Monthly Archives: September 2013

Language and identity: English and the Indian Identity

My paternal grandmother was 92 when she passed away twenty years ago. Though she had spent the first half of her life moving around a lot in Karnataka and the second half as a home bird in Tamil Nadu, she managed to live and die knowing just one language. Although, in all, five different languages are spoken in Karnataka, namely Kannada, Kodavu, Konkani, Baere Bashe and Tulu, my grandmother’s mother tongue Tulu was her first and only language.  I’ve often wondered how she managed to travel in Karnataka without knowing the more widely spoken language Kannada. Surprisingly, as long as she was alive and as far as I know, she never suffered from an identity problem because of language.

In stark contrast to this fairly old story, an Indian’s identity today is distinctly different, which is closely reflected in the rising use of English as a common language at least in major cities and towns of the country.  Nevertheless, despite being kindled by a strong desire to speak good English, most Indians are plunged into complexes. Relating to a person with better proficiency gives rise to an inferiority complex just as trying to converse with one at lower levels logically results in a superiority complex. What ails the Indian mindset about knowing and using English, then, is the judgement that people draw by comparing levels of proficiency and accuracy.

Firstly I’d like to share a festering issue regarding my own proficiency and use of English language. Tulu happens to be my first language.  As a language that’s slowly dying and having lost its script already, the existing minority of native speakers of Tulu are desperately trying to keep at least the spoken form alive by using it to communicate in their households. Besides this, though I had my education in English medium schools, they were ordinary schools in which English was not spoken by most of the students since it wasn’t a mandate. That explains why the environment I grew up in had very little use of the English language, which, as I perceive it, puts me at a disadvantage.  Like the many Indians out there who suffer from complexes arising out of comparison, as a teaching professional, I too can’t help comparing my proficiency of the language with those who use it copiously, given their English-speaking backgrounds.

I’d be damned with prejudice if I didn’t include the other side of the coin because the identity problem does not end with the ability to use English alone. Unmistakably, cities and major towns in the country recognise and appreciate speakers of good English while the rural pockets still see speakers of English as intellectual heavyweights who can neither connect nor belong.  As a teacher, I’ve often come across students who are torn between an unflinching desire to articulate in English and the pressing need to thwart the perils of social alienation due to overuse of the language. When questioned on why they don’t communicate in English with their friends, they often say they are subjected to taunts and being nicknamed ‘Peter’. I’m as clueless as anybody else as to how this name came to be associated with the meaning of ‘a snooty show off’ in Tamil Nadu.

As a class, women who are housewives suffer in silence because elders in the family disapprove of their use of English with their husbands and children. These days, parenting tips from India strongly encourage the use of mother tongue with new-born children and toddlers for fear that ‘English speaking families’ might feel impelled to ignore or even be tempted to give up the use of languages that are native to the motherland.

The British Council’s language courses are considered special and sought after. The courses offered to students after a placement test not only give them an appropriate level of challenge, but also help them to learn with and relate to users of English at the same level of proficiency. The library is also unique, offering a wide number of graded reader books mapped to the CEFR. Housewives, students and working professionals admit that frequenting a place like this and enrolling for courses help language enthusiasts like them dispel misconceptions and deal better with their dilemmas.

As citizens belonging to a country that’s home to many languages, I wonder (and hope) will proficiency both in English and their mother tongue give Indians the identity and the inclusiveness that will truly put their hearts at rest?

Post by: S. Shailini, British Council, Chennai

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Design Education: India and UK

As part of our initiatives to explore Design Education in India we organised an event in 2012 “Designing Better Designers”. A forum for discussion and exchange on Design Education, the event also aimed at building collaboration between design communities in India and UK, to fill gaps in their current education models.

“I just wanted to say that both countries are at tipping points in their development in terms of design profession.” – Penny Egan, Fulbright Commission UK

Following the event and the issues it raised, we look forward to our upcoming “India Design Education Study Tour”, to take place this October. The details of the two are as follows:

Designing Better Designers

In association with the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in India, we organised this event on 25 Feb 2012, at the British Council, New Delhi. It served as a platform for design educators, students and policy makers, to relook at design education and the role it plays in a rapidly growing India. The event was supported by Sushant School of Design and University of Arts London, and was held in three parts:

1. A panel discussion on “Design Education in India: where is it heading?”

“The government supports design education when it has a financial imperative; this causes the education to be industrially or technologically focussed. The government needs to be educated on the value of educating young people on the process of thinking” – M P Ranjan (Design Academic and Design Thinker)

Chaired by Penny Egan, this discussion was initiated with the hope of delivering practical outcomes for design education in India. Recognising the role of design in society, industry, economy and policy-making, the discussion was initiated to reflect upon the need to train larger number of designers, and the issues surrounding it.

“How do we interest those 7000 students at the high school level and prepare them for getting them into design school with the proper support they need – layers.” – Silvia Ojeda García, Academic Director, Raffles Millennium International, New Delhi.

The panel discussion brought to light, issues in teaching practice and pedagogy, as well as explored how to shape future ready, empowered and original designers. It generated an insight into opportunities for design students through scholarships and collaborations, and also promotion of design education in schools.

Further, the participants discussed on inclusivity, craftsmen and communities. A need to look beyond formal definition of design and structures of design institutes, to include craftsmen and skilled personnel was also identified.

Summary of Designing Better Designers

Paraphrased Transcript of Designing Better Designers

2. Workshop for school students on “What is design? And how it can change your life?”

In the second part of the event, we hosted a hands-on design workshop for school students aged 12-16 years. The program ended with an exhibition of the students’ work and concluding talk by Mike Knowles.

3. Event for design students and educators, “What I wish they taught in a design school!”

We invited students and educators to discuss and explore issues within teaching practices that would be crucial in designing better designers. Continuing with the theme of the event, this provided an insight into different directions design teaching is headed, and aimed to serve as an inspiration for design students and teachers.
Prior to the event we had organised a competition “What you wish they taught in a design school!” where students were invited to send notes on what they wish was done differently at their design institutes, to give voice to their concerns and suggestions. Those selected were given a chance to present before and share their views with design educators at this event.

Design Education Delegation

From October 06 through October 11, 2013 a delegation of design educators would be  participating in the “India Design Education Study Tour” being organised by the British Council at Design and Art Institutes in UK. Participants include educators from five design institutes in India accompanied by representatives from British Council India.

View list of Delegation from India

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English language skills could boost employability and earning potential

There’s a scene in the Yash Chopra film ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’ where Shah Rukh Khan offers to teach Katrina Kaif how to play the guitar in exchange for English lessons.  From selling fish in a South London market to becoming a waiter, and finally a bomb disposal expert in the Indian army, Khan’s ascending career trajectory is matched by ever increasing English language skills.

India. 2013.  In Bollywood and in real life, proficiency in English is perhaps the key factor in improving employment prospects. In a nation of over a billion people, the employment market is a crowded space and English language competency is seen as increasingly non-negotiable. Irrespective of the number of degrees and postgraduate degrees you might have, technical qualifications, industry experience and so forth, not being able to communicate effectively in English is perhaps the greatest barrier to career growth.

The India I visited for the first time almost 15 years ago is a very different place to the India of today. Landing at Indira Gandhi International Airport I remember the arrival terminal’s one small chai stall, Devanagari signboards and a road into the city centre punctuated with cows. Even though the time lapse we are talking about is relatively recent history, the importance of English has risen exponentially since then.

My most-recent visit to Delhi airport last month provided some food for thought. Not just with international visitors to Delhi’s airport – but seemingly also among India’s burgeoning flying classes – English is the preferred language of communication. This impact of widening English use consequently finds itself filtering through all sectors of society.  From the executive at the airline check-in desk to the barista serving your chai latte at Starbucks, being able to make yourself understood and being able to understand others in English are an essential competency of the job.

Some might say it was the growth of the call centre industry and the rise of business process outsourcing to India that helped initiate this demand in learning English for professional reasons. Whether it’s the relocation of many BPOs from India to new territories such as the Philippines, or a growing rejection of working late nights and constant targets, the call centre industry no longer seems to be the driving factor behind English language acquisition for employment purposes.

In fact, the most popular courses in our suite of Executive options are those that typically attract mid-level professionals wishing to fine-tune their written or spoken English and who already possess competent English language skills. Our once popular Call Centre Skills course has, in fact, in the last ten years, been superseded by this type of product.

Our regular English courses attract learners from beginner to advanced level, with our Spoken English and General English courses perennially popular. In dialogue with students joining a language course at the British Council ‘I need to improve my English to get a good job’ and ‘I won’t get a promotion unless my English gets better’, are routinely articulated to our placement testing team.

Since starting work with the British Council in 2006 I have been witness to numerous success stories of former students. From the pre-intermediate level learner from Old Delhi who is now undertaking a teacher training CELTA course at International House in Seville, to the Creative Writing student whose first novel recently launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

It would be hard to put an exact figure on the number of students I have trained on IELTS exam preparation courses over the years, but it must be in the thousands. Many of those students are now thriving in their professional lives in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many more locations, working in fields from medicine and dentistry, IT, education, the media, law, and business.

I think here Shah Rukh Khan’s character in ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’ going from tentatively pronouncing ‘salmon’ (a new word learnt while studying English in the bath) to achieving professional success in the UK and India, is an achievement story I have seen repeatedly mirrored  with our past and present students in the British Council.  A happy ending is not just in the movies.

Post by: Steven Baker, Senior Teacher, British Council, New Delhi

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Raising Continuing Professional Development awareness in Chandigarh

Emma Sue Prince training a group of teachers

Emma Sue Prince training a group of teachers

“Blessings and may you be the best you can be”, so said one of the trainers at the end of a simple ice breaker at one of the Continuing Professional Development awareness-raising workshops I ran recently at the British Council in Chandigarh.

Within 5 minutes of meeting the group, they all enthusiastically took part in my “Copycat” warm-up where they led each other in a series of vocal, physical and energising improvised, on-the-spot exercises.

Working in India is inspiring, uplifting and joyful and I have enjoyed every single visit during the last 18 months. I know that British Council staff have a challenging role here in developing and running large-scale English language programmes. In a way, I have had the “easy” bit as the external consultant facilitating, encouraging, advising, reporting and guiding on best practice for creating and implementing an India-specific CPD framework. My role here has come to an end and now the real work must begin of starting to implement the framework and tools into all projects in a streamlined, consistent and visible way.

Within this project, I have run workshops both with British Council staff (to develop the framework and the right tools, to facilitate planning and implementation and to promote a strong team) as well as with groups of teacher, Master Trainers and school principals and support staff. (to raise awareness and to get ideas of what sorts of CPD work in practice).

Working with Indian teachers and practitioners, the sentiment I have come across again and again is echoed in the words of the elegant, turbaned Master Trainer in Chandigarh “being the best you can be” and an immediate understanding that that is, ultimately what CPD really is. Another immediate understanding is the concept of “self-awareness” – when I mention this to Western audiences, it is seen as ‘touchy-feely’ and there is generally a slight feeling of discomfort in the audience. Mention it in India, however, and everyone gets it.

For me, investing time and focus on yourself personally is at the heart of all CPD. In other words, finding purpose and meaning in your work and fulfilling your own potential. This creates motivation, excitement and a massive ripple effect on the way you teach or train, the impact you have in the learning environment and the way you feel about your work. Why?  Because, quite simply, you gain more confidence, enrich your own learning and achieve much more personal and professional satisfaction as a result. Self-awareness means having a clear perception of your personality, including strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, and emotions. Self-awareness allows you to understand other people, how they perceive you, your attitude and your responses to them in the moment. These are all things a teacher in India needs, if they are going to navigate their own CPD journey in a country where support may be erratic.

One of the CPD tools that British Council staff will now start using in projects is running simple self-awareness sessions having discussions and conversations and understanding what motivates teachers. Looking for the purpose and meaning and exploring any limiting beliefs or barriers.

I strongly believe that it is exactly these kinds of conversations that will start to open and unlock the doors to self-initiated CPD.

Workshop photographs can be viewed by clicking here

Post by: Emma-Sue Prince, Director Unimenta

You can also read  Self Awareness – something money can’t buy written by her.

About the contributor:

Emma Sue Prince worked with the British Council India between March 2012 and October 2013 on the development and implementation of an India-specific CPD framework. She is Director of Unimenta – a free membership site for teachers and practitioners delivering soft skills –

She is also author of The Advantage, a book which redefines soft skills as personal competences each of us can develop –


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Monkey business

I saw Gandhi’s three monkeys yesterday – seeing, hearing and speaking no evil, but doing much mischief on one of the little terraces at the back of the British Council building in Delhi.  Over the summer, one of them turned on a tap outside, and flooded part of our library.  Tricky customers to get rid of, these monkeys – we can’t use our faithful langoor any more to chase them off, and they are fearless and shameless.  They have no regard for the expressive lines of Charles Correa’s architecture or the instantly recognisable shadows of Howard Hodgkin’s tree mural in the façade of our building.  They care little for knowledge or libraries, even though we have both “Fearless” and “Shameless” in the British Council catalogue.  We care, however – and we care for our building.  It needs some work, and this month we’ve started.  We are going to make it a better building for all the things we do with you – English teaching, the arts, examinations, and education.

Right now, I can hear hammers being wielded in distant parts of the building.  It reminds me that like all such projects, this is going to be noisy, dusty, challenging; but at the end of it we’ll have a great space to share with you.  There will be new classrooms, a new ground floor café and exhibition space, and a new library.  We will improve the way we meet and talk with you, by upgrading our customer service.  All of this is part of a wider enhancement of the way we work in India – offering more English teaching and examinations, reaching more people by doing more online, working from better premises and offering more opportunities for education and cultural exchange.

We are not going to issue bland notices about “any inconvenience that may be caused”; you rightly expect more honesty and directness than that from the British Council, so I can guarantee that, unfortunately, there will be inconvenience caused by this project.  We apologise for this.  But we can also guarantee that at the end, we will have a great space and great facilities to offer you.

We will probably still have the monkeys, but we’ve put locks on the taps.

Post by: Paul Clementson, Assistant Director Operations, British Council


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“Let’s Eat Granny”

“Let’s eat granny” shouted my wife. It was past dinner time and we were all hungry, but it seemed a bit dramatic. It might not be too late for granny, punctuation can save her life!  All she needs is a comma.

What’s a comma and what do they do? They reduce sentences into shorter, more manageable sections, tell us when to pause and which words to stress. This can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Without commas does this sentence make sense?

‘The cannibal smiled half an hour after she was hanged’.

No, it doesn’t make any sense, unless you believe in ghosts. However, it does make sense when you add two commas. Where should you place them?

‘The cannibal smiled half an hour after she was hanged’.

This now makes perfect sense; ‘The cannibal smiled, half an hour after, she was hanged’.

If you read both sentences aloud (with and without commas), you will clearly hear how the commas change the stress and therefore the meaning.  

In this sentence, who’s mad and who’s speaking?

‘The cannibal said the judge is mad’

 Without commas, the Judge is mad and the cannibal is speaking.

Can you add two commas, to make the cannibal mad and the judge the speaker?

‘The cannibal said the judge is mad’.

This is how. ‘The cannibal, said the judge, is mad’.

In a famous UK legal case a man was hanged by a comma. The interpretation of the law depended on the disputed position of a comma. So don’t underestimate the importance of commas, they can save your life but get you hanged as well.

Me and my wife recently discussed the question, who is more important in a relationship, the man or the woman? I put the comma in the first sentence:

‘Woman without her man, is nothing’. The comma position here confirms that women are dependent on men. But my wife thinks otherwise and strategically moved the commas: ‘Woman, without her, man is nothing’. Now men are dependent on women.

Women sometimes worry me, particularly my wife. I had good reason when I read what she’d written on her Facebook profile;

‘My interests include cooking dogs and family’.

On first reading this, I decided to get the dog and kids into the car and drive somewhere safe where we wouldn’t be turned into meat kebabs. But on a second reading, I realized it was just poor punctuation rather than a poor choice of a life partner. Maybe she isn’t a cannibal after all.

Her profile needs three commas. Where should they go?

‘My interests include cooking dogs and family’

If you place them here;

‘My interests include, cooking, dogs, and family’. She becomes the good mother and animal lover I married.

But I still worry. She does have this tendency of wanting to eat the people she loves, including granny. So, how can a comma save granny?  Simple, “Let’s eat, granny”. Say it aloud and it’s how you call someone to the dining table to share dinner. So granny’s safe and sitting down at the table enjoying a selection of meat kebabs. “What meat is this?” she asks looking around “And where are the kids?”  

This article was first published in Prastuti, Anandabazar Patrika.

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