More language, more person

The taxi-less roads did not deter ELT whizzes and exponents in Kolkata, who went on a linguistic, educational and cultural overdrive with a lively debate on ‘English Medium Instruction: Boon or curse? that followed an engaging talk by Prof. Andy Curtis on the subject.

Andy Curtis is Professor in the School of Graduate Education at Anaheim University, California and the president of TESOL International. His talk, on 11 August in Kolkata and 13 August in Patna, took great care to present research related to the two opposing schools of thought, viz. the perceived position of English as the ‘language of inclusion’ vs. the possibility of it being the ‘language of intrusion’.

He elaborated on the historical and political significance of the EMI debate in India, with particular reference to India’s colonial past, while also highlighting how the various Indian Englishes have contributed to keeping the language a ‘living, breathing organism’. Prof. Curtis stressed on the need for a strong debate on EMI in India.

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The panel discussion and the audience response turned out to be a thought-provoking session, with a combination of long-standing views of the Indian education system and progressive comments on the pertinent impact of technology, globalisation and India’s presence as a multi-lingual and multi-cultural expanse with an internationally competitive edge.

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Prof. Anuradha Lohia, Vice-Chancellor, Presidency University, pointed out how several generations of Indian school-going children learnt English ‘by default’ without there being any choice in the matter. She acknowledged that more and more learners of this generation had the option of continuing education in their chosen language, but higher education demands a knowledge of English. She attributed this scenario to the fact that English is the language of research and development, therefore a ‘language of necessity’ for young people who will soon become global citizens. She also put forth an interesting question of whether lack of English could become an impediment for those aspiring for a career in technical fields, or if they could still make it big in the international arena.

The Director of Modern High School for Girls in Kolkata, Ms. Devi Kar, responded to Prof. Curtis and Ms Lohia by raising the question of whether English might also be seen as the ‘language of exclusion’, especially in higher education. From her own experience of teaching and learning, Ms Kar pointed out how pronunciation and accent formed the ‘great divide’ for Indian English speakers, by bringing up the long-ensuing war between substance and language style. The crux of Ms Kar’s response was based on bilingual language teaching and how it was a more organic way of teaching languages in India, especially due to the need for constant code-switching and code-mixing in the diverse linguistic panorama.

Academic Manager of British Council Teaching Centre in Kolkata, Mr Rajeev Bakhshi, took on the debate of the purpose and need for English learning in India, by emphasising that students in the English classroom looked upon English as a means of seeking better jobs or securing a better future for themselves, not only in terms of monetary benefit, but also for more promising careers and a global identity.

The audience posed questions on a number of issues ranging from how English is taught in schools, to which Prof Curtis responded by saying that the current style of grammar-focussed teaching can limit linguistic creativity to a great extent. To another question on how English language is linked to ‘who we are’, Prof Curtis advocated the ideology of plurality while pointing out the fossilisation of language and clear markers of an individual’s identity, influence how we speak.

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The stimulating discussion ended with a consensus that despite the ambivalence towards EMI globally, multilingualism is the way forward. Prof Curtis encapsulated this belief with the comment ‘diversity is strength’ and Sujata Sen rounded off session by saying English language learning is indeed a boon in India and the debate on EMI should continue, in interest of betterment of education in India.

The debate continued in Patna  where a turnout of 86 people on a day it rained very heavily included a mix of senior education policy makers from SCERT (director and his deputy, VC of Patna University), teacher educators from our own BLISS project, Pratham Bihar unit (including their state head), several school principals from our schools network.

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A lively interaction followed the lecture, with questions of linguistic imperialism and dangers of English cropping up (and tackled very well by Andy). The discussion was moderated by Debanjan Chakrabarti.

Both events were covered very well in the mainstream media (the Telegraph, Hindu, Hindustan Times, several agencies).

This was the first in a series of programmes that strategically brings together our work in research and publications, particularly on the (tricky) issue of EMI and related pedagogic approaches, aligned to our state partnership programmes and looking at the medium term milestone of the Language and Development Conference late in 2015.

Post by: Samathmika Balaji

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