the idea of negative numbers or the idea of, say, emancipation – though they are grasped through language. I make this point because it is usually ignored in discussions about language in education.

    2. In our age of globalization, with both domestic and international movements of people, the only viable possibility for instruction appears to be a strong bilingualism of the dominant local language and English. This would still make it hard for people whose native language is neither the local language nor English so, in an ideal situation, one should also consider a weak trilingualism. Many of us who have grown up in South Asia have a passing familiarity with three languages or more and children have no real difficulty in learning multiple languages. I once visited an NGO teaching children at the border of Karnataka and Andhra and the children were comfortable in as many as five languages. One need not go that far of course, but I mention it just to make my point.

    3. The main problem of education globally is poorly trained teachers, not the medium of instruction. It is not just that we have babus spouting Shakespeare but if they had been instructed in Sanskrit or Hindi, they would have been spouting Kalidasa and Premchand. There would have been no creativity in either case. Even the US public school system is atrociously bad. Something needs to be done to raise the salaries school teachers are paid to make the profession more attractive.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Arun: There are many issues in education but for this discussion of the medium of instruction we are abstracting away from the others. Assume we had the perfect content, the perfect pedagogy, and the perfect teachers. Would it then make a difference if the content is delivered in the native language as opposed to an alien one? Is there credible evidence we can employ to support or negate the argument?

  11. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    I agree with Arun Pillai. But simply increasing the salaries of teachers will not improve their pedagogy. You will have to still train them. The babus spouting Shakespeare will be more difficult to train than those spouting Kalidasa. The latter will understand what they are being taught unlike the Shakespeare spouting colleagues,

    As I am not familiar with India’s linguistic/demographic composition, I would like to know the languages the children in the border regions of Andhra and Karnataka were comfortable in. Was English one of them? Could they express themselves as well in English as in the local languages.

  12. Arun Pillai Says:


    I agree that teacher training is critical.

    I don’t think the babus spouting Shakespeare will be more difficult to train. They may not understand Shakespeare well but presumably they do think in English and if they are trained in English they will understand what they are taught as well.

    English was one of the languages and they seemed reasonably comfortable in it. I couldn’t say whether they were more comfortable in the local languages (Telegu, Kannada, Hindi, and I cannot remember the fifth one).

  13. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    Arun Pillai,

    Many of the children, and even adults, who appear to be ‘comfortable’ in English are actually not very fluent in it. Try carrying on an extended conversation with them and they switch over to their own language after a while. Moreover they are more articulate in their own language. You can try that out yourself by speaking to them in English and then at some stage quietly slipping into their first language and you will be surprised at the transformation that takes place.

    As for thinking in English. Sorry I don’t agree with you. On questioning many people directly I have discovered that they think in their own language and then translate it into English.

    When a person is not as proficient in a language can he think critically in it?

  14. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Arun/Zubeida: The question I find worth discussing is the following: Why does one acquire a second language? Is it for utilitarian, intellectual or aesthetic purposes or is it because one wants to begin thinking in the second language?

    The latter is not impossible but for every one person who succeeds there must be thousands who end up poorer. And I am not sure why one would want to do it in the first place.

    A friend (Vinay) has sent a link that has something particularly relevant to say in this regard. The entire note at the bottom of the page is worth reading but the following excerpt conveys the gist:

    It was painful to realize that in my language I was smart, but I sounded stupid in English.


  15. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    To answer Anjum Altaf’s question, one may acquire a second or even a third language for multiple reasons, and we should have no problem with that. What I strongly believe, as do many experts, let the first language take firm roots. Once the language mechanism in the brain has been activated and consolidated, a person can learn other languages — with ease if he has the natural ability.

    At the stage when the child is acquiring his first language, he may also acquire another language simultaneously and become bilingual. But in our society and also in India this facility is not available to most children. A large number of them have parents who are illiterate. To be bilingual the child must be in the company of people who are equally at ease in two languages. To have two separate systems for the rich and the poor will perpetuate the class and caste system.

  16. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Here is a rambling and incoherent article from today’s BBC generalizing from one college debate. It misses the point altogether, which is typical of such debates that focus on ideology or utility and ignore the implications for pedagogy. However, I am linking it here as it might trigger some new thoughts:

    India debates whether to learn English


  17. Arun Pillai Says:


    Sorry, I have been traveling and unable to respond earlier.

    This question is partly a question of science and partly a political question, where I am using “political” in its broadest sense.

    Unfortunately, I do not know the science of language acquisition. My impression is that there is a relatively short window – maybe 0 to 8 years – during which a child can acquire a language in a way that enables him or her to think in it. After that, if one acquires a language, it is very difficult to think in it.

    I myself know English and a little Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi, and French. I can think in English as well as in Gujarati though because my Gujarati is limited, I do not have the vocabulary for extended thinking. I am fortunate to have been able to make creative contributions to my field. I attribute this not to any language but to being able to grasp abstract things. In my view, the essence of creativity lies in making abstract things – ideas – concrete like building blocks and then being able to *manipulate* (in its root literal sense) these building blocks. But different people may approach this in different ways, especially in different fields.

    So, in my view, it is quite possible to be fluent in any language one is taught as a child and to think in it in powerful ways. As I said, the issue of language is secondary. The problem with Anjum’s statement that one should assume perfect content and perfect pedagogy and then answer the question about language is that the real world evidence does not allow this abstraction and it becomes difficult to interpret this evidence. People arguing about language tend to see the evidence in terms of language but this may be highly questionable because one cannot abstract from other factors. My answer to Anjum’s abstracted question is that does not really matter what language one is taught in if the content and pedagogy and other factors are handled perfectly. If one brings in the social environment one is a part of, then factors other than one’s ability to think well weigh in. These factors have to do with the enhancements that come from being able to communicate with ones peers and so on. Because we live in a globalized world, no one can afford to be without English, ideally in a way that allows one to think in English.

    Anjum has talked about maximizing capabilities through education. A capability is a contextual thing. It is a function of some inner ability deployed in some context. That is, it is a function of two variables, the inner ability and the context in which the ability is deployed. If this is correct, then it is important to have the ability to think in a global language in today’s context. Of course, the local language is equally important because the local context uses that language. That is why I advocate a strong bilingualism or a weak trilingualism.

    To answer Zubeida’s question, I think you are making the assumption that one can think in just one language. I don’t believe that is the case. That is why the people spouting Shakespeare do actually think in English and they are at no particular disadvantage if one assumes perfect teaching (to make the ceteris paribus assumption Anjum suggests). When you look at the actual evidence and the possible inability of babus to think creatively, you are looking at products of poor teaching, not products of perfect teaching in an alien language.

    There are larger political questions too as I said at the outset. And it is these that suggest that one should not abandon one’s native languages because the native ways in which we think and feel and experience the world are very important, not from the point of view of being creative as much as from the point of view of the cultures we all belong to. Language is the way we classify the world and therefore the way we experience the world and it is vitally important not to lose our feel for this world because through this feel may come new ideas and new worldviews that may help organize our lives in ways that enrich our lives and expand our horizons. But for this very reason, access to another way of experiencing the world – for example, through English – is as important because it is through English that much modern knowledge exists. So this points to a strong bilingualism again.

  18. Arun Pillai Says:

    As I am traveling, I do not have my copy of Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct.” If you have access to it, please take a look at the chapter called “Mentalese.” It casts much doubt on the notion of thinking in a natural language like English or Hindi.

    The idea is that there is a system of mental representations in which we all think. This system is universal and independent of the particular language we speak. When a child grasps something like the concept of negative numbers, it is represented in this system and not in his or her native language. Later, when he or she has to think about negative numbers, it is through its mental representation that the child does so.

    This does not mean natural languages are unimportant but they are much less important than is commonly believed.

    (As an aside, I mention that I do not completely buy the picture of mentalese he paints, but for our purposes here it is largely correct.)

  19. Vinay Says:


    Pinker’s point (I have read the book and highly recommend it to anyone interested in language) actually supports instructions in local language. It basically puts all natural languages on an equal standing. The point it makes is that no language is insufficient or inadequate or worse or better than any other language. An argument that is often forwarded in favor of English being a more suitable language for scientific thought (especially vis-a-vis Indian languages) is challenged by this.

    As far as medium of instruction is concerned, that process happens *before* a child can store the knowledge and form a mental representation of it. In order to efficiently do it, however, it is the natural language that plays the crucial part. Because that’s the vehicle to carry the concept from teacher to student, which of course involves (or at least should involve) a lot of interactivity between them. If it is not in a language of the environment of the child, it can severely hamper that process.

  20. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    Steven Pinker attaches as much importance to language. In the last chapter on Mind Design he returns to the language instinct. Pinker considers language important to communicate. Even if an idea is clear in your mind you still need language to communicate it. If your language is not good you sometimes feel you have not been able to communicate precisely what you are thinking.

    Pinker seems to be pointing at a universal language like the universal grammar Chomsky speaks of. But we know if this were to evolve — by 2050 the date Pinker sets — it will have to be English and the social inequality that exists in every country will be intensified further. The world will be divided horizontally between the rich and the poor with the dividing line running through every country. In our own interest we should not allow that to happen.

  21. Arun Pillai Says:

    Vinay and Zubeida,

    Thanks for your clarifications. I have read only part of Pinker’s book. However, I do not entirely agree with Pinker. When he says that all languages are “equal” that is so largely from the point of view of complexity – that is, all thoughts can, in principle, be expressed by all languages. This is Chomsky’s view and it comes from his idea of universal grammar. I do not know how well this has stood up to evidence. But even if this is fully correct, the question of vocabulary still remains. All languages are not equal as far as vocabulary is concerned. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to introduce new words into a language even by fiat. But it takes some time for them to gain currency.

    As I said in my post above the Pinker post, there is a scientific question and a political question. The scientific question can be split into a cognitive part and a social part. My point in citing Pinker was to say that from a purely cognitive point of view, it does not matter what language a child learns: s/he will learn it well and fluently (simply by virtue of our innate capacities) and will also be able to think creatively if s/he is taught well because the language of thought is different from any natural language. This is borne out even by Pinker’s own examples and from the examples of immigrants to other societies where children have to learn new languages – this is what is involved in the transition from pidgins to creoles for example. Even if the parents are illiterate or do not speak, say, English, if the teacher speaks it well and if the child’s peers speak it, that is enough for fluency.

    So, I find it difficult to buy that South Asian children cannot learn English well. It is the precondition of being taught well that is not being met, not the particular language that is the problem.

    Of course, if the language in which you learn also fits your social context more widely, then it is even better. But South Asia is in a transitional state with mass poverty and illiteracy. So whatever policy is adopted, it should recognize that there will be a transitional state.

    Please see the points I make about the scientific and political questions above.

    All in all, I would recommend a full-fledged bilingualism at least so a person can be fluent in both the local language and in English. If s/he learns English as a second language, that will always be an impediment not only to creative thinking but also to full-scale assimilation in the modern world. Even China will have to recognize this eventually and perhaps there are signs that it has. The modern world is going to be even more globalized than it is today.

  22. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    Are you in the US? You have said something without realising the importance of it. You write, “Even if the parents are illiterate or do not speak, say, English, if the teacher speaks it well and if the child’s peers speak it, that is enough for fluency.” The most important element is if “the child’s peers speak English”. To learn a language the most important issue is the “language of the environment”. The child’s mind at the “sensitive period” (Maria Montessori’s term) absorbs the language he hears and he is like the native speaker. Please look up Maria Montessori’s The Absorbent Mind which recognises what Chomsky, Pinker, et all spoke out decades later. Now even Chomsky admitted in an interview with Barsamian that his grandchildren some of whom live in South America picked up the language the people around them were speaking.

    In the case of India and Pakistan, the child does not get that environment. Of course the same child as an immigrant in America will pick up English very fast. It is not possible for us to create that environment generally in our countries for many many years. So working for a transitional period means sacrificing education for a few generations more. That will not help. Besides creating good English language teachers (as identified by you) is also quite a challenge. But we can still train some teachers to teach English as a second language while using our own languages as the medium of instruction.

    The elites’ children can learn English fast and well because the parents start talking to their children in English from the time of their birth. Then those children are in the company of similar children and they get English speaking peers. And of course the upscale schools provide good teachers too.

    It is time we started talking about the masses and not the elites.

  23. Arun Pillai Says:


    I am based in the US but currently in India.

    No, I do realize its importance but I have been assuming that the primary peers of a child would be its schoolmates and similar schoolmates from neighboring schools, all of whom would be being exposed to the same strong bilingualism. I have been talking about the masses all the time if you read my posts above and I have even referred to mass poverty and illiterate parents. That is why I have said that we have to go through a transitional stage where they may be a disconnect between parents and children to some degree for one generation. If we postpone this, the problem will only get postponed and our children will miss the bus of growing globalization. The disconnect isn’t that severe because both children and parents will speak the local language but the parents may not speak English. However, the children should be taught in both languages. You seem to be assuming one can only have one primary language.

    Many Indians and Pakistanis have emigrated to the US and the UK and other countries all over the world and many of them have done exceedingly well in their careers. I suspect a good number of them went to English medium schools though their parents were not primarily English-speaking. How were these people able to create and contribute without learning in their local languages?

    Partly because of what Pinker says, language is not so important – a child will pick up any language it is exposed to and all languages are equally good for thinking except that English has a much greater scientific vocabulary. The elites in India and Pakistan will remain unchallenged if they deprive the masses of learning simultaneously in English and the local language.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Arun: It seems to me that the strategy you are proposing (strong bilingualism from the beginning with one of the languages being English) can be potentially very wasteful – with much higher costs and unproven benefits. Given the long transitional period you envisage a lot of things could be different – English may not be the dominant language or all texts may be translatable at one click, say. The alternative strategy of early education in the native language (or strong bilingualism in the native and regional languages) with the provision to learn any other language later on an as-needed basis may be a better option. I am wondering how one may decide which might be the preferred option between these choices.

      The fact that many Indians and Pakistanis have done well in the US and UK cannot be attributed to their facility in the English language. Many European immigrants to the US have made even greater contributions although they picked up English much later in life. This kind of success may have very little to do with early education in English. And what is the counterfactual? A greater proportion of Indians and Pakistanis might have done well if they had had early education in their native language.

      The Russians excelled at everything across the spectrum of the arts and sciences and were the first in space without any need for early training in English. The Japanese also did very well in a globalized economy with a similar ‘handicap’.

      The Russians and the Vietnamese (whose elites were French-speaking) did not level the playing field with the masses by making all of the latter bilingual in French. Instead, elite education shifted to the national language.

  24. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    You are absolutely correct. One who is fully aware of the social conditions in Pakistan (I think also India) will understand what you are saying. Unfortunately, today a good knowledge of English is considered to be equivalent to good education when that is not the case. In Pakistan I can see this happening in every sector and that is bringing down the economy. Those who do not know English are not taught well in their own language because of the prevailing misconception that good education can only be in English.

    We have already gone through a transitional period and have failed to achieve satisfactory results. And how can you teach English even in a bilingual system without teachers who are good in English? Should we close down all our schools and spend the next few years training our teachers in English plus teaching them how to teach their subject in English?

  25. Arun Pillai Says:

    My point about Indians and Pakistanis in the US was that at least some of them were trained in English at an early age. If your view is that people trained in English when the environment is not English cannot be creative and cannot contribute, how do you explain this?

    My main point throughout has been that language is not so important and that good teaching is important.

    I feel that Zubeida and you are not addressing the specific points I am making. The points keep changing and so it is difficult to reach any conclusions.

  26. Zubeida Mustafa Says:

    Arun if you are talking about a handful of people (as you write) who are the exceptions, there can be no debate. One has to keep the wider picture in view. Exceptions do not make the rule. Yet you insist that you are talking about the masses.

    Even if you don’t give any importance to language as you write, and address only the issue of good teaching (as you say), pray tell me from where will you get good teachers to provide good teaching (again as you say). A teacher has to be trained in a language — he needs it for his own learning and also for imparting knowledge to the child. It is true that we have to adopt a holistic approach and no issue can be taken up first at the expense of another. Good teaching is important but you have to have a language policy in education to even begin to educate the teachers. That is what the debate has been all about — it seems to be pretty clear.

  27. Arun Pillai Says:

    Zubeida and Anjum,

    The whole argument has been based on the belief that language is important: even the title of the piece is “On Being Stupid in English.” My primary point has been that language is not important. The Indian diaspora is roughly 20 million people – it seems reasonable to say that 10% were trained in English even though it was not the local language. If the basic argument of the piece is correct, how can one explain the creativity of these 2 million who did not have the benefit of being trained in the local language?

    The piece advances a hypothesis and I am advancing evidence against it. My concern at this stage is not with the whole complex issue of education policy. Maybe training bilingually will prove to be too costly; maybe training in English is an economic impossibility. But framers of policy should at least be aware of the correct reasons for their choices. If the reasons are economic and not biological, that is fine; but that is not the argument of this piece which advances a biosocial argument.

    It is not desirable to be muddled about the reasons for adopting one policy over another even if that policy happens to be the right one. I believe the correct place to look is the science of language acquisition. I said at the outset that I do not know this science so I cannot give an argument for my view. But Anjum has not given an argument either except to cite some evidence that could very easily have alternative explanations.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Arun: Since you do not know the science of language acquisition what is the basis for your claim that language is not important? I have earlier linked the European Union recommendation on language policy. Presumably that is based on expert opinion and empirical evidence.

      The point being made is not that nobody can be creative who is educated in a language other than the native language. Rather, the contention is that early education in the native language improves the ability to learn. There is a difference in these two arguments.

      Zubeida has made the point in an earlier comment that by now there are many households in South Asia for whom English is like the first language. Obviously they do not suffer from the negative fallout of being educated in English in the same way that a resident of rural Bihar would. This is the concrete policy issue that the EU recommendation addresses.

  28. Arun Pillai Says:

    The three policy options before us appear to be:

    1. A strong bilingualism or a weak trilingualism
    2. Native language
    3. English

    I have been advocating #1 throughout. The only argument against it is economic. But if English is going to be offered at a later stage anyway, then is there really much difference in costs? And, in my view at least, education is the single most important item of social policy because many social ills could be cured through education.

    Also, if you are willing to grant that good teaching is more important than language then the bulk of the costs would go towards improving teaching rather than language. The difference may not be that significant as to be impractical.

    To a certain degree, what happens to those who go to English-medium schools is that they learn English at school but speak their native language at home, so they become bilingual anyway. And the child’s peers are all the same way. It is something of a caricature to say such people can only spout Shakespeare.

    The basic reason I have been saying that language is not important is that a child will pick up and be able to think well in any language it is exposed to. This is a scientific hypothesis based on the idea of universal grammar. If a child whose native language is Hindi is exposed to English at an early age in school, s/he will pick up English and be fluent in it. The child will not need to translate from Hindi to English as the professor said in one of your links.

    The social environment of the child is a complex thing: it is not made up only of its parents; it contains the child’s peers and school, it contains the social network the child is a part of, and it contains even the city and country the child lives in. So there is enough stimulation in multiple languages to the child no matter what language s/he learns.

    The only reason I have been advocating teaching English at an early age (together with the native language) is that globalization will make things much more competitive and English will most likely be the dominant language and even if translation at a click is possible people will need to interact globally. China has already recognized the advantages India has had on account of its relative facility with English and this is going to be increasingly true for Japan, Vietnam, and all the other countries. I am talking about the future not about the past and you have been citing data from the past when globalization was less of a force.

    In your piece, you do seem to say that children trained in English will be stupid. I gave you counterexamples from the diaspora but you have backtracked without giving up the basic stance. So it is not clear what you are saying. Your argument rests on the statements of UN experts. Presumably some of them know what they are talking about but citing opinions is not enough. You have not offered any real argument. Nor has Zubeida. In my view, someone in rural Bihar would benefit immensely from being able to think in English as well as in his native language rather than learning English at a later stage in his life when he will always be translating from Hindi into English. And, indeed, this is also where the demand is. Many many people want their children trained in English because they realize that is where the opportunities lie. Over a hundred million people have been lifted from poverty in India in the last two decades. All these people have far greater aspirations than their parents did.

  29. Vinay Says:

    Some video links of the real ground situation that I think may be relevant to the discussion.

    Here’s how most rural and small-town Indian kids learn English in school:

    And here’s what happens to them:

    Fluency in a language by learning it through teaching could be no match for learning it through hearing it spoken around, actually speaking it and by being immersed in its environment. Even in so-called English medium schools in the country, except for some elite ones, that environment is absent and is highly unlikely to ever be there unless the local population starts speaking English. The controversial restrictions that some schools impose (by fining kids who do not speak in English) to create that environment actually prevents free communication if anything.

  30. Arun Pillai Says:


    As a piece of evidence, the videos can be interpreted either as instances of poor teaching or poor language skills. They do not establish that teaching in English leads to this. Are kids learning Hindi much better than this? It would be necessary to compare older kids who have been trained in both the local language and in English to see how well each group thinks. And that was my point: how did those diaspora Indians and Americans trained in English make it abroad?

    Bollywood films have lately been peppering a lot of their dialogue with English. How are such films understood in rural areas?

    I think a notion of political correctness is implicitly preventing people from giving sound arguments for the position that it is better to train kids in the local language. Does anyone know the literature of language acquisition? Can they say that learning in a local language leads to superior performance? Why can’t one be stupid in Hindi?

    • Vinay Says:


      I was not providing evidence for teaching *in* English but the way English as a language is taught in general in India. These kids cannot form a reasonably complex sentence in English on their own despite it being taught to them as a language, let alone understand instructions in that language. OTOH, I can bet that these kids can speak fluently in their native tongue without even having taught anything about it in school. Do you really think it would be better to teach them through English as the medium of instruction compared to their local tongue?

      Peppering English words/terms in a Hindi sentence is different than using English as the grammar. In movies, one can make do; understand things from context. Also, many of those “English” words are actually local language words now – school, bus, train and hundreds of other such words are pretty much Hindi or Urdu words for all practical purposes. But we are digressing here.

      There are several scientific studies that would tell you that local language instruction is better. Some links have been provided above. For more, you just need to look it up. It’s a consensus among academicians and researchers. OTOH, give me one scientific study that proves or one expert recommendation that says that teaching a kid in a foreign language is better than their native one.

  31. Arun Pillai Says:


    I still feel your videos show an example of poor teaching of a language. For many years, second languages were taught via memorization and grammar with scant attention to conversation. This has changed in more recent decades with dramatically improved results.

    I agree with you that the consensus among academics and policymakers may well be in favor of local languages. At one level, it is even obvious if one takes only the immediate environment into account: the household, neighbors etc. But the environment is a complex and multilayered thing and it is changing rapidly even in rural Bihar. So I have less confidence in the opinions of these experts. Do you want children to be forever translating from their local language into English when they speak and compete? All I have been advocating is bilingualism with English also taught early so it becomes part of the fluency of a child. I agree with Anjum and Zubeida that there are severe practical hurdles, but shouldn’t one be clear about what is the most desirable policy? Later, one may have to settle for the second best.

    Globalization is an extraordinarily transformative force and it will change things very rapidly even in our lifetimes. I think it would be remiss to stick to conventional verities.

  32. Arun Pillai Says:

    I forgot to make a point about Bollywood: the point was that whole sentences, not just English words, have entered the public discourse. Presumably, this kind of thing, together with newspapers and television and other mass media, all form part of the environment of the child learning both English and the local language.

    I have made some of these arguments and related arguments above several times but all I get in response is a repetition of the same points without any rebuttal of my arguments or arguments in favor of local languages.

  33. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Both sides of the argument have been forcefully stated in this discussion and readers should be able to reach their own conclusions with respect to the policy alternative they would like to recommend.

    I would like to reiterate the essential points I wished to make in the post and to clarify likely confusions that may have arisen during the debate:

    1. I believe readers will agree that intelligence is not a binary variable that toggles between the states of stupid and not-stupid. In this context, the argument was that early education using the mother tongue as the medium of instruction improves a child’s ability to learn. There is ample evidence to support this claim. Given this evidence one can at least make the strong negative statement that the mother tongue should not be ignored as the medium of instruction in early education. This does not rule out learning other languages either later or simultaneously.

    2. I believe readers will also agree that such arguments apply in the aggregate and not to every individual. Given the existing conditions in South Asia, there is reason to argue that early education using the mother tongue would be good for the majority of the population. This should not preclude the choice of education using other languages as the medium of instruction provided the access is not determined by income or used to perpetuate existing privileges.

    3. We can leave open the question of what should be the preferred medium of instruction in conditions of unlimited resources and under ideal teaching conditions. Presumably, a cost-benefit analysis would yield the appropriate answer.

    4. While English may be essential to success in a globalizing world I have not seen any evidence that thinking in English is a requirement. None of the countries that have lately established a strong position in the global economy have relied on a mastery of English as a platform. The focus should be on thinking not on thinking in any particular language and whatever means are the most effective to facilitate better thinking should be employed.

  34. Arun Pillai Says:

    Thanks for the summary. I have made various points above which would be difficult to summarize without much labor, so I will offer my final comments on the four points made by you.

    1. I believe readers will agree that intelligence is not a binary variable that toggles between the states of stupid and not-stupid. In this context, the argument was that early education using the mother tongue as the medium of instruction improves a child’s ability to learn. There is ample evidence to support this claim. Given this evidence one can at least make the strong negative statement that the mother tongue should not be ignored as the medium of instruction in early education. This does not rule out learning other languages either later or simultaneously.

    My response: A language-acquisition based argument should be made for the claim that learning in the mother tongue improves a child’s ability to learn. The evidence is largely of a circumstantial sort and could perhaps be interpreted in multiple ways especially in this rapidly changing global context. Often, it is poor teaching that is responsible for poor results, not the language. A strong bilingualism appears to be the best option given Chomsky’s notion of universal grammar.

    2. I believe readers will also agree that such arguments apply in the aggregate and not to every individual. Given the existing conditions in South Asia, there is reason to argue that early education using the mother tongue would be good for the majority of the population. This should not preclude the choice of education using other languages as the medium of instruction provided the access is not determined by income or used to perpetuate existing privileges.

    My response: These existing conditions are changing rapidly, even in rural areas. In less than a generation, untold millions will be living in urban areas. So I am not so sure that there are good reasons to use only the local language for the majority of the population, especially those in urban areas. The child’s environment should be seen as multilayered because it includes not just the parents and immediate household, but the child’s schoolmates and also the wider environment of the mass media. If the child is not trained early in English during the window when a child can pick up any natural language effortlessly with the ability to think in it, s/he will forever be translating from his/her local language to English in all dealings with the globalized world.

    3. We can leave open the question of what should be the preferred medium of instruction in conditions of unlimited resources and under ideal teaching conditions. Presumably, a cost-benefit analysis would yield the appropriate answer.

    My response: This economic criterion is fine but it moves away from the claims made in the article which were that if taught in a language like English, the result is often stupidity. Also, if English is to be taught as a second language in any case at a later age, then the incremental costs associated with offering this instruction earlier may not be so great. Also, conditions and resources in India and Pakistan may well be different. At least in India, untold millions are clamoring for English.

    4. While English may be essential to success in a globalizing world I have not seen any evidence that thinking in English is a requirement. None of the countries that have lately established a strong position in the global economy have relied on a mastery of English as a platform. The focus should be on thinking not on thinking in any particular language and whatever means are the most effective to facilitate better thinking should be employed.

    My response: In my view, the primary reasons for the success of different countries lie elsewhere. It is arguable, for example, that the early success of Japan was due to the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century and early industrialization relative to other Asian countries, and not due to instruction in Japanese. Also, so far, globalization was only emerging and so English was less important. Now, with globalization in full force, English may well matter to success. It has certainly made a difference to the entire outsourcing and software industry in India.

    I fully agree that it is thinking that is of essential importance. In my view, language is not as important to thinking ability as it is often claimed. This is again because of universal grammar and the fact that we think in a “language of thought” or mental representational system that is distinct from any particular natural language. The environment is of course very important too but the quality of teaching is more important and, besides, the environment is increasingly extremely complex. To make an analogy: just as children can often become very proficient with computers if they are exposed early to them in a way that far exceeds their parents’ ability, so too with language. A case in point is the transition from pidgins to creoles.

    Finally, local languages are extremely important for cultural and political reasons (though not for thinking). So it is very important to maintain as much linguistic diversity as possible and this is also possible only through early instruction in the local languages.

    Hence strong bilingualism (or weak trilingualism).

  35. SouthAsian Says:

    Apropos of this discussion, the linked article has some amusing dimensions and, of course, some quite serious ones:


  36. SouthAsian Says:

    I am posting this message on behalf of a reader who was unable to post it himself.

    This document refers to research that might be relevant to those wishing to pursue this topic in greater depth.

    Click to access simp-skuttnab.pdf

    The following is a quote from the document (Q1):
    “Often people ask: do we know that the negative educational results are consequences of the foreign medium? And can one really rely on the claims of most of us researchers that mother tongue medium (MTM) education leads to better results? One could be charitable and assume that ignorance, lack of knowledge about what various educational models lead to, might play a role in the lack of guaranteed rights to MTM education. Therefore I start with summarizing a few aspects of information necessary for human rights lawyers to argue more forcefully for the right to mother tongue medium education.

    Minority children have to become minimally bilingual through their formal education. Bilingual education of all kinds is a very specialized and sensitive area of both research and policymaking. However, detailed knowledge of it is a prerequisite for being able to make sound recommendations. An important complicating issue is that some of the scientifically sound and practically proven principles of how to enable children to become high-level multilinguals with the support of the educational system are in fact counter-intuitive: they go against common sense.

    If indigenous or minority children who speak their mother tongue at home, are to become bilingual, and learn the dominant/majority language well, one might, with a common sense approach, imagine that the principles of early start with and maximum exposure to the dominant language would be good ideas, like they are for learning many other things – practice makes perfect.

    In fact, sound research shows the opposite: the longer indigenous and minority children in a low-status position have their own language as the main medium of teaching, the better they also become in the dominant language, provided, of course, that they have good teaching in it, preferably given by bilingual teachers, just as the Hague Recommendations on the Educational Rights of National Minorities and the UNESCO Education Position Paper Education in a multilingual world (2003) recommend.”

  37. Anjum Altaf Says:

    An excellent example of common sense in early childhood education:


    When these children begin their tryst with education, at the pre-primary stage in the ‘anganwadis’ near their settlements, they find themselves lost. The language used for instruction and communication here is frighteningly strange. The process flows on to the primary level too. Unable to fully comprehend classroom teaching and the activities, unable to read the language taught or understand the text books properly, majority of these children drop out of school.

    The concept has been developed on the thought that use of tribal language in the initial years can go a long way to make them comfortable with the process of education. “The first language taught should be what they are familiar with, their own language. Through this they must first acquire knowledge of their own culture, ethnicity. The official lingo can be introduced gradually as this is essential for their integration into mainstream schools and the society at large.”

  38. Standing Upon the Ruins of the Macaulite Project: India, English and the Need for a Native Language of Intellectual Discourse : Centre Right India Says:

    […] best out of the encounter with modernity are precisely those who have kept English at bay. As Altaf observes, “learning a language and learning in a language are two very different […]

  39. Anjum Altaf Says:

    This is a useful report of a consultation on the key issues in strengthening the presence of Indian languages in higher education, formulating initiatives for innovative curriculum design, production of raw materials, teacher training and resource aggregation.


    The critical decision under scrutiny is whether better English is to be taught early or whether local languages are to be strengthened in higher education.

    “About six million students (40% of all enrolled students) from non-metropolitan India enter the system every year and fail to achieve their educational goals because they are unable to cope with English. Public elementary education in India has been largely moving towards Indian language instruction, but in higher education globalisation has only reinforced the position of English as the single-most important language for teaching and research. Caught in this tug-of-war, the higher education student from a non-metropolitan context finds it impossible to survive. Less than 15% of the relevant age group enters higher education, of which only 17% goes on to obtain a postgraduate (PG) degree. One of the significant reasons is the enormous linguistic divide within Indian higher education, a divide that has severe consequences for occupational, economic and social mobility, and the quality of life, of non-metropolitan students. It is a familiar fact of Indian higher education that while the mandated medium of instruction is English, the default language of the classroom is the local one. Thus any intervention that does not strengthen the local language as a knowledge language cannot succeed. Merely improving English skills has no effect on higher education when attention is not paid to the relevance of the curriculum to contemporary knowledge needs. Similarly, translating large amounts of material into Indian languages has little effect because of their lack of local relevance.”

  40. SouthAsian Says:

    A good input into language policy by a professor of linguistics at the University of Delhi:


    “Unless some major steps are taken at the school and college levels, and the study of language is brought out of the clutches of traditional prescriptive rote-learnt grammar to be replaced by a scientific study of language, the future will continue to be what the present is and the past has been. We will continue to neglect the languages of children and the community; the levels of silence will continue to increase in classrooms; the clamour for English will become more intense, privileging a handful and neglecting the majority on the margins. Yes, there is something inherently wrong with the formulation ‘minorities on the margins’; those minorities constitute the majority of our population.”

  41. SouthAsian Says:

    One can note how stupid the Punjab government is. No amount of education has equipped the policymakers to think despite all the languages they know or don’t know.


    This kind of ridiculous back and forth has been going on for 60 years despite all the global evidence about early education and despite the glaring example of countries like China and Korea that have progressed rapidly without teaching all subjects in English from grade 1.

  42. SouthAsian Says:

    An example of staged multi-lingual education In India starting with the first language and moving through the regional language to English:


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