Sunday, July 10, 2005

Which language to teach?

Bangalore, better known as the hub of technology outsourcing in the throes of a change. Caught between the transition from "halli" (village in Kannada, the local language) to a global village, it is the focal point of the painful transition that every city must undergo as part of change.

One facade of this is the glitzy campuses (initially modelled on their famous counterparts in the US and later on with an identity of their own) that employ almost a million tech workers who work while the United States (outsourcing's biggest market) sleeps. Bangalore, has always been a cosmopolitian city from its sleepy cantonment days when the British ruled India. Later on, it evolved into a defence and education hub and students from all over flocked to the city. The IISc, National Law School are examples of some very good institutions here. With the tech boom, the city is more cosmopolitian than ever. One can spot foreign nationals who have made Bangalore their home as well.

Amidst all this is a raging debate as to when English should be taught in schools. The dilemma posed is thus. Teach Kannada at the cost of English and the locals lose out in the job race. Teach English at the cost of Kannada and there is a danger of the local language being wiped out.For rural areas where the basic education is in the local language (even there everyone wants to learn English), the danger of losing in the education race is even higher. Activists, self styled intellectuals are involved in a debate over the decision that the administration should take. At stake is the future of students in a world that is overwhelmingly English. Electronic media is almost exclusively English, so falter in English and your future is sealed.

There are many systems of education that flourish in Bangalore. There is a system administered by the State government. There are two that are administered by the Central Government, available all over India, the CBSE and the ICSE. And there is also an International Baccaleurate. Only the first one would be affected by whatever decision the administration takes. Ironically, this is where most of the locals are educated. Any regressive step ( like "No English education till say, grade 5") will imply that they lose out in the process. The richer students are usually educated in the more prevalent ICSE and CBSE, so this debate is pointless for them.

English is a way of life in India ever since British rule. There have been numerous attempts by narrow minded regional chauvinists to reclaim their "heritage" by proclaiming English as"foreign". English is the passport to the global for Indians and pretty much the way of the world and India. Precious little gets done in the local language in business circles. Almost all documentation is in English with local translations. The trick during education is to not lose the glorious heritage of the local language and culture. The approach can be like the French who are in a race invent equivalents for English words or can be more open minded like in other societies where multiple languages have thrived in mutual benefit. It has been proved time and again in India that attempts to impose/teach one language at the cost of others, end in failure, yet the administration dithers while the future of lakhs of children hangs in balance.


Rohit said...

"English is the passport to the global for Indians and pretty much the way of the world and India. "

No, it absolutely is not. This is a misconception that I have to confront all the time, and it's hurting India. The world speaks in a multitude of "global languages" in addition to English alone, and if India wishes to stay competitive on a world stage it is essential to diversify the European languages that are spoken and learned. India is losing ground at a terrific rate in the outsourcing business these days, because the main growth in BPO outsourcing is in *non-English speaking countries* like Germany, France, Japan, Italy and Spanish-speaking countries. India will become a second-rate player in outsourcing if the country fails to increase proficiency in languages like Japanese, French, Spanish and German, and focusing so much on teaching English in the early grades (to the exclusion of other languages) will make this problem worse, not better.

The other statements in the article-- "a world that is overwhelmingly English," "electronic media is almost exclusively English"-- are totally false, and reflect on the English myopia that continues to damage India. In the United States itself these days, kids are obsessively learning Spanish since they often can't obtain jobs without it!

Like you, I am skeptical of language chauvinism and have a problem with parochial thinking, but too many in India misconstrue the problem. It's not that Indians "aren't learning English well enough" in their classes, it's that they're *learning English alone* to the detriment of other important languages.

It would help for schools in Karnataka to simply diversify the menu of language choices in schools in a manner similar to most schools in Western countries, and designate different students to master different languages. So while some students should start English in Grade 5 or whenever, other students should begin their German studies, others French, others Portuguese, others Spanish or Japanese or Korean. Chinese should also be getting more emphasis, as China may well soon become India's most important market within a decade. Thus ideally, students in Karnataka will know three languages: Kannada, Hindi (even if just the Hindi-Kannada collquial mix one often hears in Bangalore), and one of several European or East Asian languages.

This is in fact the sort of diversity in language learning that you encounter in, say, countries like Bulgaria and Romania, and it's one reason these countries are able to do business with so much of the world. India should implement the same plan.

Neelakantan said...

Heres a link which is sourced from World Development Indicators database, World Bank, July 2005.
True, there are more languages than English, but total GDP of English economies vis a vis any single other language economy is a piddly sum. Statistics about websites, newspapers etc will reveal the same, that the sum total of English (of any variety) is greater than any single language across the world.
Therefore knowledge of German, French, Italian will only take us so far. English is a necessity, beyond doubt.

Rohit said...

"True, there are more languages than English, but total GDP of English economies vis a vis any single other language economy is a piddly sum."

First of all, that statement's flat-out wrong at its base. The economies of the Japanese, German, and French language countries are quite significant-- just check your friendly world almanac or Nationmaster for figures-- and calling them a "piddly sum" in comparison to the Anglophone economies is laughably inaccurate. There are, by varying estimates, an average of about 150,000,000 primary speakers of German alone (not only in Germany itself but also in Austria, Switzerland and many other places in eastern and northern Europe). Furthermore, these people are very highly educated and professionalized. There are over 120,000,000 incredibly productive Japanese speakers. As for the USA, remember that *a very large fraction* of the 290,000,000 people here are not English-speakers but primarily Spanish and Chinese speakers, among others. So looking at any of these other languages, and you can see that they boast a large number of professionals and well-educated consumers in very large markets that are open for competition.

Second, you've made the error of false comparisons, because when you add up the speakers of these other languages they together constitute a much bigger market than English-speakers alone. You can't compare just English speakers with just French speakers e.g.: Look at the speakers of French, German, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish together and they constitute a dominant market force in their own right. We would be a fool to just write off this market-- it would be like Wal-mart deciding to do business in only 10 of the 50 US States.

Third, and by far most importantly, the non-English markets *are the ones with the fastest growth in the BPO arena*. This was my key point and I don't think you appreciated it. Comparisons of raw GDP or population numbers among countries and language-speakers are pretty much useless. What matters is *the market that can be tapped* for outsourcing by firms in India.
That market for English-speaking countries like the US and Britain has basically gone flat-- it's plateaued and is pretty much leveling out, and with significant political opposition here it's if anything getting even smaller. Whereas, for countries like Germany, France and Japan for example, the market is in a nascent stage and because of high labor costs in those countries, ripe for the tapping by qualified Indian workers.

This is the take-home message here: Having more students get caught up in the English fad won't do much at all for Karnataka students since the market is plateauing. OTOH, having Karnataka students diversify and learn other languages like German and Spanish would be far more cost-effective since those markets are more open and growing. This e.g. is one of the reasons why countries like Israel and Poland are getting so much good outsourcing business these days-- their educational system stresses diverse language training and they have a large, multilingual population and are able to use it to attract business from many Western countries. Basic economics at work-- they open themselves to more markets that way, rather than being dangerously linked to a single market (e.g., Anglophone countries) that can plateau so easily.

If Karnataka fails to teach other languages more effectively, and focuses myopically on English, then it will miss this wave of new BPO markets and wind up poor and frustrated at missed opportunities. It's never a good idea to put so many of one's linguistic eggs in one single linguistic basket like that.

Neelakantan said...

The point that I make again is that these markets in other languages are "fragmented" (that is the operative word). Look at it from a call center perspective. I can train a million people in English and turn them around for another project if things go wrong. The point is here is fluency in multiple languages is difficult to achieve. It is tough for a person to be fluent in spanish and english when your mother tongue is, say, bhojpuri. Your point on growth is well taken, but I still believe individual language markets are difficult to address. (opening a french call center in pondicherry or a dutch center in goa, well, why not, but other than that, a little tough)

And, talking about karnataka, your idea of teaching foreign languages is a great idea, but politically loaded. "Teaching a foreign language for a potential call center job" is fraught with political landmines. Two, the politicians here are trying to regress karnataka back to the medeival ages (their own sons and grandsons study in elitist institutions) so asking for more than one language is well, what do i say!

rohit said...

"The point is here is fluency in multiple languages is difficult to achieve. It is tough for a person to be fluent in spanish and english when your mother tongue is, say, bhojpuri."

I didn't say anything about becoming fluent in multiple languages: My point was that *different* people should be trained to become fluent in *different* foreign languages. Thus person A should become fluent in French, person B in Spanish, person C in English, person D in German, person E in Portuguese, Japanese or Chinese.

It's the same principle as when we take 1,000 students and have some of them become lawyers, some doctors, some merchants, some accountants, some engineers and so on. Would it make sense to have all 1,000 people be trained as accountants while having no doctors, engineers, lawyers or merchants? Any such economy would collapse. The same principle goes for the languages that are taught. People should specialize in different languages. That's the only way to capture the business streaming in from so many different markets and not wind up being trapped in a single one which is stuck or even diminishing. Diversify the languages that are taught, the same you specialize the trades which different people master.