Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Big Language Barrier and the Indian learner

Recently, I was fortunate enough to be a part (after a long period) of a team at an Engineering College at Odisha. We were helping the young engineering students to get ready for their professional career ahead, and more specifically, their campus interviews. This isn't the first time I have done mock interviews or group discussions, and I hope there would be many more to come! I have interacted with students in different states, including Delhi, UP, MP, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Odisha. My experiences have been strikingly the same irrespective of the state and closeness to the city. There is a similar scenario in all campuses, the ratios only varying depending on the social background of the students.

This isn't something that you wouldn't be suspecting already, yet I felt it was important to bring this out in the open to explore solutions. But first, the problem statement. To define the problem, we must try to answer these questions as accurately as possible:

  1. Are our current graduating students very different from the past generations in terms of:
    1. Technical/ Subject Knowledge?
    2. English Communication?
    3. Readiness for professional life?
  2. Are the current recruiters "asking for" or "demanding" a highly proficient English Language communicator? More pertinently, is the current employer laying more emphasis on English communication than knowledge or overall personality, and how has this changed over the generations?
  3. Is English communication really the biggest hurdle in a student's self-esteem?
Our answers to these questions may vary when we take a distant and impersonal view of the matter. But when we get into the thick of reality that we see around us everyday, it almost reeks of a conspiracy! You will have to be blind and deaf to miss the stark differences in how a person is perceived by others and by himself. If we all know this reality, then why do we have schools as foundations to ensure this dark future? Our schools are not equipped to handle this situation. At least, not in the current setup. We have state education boards that treat English as just another subject, not even giving it an ESL status. How do we expect children from these schools to wake up to the harsh reality of English being such an important aspect of their future life? It doesn't really help to have teachers who can't frame a proper sentence in English. Such deplorable state of affairs continues into the higher education stage, albeit a wee bit better.

I am sure all of us are aware of this reality, yet fail to come up with a solution. At best, we send our children to a decent school where we hope they will pick up the language and rise. It isn't surprising then to see an "English-medium" school charging a hefty premium over its poorer cousin next door. This, however, doesn't seem to be working in the direction of bridging the wide gap.

Now, here are my radical solutions:

1. Make English mandatory at all schools at all levels: Easier said than done, I know! For this to happen, we need to train teachers in the language and adopt English as a "vocational subject" rather than a subject. The key difference is in the way English is perceived. Instead of making it sound like learning a language (with its grammar nuances etc), we should learn it in the form of a "skill", much like carpentry, welding etc. This will result in laying the stress on the "employability" factor rather than "marks" factor. A certificate-course that gives a level of proficiency would be the end result.

2. Make employers realize that English isn't all that matters while recruiting: This is kind of an anti-thesis to this post. Yet, it is important for us as a society to take a step back and assess manpower at all levels from a standpoint of competency than smooth-talking English-speaking gentry. It is quite easy when we talk about hiring an office boy or an electrician, because they are not "supposed to be" interacting in English. This ease stops immediately even at a trainee-level hire.

The second point is actually a kind of remedial action that wouldn't be needed if the first one is addressed properly. Because it will take a long time to achieve a sound level in the first point, and the second point may seem to be quite Utopian, I have a third and more doable approach.

How I wish our Medical, Linguistic, Neurological and any other expert communities could come together to create the "English pill"! It could come in different packages for different learner groups and one pill (or a sequence of pills) could make someone a Level A, B, C...Z in English. Well, while I let my imagination fly, why not have some pill that could translate your language into English while it was on its way from the mind to your mouth! Alas, science may have to jump into 3000 AD to make it happen!

For now, I have a simpler, though quite imperfect, solution. In spite of the good success of English-Vinglish (hats off to my old favourite, Sridevi for pulling it off), I suspect if people really become English speakers in good measure from these courses in India. Mind you, we are not talking about making fiction writers from the learners. We are talking about only making them proficient enough to acquire an employability skill.

We need to have English-speaking modules (not classes) for learners of all ages, minus the ridicule that comes with them. I remember the Rapidex era when people wouldn't want to be associated with the book, though the book did brisk business, thanks to a helping hand from Kapil Dev. How do you make English learning more acceptable for all types of learners- kids, teens, housewives and working professionals alike?

When I was a kid, I could have never imagined watching TV commercials selling sanitary napkins with my family one day! The slogans like "Have a happy period" or "Don't worry!" for advertising sanitary napkins and similar innovative slogans for selling condoms, deodorants etc. have taken away the "awkwardness" out of them. Why we never needed such campaigns for the products like a talcum powder is because a talcum powder is not "awkward". To make English learning a necessity, we need to disrupt the normal approach for product design, marketing and delivery. Technology usage can disrupt all the three aspects by making it convenient for everyone to learn. There have been attempts to use CDs, TV, Internet to deliver language courses. But somehow, we still haven't reached the masses. I don't see it happening without a government enforced compliance in schools and colleges to begin with. A working professional is able to see the necessity and importance of English for his growth, but a student rarely understands. The need of the hour is to make it evident, easy to access and free to use.

Once these are taken care of, we will be able to ponder at those huge skill gap numbers thrown to us by every demographic expert. And I hope to see the day when people would appreciate true talent wrapped beautifully in the garb of English language...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The great teacher divide!

I have always come up with "digital" as a prefix whenever someone mentions the term "divide". And I expected the same on the ground, when I went on a "rural tourism" holiday at Pranpur, a dusky village near Chanderi. While the family enjoyed a rare late morning start in the well-furnished resort room, I rushed down for an appointment with the Headmaster of the local government school. I had been lucky to get a go-ahead for a video interview on my last day's visit to his school. I said lucky because a similar request in a public funded school near my home in the city had been declined on fears of "what will I do with the video"! The teachers there had warned the principal that I could use the video in some harmful way! Trust, the important aspect of a society that can be very effectively transmitted to passing generations by teachers and parents, clearly is a big divide between a simple rural setup and its urban counterpart.

The Headmaster, Mr. Sharma, in the middle with his staff
That is not the only divide I am referring to in this post.There is another critical divide that I was pleasantly shaken up to- that great digital divide. Even in my remotest dreams I couldn't have fathomed coming across teachers in this remote village school holding iPads! To be honest, I didn't quite see the iPads, but I was told that a local NGO, Chanderiyan, had donated 2 iPads to the teachers. A computer lab with 11 computers blessed the school too. The daily power cut from 6 am to 12 noon was of course, a reality check! To add insult to injury, the local census team had taken away the only UPS that could power the computers for an hour. I wasn't disheartened to see these problems; it would have been too-good-to-be-true, had everything been perfect.  But the optimist in me made me look at what they were sitting on. The school had a workable IT infrastructure, with 2 iPads that could be an envy of any urban school! It had a very motivated and determined team led by a deserving headmaster who could blurt out the latest pedagogical concepts on his fingertips. He was proudly showing off some of his students' knowledge skills, and told me of the instances when he had to fight with the villagers to keep the school premises clean and not being used as open lavatories in the morning!

I couldn't help but think of a tremendous opportunity of linking two sets of teachers together. Beyond Teaching was founded on these principles and I had to ask the Headmaster for any help that our member teachers could offer. Several options came up including a Skype call for teacher-training and special student sessions, occasional inter-school teacher meetings etc.

Coming to the another big divide between a rural and an urban school. The students and their parents feeling truly indebted to the school for making a change. In another village school that was private, that is, where students pay some fees (in this case, Rs. 100 per month), I witnessed a typical scene. Before leaving school, the four teachers lined up in front of the children and the children touched their feet before leaving! Corroborating the faith in school, the government school's headmaster had boasted that the parents had given him "full freedom to straighten out" the children by using any means.

And finally, the big revelation, though, I admit I should have known. The touchy point about teacher salaries. I came to know that the government school teachers were getting, and rightly so according to the sixth pay (state) commission, Rs. 25,000 per month as their gross salary! I couldn't help myself but not think about their expenses in the village. The private school teachers were getting less than Rs. 1,000 per month! Now, that is a divide that I couldn't fathom at all. Two individuals doing a similar job, presumably with varying results (going by what the parents expected from a private school) and getting paid 25 times differently!

The divides may be very large, yet, the purpose- common. I have found teachers to be a very curious breed, often bored yet occupied; seldom dissatisfied yet content; rarely punishing yet feared! I am only hoping that this community survives and flourishes through the fast changes in our social and learning structures. Beyond Teaching is trying hard to make it easier...Amen!