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A market for English

Parents in Uganda believe that in a country with multiple languages but no national language, English plays a crucially important integrative role.


The politics of English teaching in India has been perennially governed by wrong-headed postcolonialism totally at odds with global trends in learning and professional aspirations. Those who spout their disdain for Anglicism and suffer from the delusion that English has caused a great loss to India also worsen the situation. All the cynical forces may be shown the door with the idea that it is high time India can aspire to earn foreign exchange through English teaching. Confused? Noted linguist David Crystal recently expressed his confidence that India can lead in becoming a better teacher of English to people whose mother tongue is not English because it has a cultural connection with Britain.

Learning and teaching of English language in India started nearly 250 years ago. Some of the commonly accepted approaches to English Language Teaching (ELT) were tried and tested in our country. It was Michael West who did some pioneering work in the areas of simplified readers and other texts written within the basic list of 3,000 to 5,000 words for elementary readers. Several schools, colleges and universities were opened with English in the curriculum. With a larger number of English training institutions, we became very resourceful in the area of English language teaching. India is, at present, better equipped to appreciate the language needs of multilingual societies like Mauritius or Nigeria.

The country has the experience, expertise and environment that can make it an ideal guide in running ELT programmes in different countries. The need of the hour is to speed up educational contacts with other countries, especially Afro-Asian countries. This can earn foreign exchange for our country. Admittedly, the global demand for English is continuing to grow. The developing countries, in particular, are recording the importance of English for their developmental and societal needs. Individuals, too, find it proper to make it a tool that can help them to fulfil their personal aspirations at a time when globalization is the buzzword. A study of the economic aspects of learning English in developing countries reveals that language can increase the earning power of individuals by 20 per cent and that developmental economies need access to English if they are to grow and position themselves in the global economy.

The report from Euronitor, a leading research organization commissioned from the British Council which gathered data from five target countries – Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cameroon and Rwanda ~ shows that the benefits of English are seen predominantly by urban elites, who have access to better standards of teaching mostly delivered through private education. It is felt that they are required to do much to bridge the gap between urban elites and the rural population. In Francophone Cameroon, the secondary school students have little interest in English. The case for English for development is a compelling one and efforts are on to convince students on this line.

English as a medium of instruction in schools is being advocated in Ethiopia to perceive the language in a positive light. As second and third generation Eritreans are born and brought up abroad, English plays an important role as the language of communication between the diaspora and their families still in Eritrea. The socio-economic background of children in Indonesia has a massive impact on their urge to learn English. Those from the aspirational middle class try their best to improve their English. Huge numbers of migrant workers from Indonesia go to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Hongkong and elsewhere and they frequently experience difficulties while they are abroad.

They generally have language training before leaving their country. English in Sri Lanka, after the end of the conflict in the North and East of the country, has a special role to play. Government troops did not speak Tamil; refugees did not speak Sinhalese; workers spoke neither of them. So, English became their language of communication. STEPS (Skill through English for Public Servants) began as a project which aimed at encouraging communication between civil servants and the public, NGOs, international humanitarian workers and the government, which not only teaches English but integrates this with the development of skills needed for regulations. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is a case for English language teaching as a component in a broader mother tongue-based education system.

There is a large English language teaching project in Bangladesh to identify the importance of the language for international development. They are to see how competence in English can be equated with economic and social development. The same ideology is identified in many of the countries in Africa. Having access to a global language such as English is a political imperative. In rural and urban schools in Uganda, parents hold somewhat ambiguous attitudes towards English. Both groups are concerned that their children should be exposed to an international language, particularly English, in order to catch up in this fast-moving world.

Parents in Uganda believe that in a country with multiple languages but no national language, English plays a crucially important integrative role. In China, the number of bilingual speakers (English and Mandarin) has increased. With the increasingly important role of English in economic development, it is common to see English being used as a medium of instruction in many non-native English-speaking contexts where the majority of the population speak a local language. As such the most important question is how children acquire knowledge in a multilingual context.

In response to the widespread view of English as a language of opportunity and economic growth, Columbia and many other so-called developing countries have witnessed an exceptional promotion of English through different sorts of education policies. At this opportune moment, it is for India to rise to the occasion. The Association of Indian Universities (AIU) can take the responsibility of identifying the needs of clients in other countries and resources available at different Indian universities to fulfil these needs. It may be a good idea for Indian embassies abroad, especially in Afro-Asian countries to have educational representatives assessing needs and marketing Indian resources in ELT.

For their English as a Foreign Language (EFL) programmes, many Afro-Asian countries may prefer Indian to British or American expertise, as our country has proven expertise in learning and teaching EFL in a multilingual setting. English for engineers, business personnel, housewives and general graduate students are currently used as parts of the ELT programme in India. There are institutions which have specialized in production of audio-visual materials and distance learning in language training. Many Third World countries may be benefited in their ELT programmes from Indian sources. Besides being of a comparable quality, the Indian package may be inexpensive.

A good amount of foreign money may be had from the international ELT market. Our institutions will have to come up with course modules of varying types to suit the needs of the customer. However, our attitude to the acceptability of the English language will also have to change. When a language is as widely as English, it inevitably develops many registers, styles, genres and norms. A rigid standard may stifle opportunities of creative use and learning.