Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A dying tongue

The recent status of Kannada medium schools have been bothering me for quite some time. There is a lot of talk going on criticizing state government's desire to close the schools with not many students. I really don't think the problem or the solution lies in closing/opening the current schools with poor strength of pupil. In my opinion the actual problem lies in the broader policies about the medium of instruction and more importantly a false pride in our people for knowing the foreign language.

I understand the need to know English as a common global language accepted by all. Having studied in Kannada medium school, I understand the difficulties in switching to English medium education. I also understand the long term effect of ones command over English as a language, by having the primary education in mother tongue. I have been living in England from last 4 years, still, I am not that proud of my English oratory skills. Very often, I still have to speak twice while communicating with local people. Often, I still can't understand their English completely. I need to understand them based on the context they are talking. Should I blame my primary education in mother tongue to my inability to get a command over English? Absolutely not! I have only spent my 10 years of education in Kannada medium where as the remaining 6 years of higher education and 10 years of work life was predominantly English based. Would my situation had been better if I have studied in English medium? I don't have any reasons to think that would have been. More importantly, do I regret not studying in English medium school at the beginning, or do I feel I was deprived of any opportunities due to my medium of education. Absolutely not! If I have to choose my medium of education again, I will still choose Kannada.

Few years back, my sister asked my suggestion to decide whether she should send her daughter to English medium or Kannada medium. I have always been a supporter of primary education in mother tongue. But when it came to deciding it for my niece, even I got confused. I started thinking, why everyone is so so obsessed about learning in English medium. What advantages a English medium provides that a mother tongue education can't provide, other than a pseudo sense of superiority of knowing English. I couldn't find any specific answers as I haven't seen any relationship between ones success to his medium of education. Yes, there is a slight advantage in having English as a medium for jobs that require English, like call centre jobs. But, in the same way, there are definitely advantages in having the education in mother tongue for other jobs. But, primary education in mother tongue doesn't prevent anyone from having the English skills required for the jobs. It is quite hard to determine quantitatively how much benefit one gets by going to English medium school as measuring that is fairly complicated task. It is often driven by the perception and the fact that English medium schools are often attended by financially sound families, influence that perception substantially. That perception alone has created an obsession in the minds of parents to send their children blindly to English medium schools. As a result, the number of children in Kannada medium schools are going downwards resulting in very less competition in those schools. That is one of the main points that made me to think hard when I was asked for a suggestion regarding my niece. She ended up going to English medium, I still don't know whether that is the right decision or not.

I often think people are confused between education and the medium of education. Education in general sense is a form of learning to acquire new knowledge, skills and habits that can lead to a better life. Communication is just one part of that and language in particular is just a part of the communication. Knowing English doesn't mean that one would be able to effectively communicate with other. It is much more than just knowing the language. It is also about having a complete understanding about what you want to communicate and knowing what is the best way to present that. Studying in English medium doesn't guarantee effective communication in English.

There is also a lot of difference between getting control of a written language and spoken language. If we are taking Kannada itself, it is spoken widely differently in many parts of Karnataka. Many times, we might completely fail to understand the Kannada spoken by a person from Bijapur or some other northern parts of Karnataka. It is same with English as well. Though, we might think people studying in English medium school will be able to speak good English  they might completely fail to communicate with some one in England due to the change in accent. If we can't effectively communicate with someone else speaking English, what is the point in choosing that as a medium of communication? They might still have a slight edge over Kannada medium people, but is that really worth it? Honestly I don't think so.

Some researches have shown the advantages of studying in mother tongue to increase the confidence and academic performance of youngsters. Research carried out in several countries on the place and role of mother tongue in education and learning has lead UNESCO to conclude by saying, “children who begin their education in their mother tongue make a better start, and continue to perform better, than those for whom school starts with a new language". It is not just about ones academic performance  alone, it is also about preserving the rich culture of one's own land.

With the world becoming a global village very fast, it is hard to ignore the importance of English. It has already killed a lot of languages and will continue to do the same. There is no second thought that we need to learn English in order to keep our place in this global village. But, at what cost should we be preserving our place? Definitely not by sacrificing the mother tongue which is key for the growth of an individual. The studies also show that children at early stage can pick up more than one language very easily. So, I am not sure why we are not going for 2 language education where we continue to learn subjects related to our land in mother tongue and other subjects in English. I also can't understand why people give more importance to Hindi over their mother tongue. I have always been told that it is because Hindi is our national language. It took me years to find out that we don't have a national language in our constitution. Both Hindi and English are the official languages of the central government whereas state governments can have their own official language. So, why shouldn't we give more importance to mother tongue over Hindi as learning two languages should surely be easier than learning three. I have studied Hindi only for 3 years and know it enough to understand the bollywood movies! I don't think I need it for anything more. If we get good movies in Kannada, probably I don't even need to bother! The propaganda about glorifying Hindi as a national language doesn't buy us anything. We don't need 'a 'language to unite as a nation. India wasn't created for people speaking one language or people seeking one religion. To be a true Indian, we don't need to speak one language. We only need to understand our true history!

For a long time, I have been a bitter opponent of Tamil, as a lot of other Kannadigas. But, as I gather more and more information on this subject, I started to realize how wrong I have been all these days. There is no doubt that we have a lot to learn from them in order to preserve our culture, art and history. As the world is becoming a global village, the technology is also becoming smarter and smarter to bridge the barrier between languages. There is already several translation engines available which does the preliminary job of converting sentences from one language to other. I wouldn't be surprised if the technology is advanced to such a level in future so as to completely remove the hurdle of language barrier. When we reach that stage, we can only repent for killing our beautiful mother tongue for nothing!

After writing so much about the medium of education, I might still choose to send my kids to English medium for whatever compulsions. But, when I do that, I will be morally obliged to teach them enough about their mother tongue, that enables them to study the language on their own. After all, I do want them to enjoy the same literature that I have been delightfully enjoying all these years!

(Written some time back for my high school magazine. They wanted articles in English to show Kannada medium people can write in English. I couldn't find any other subject better than this for them. If you see any grammatical mistakes in this article, it was intentional!)


Viji said...
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Viji said...

I also had same dilemma. Now I am clear that whatever the medium they study I need to make an environment in home that they are proud of their mother tongue.

We have some friends, though they are from English medium, they are good in both Kannada and English. They have equal command over English and Kannada.

Sathisha said...

Right. For our kids, it is also hard to decide whether their mother tongue is Kannada or English. We speak as much as English as we speak Kannada.