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