Sunday, November 16, 2014

“Germanization” to “Sanskritsation”- the problem with language teaching in India.



The HRD minister has set off a controversy with her announcement about teaching of the German language in Kendriya Vidyalay schools being against the national education policy!! German which was offered as a third language in these schools would now have to be replaced with Sanskrit. According to news reports about 70000 students in the classes VI to VIII would be affected by this change. 
 Now before I proceed any further I would like to state clearly that I am no fan of the HRD minister. A person who is least suited to handle education has unfortunately been given this portfolio. 

So, though I do not support her action which is obviously driven politically ( the previous government had introduced this into the curriculum) ,  I am unable to understand what this hullabaloo is all about. One hears about “future of students being at stake”! This is utter rubbish because the examination that they would be taking now would be internal exams within the school and considering this is a third language it would have little or no impact on their larger academic future. Third languages as we know cease to be part of the curriculum post the VIII th standard.  

While the German ambassador has the right to feel upset about this, what I cannot understand is why are we all so het up about this? How many students who have opted for German as a third language are going to pursue this as a subject in higher education? The kind of science obsessed curriculum that is offered in Kendriya Vidyalays, leaves no room for students to pursue any language in the higher classes- be it Sanskrit or Hindi!!

One of the problems that I see with our school education system is the way languages are treated within the curriculum.  In English medium schools in our country where the medium of instruction is obviously English, all students have to opt for a second language until their Xth standard. Hindi being the national language is one of the subjects that is a standard fixture across all states. The other option that is offered is usually the concerned state language.  Students are expected to take a third language from their Vth  to the VIIIth standard which is  a language that is different from what they have opted for as a second language. So, if my second language is Hindi and I am studying in a school in the state of Tamil Nadu the third language would usually be Tamil.  I think it is a beautiful opportunity for students in a multi lingual country like ours to learn different languages. This is especially true if your parents are in transferable jobs that take you across the different parts of this lovely nation. In such cases while Hindi can be a constant as a second language you can , in your middle school get the opportunity to learn other languages. This is precisely how I ended up learning Bengali and Hindi! I am extremely fluent in both these languages – I can read and write both these languages as well as English which was the medium of instruction in all the schools I studied in. 

However, I find that there are Anglophile parents who have a certain discomfort about their children’s education being “corrupted” by having to study Indian languages. This is particularly so in the southern states. These schools therefore try to pander to the parental feelings  by introducing French as the second language. Most of these schools belong to the local matriculation/ state board and have been since time immemorial holding on to this practice. What surprises me is that the education departments of these states which are so chauvinistic about their languages  are alright with it. 

But I guess it is one thing to offer a language as an option in a school with such pseudo value systems around language and another thing to teach it properly. In most of the schools where French is offered as a second language option, the teaching is so abysmal that the less we speak it or about it the better it is !!! For most of the parents it is nothing more than a social status to have their children mouth a few sentences with “Vouz” “Toi” or “Je”. My daughter had interesting stories to narrate from her time at the Alliance Francaise where her class mates were from schools that offered French as a second language. Most of these students knew next to nothing about the language and had fled to this French cultural centre to make up for the lack of good teaching in their schools.

Language teaching is an art that few teachers have. This is because language is more than words strung together. It is a reflection of the culture of a place. I think the best language teacher that I have seen is the gentleman who taught my daughter Tamil as a third language between classes V  to  VII. A genial man wearing a veshti he was perfectly comfortable in the English medium school. He taught the children along with the language, its history , about the kings and queens who ruled this land and the great poets and writers who contributed to its literature. I remember my daughter was so taken up with his description of the old port town of Poompuhar that she used to pester me to take her there. But unfortunately when we did go there she was quite disappointed to see the way it is in the present. I guess she was looking for the Armenians, the Moors the Turks and all the other traders whose ships used to dock there in ancient times. 

Replacing German with Sanskrit in the Kendriya Vidyalaya is not going to solve the problem because the way Sanskrit is taught in our country is shocking! Most students take a Sanskrit examination in English or in some local language. Few teachers understand this classical language well enough to teach it properly. Besides, it has a religious tinge to it which makes its acceptance difficult amongst all communities. But even the most religious of people like my mother who recite Sanskrit shlokas on a daily basis do not actually understand the meaning. I once asked her the meaning of the word that were part of Kalidasa’s “Shyamala Dandakam” that she used to sing regularly. She was at a loss..!! She tried to interpret it as disrespect to religion ! I had to finally work out the meaning myself using my knowledge of Hindi. I don’t think I managed it completely but yes, overall I think I got the meaning. 

Before I sign off, I would like to clarify that I am not against learning other languages beside those that exist in India. There are many options available outside of mainstream schooling systems that offer excellent teaching. My daughter learnt French as a hobby. She went to the Alliance Francaise de Madras and did four levels of French language. It was something she completely enjoyed. She loved the teaching methodology there which introduced them to the culture of France and the Francophone countries.    

The ability to communicate in different languages is supposed to improve your IQ levels. Yet, I find that the younger generation, particularly kids who come from upper middle class families know very little of any language other than English. Given the way it is going, I wonder if all Indian languages would one day die a natural death? And who can we blame except ourselves? After all the education system is largely demand driven. If we reject our languages then there is little chance that the education system can keep them alive.  



6 comments:

SG said...

If the Indian students want to have a bright future, both German and Sanskrit are useless. My personal opinion. Spanish should be made a compulsory language. USA has no official language in their constitution. Spanish is slowly becoming USA’s official language. There, already street signs and even election ballots are in Spanish language also. USA has become a bilingual country. In about 20 years, Spanish will be the first language of USA. Whether we like it or not, USA is a force we have to reckon with.

Meera Sundararajan said...

As the country that is responsible for almost all the terror activity in this world today I must say one should take US seriously! But India is an emerging super power in this part of the world. I don't see why our students should abandon their 23 odd Indian languages to study Spanish just because it is gaining popularity in the US!!!

SG said...

I was not clear in my writing, I think. I did not say abandon any Indian language. I meant Spanish should be made a 3rd or 4th or 100th language in school - instead of German or French.

Anilkumar Kurup said...

You said it right.
I wonder what this woman Smrithi Irani can put forward as a basic qualification to layabout with academic future of children.
As for Sanskrit , I disagree with you about the religious tinge . Why must Sanskrit have a religious flavour as long as we are comfortable with Arabic which essentially is a Islamic- Arabian matter.
As for language the more you learn the better.
The abysmal caliber of teachers is indeed the bigger problem than learning Sanskrit, French or English.

How is the HRD and Education minister going to address that?

Look at the Dutch , the acknowledge their tiny size which is less than Kerala and have English, Dutch and two other European language that are not optional but compulsory. They realise that being little in size, they need to travel the world and it is language that will aid them.
We are parochial and myopic.

Ankita said...

I agree with your views. Most of the decisions concerning syllabus and education are driven for political motives (of giving tit-fot-tat) that's why Sanskrit has suddenly popped up in place of German. Also, the Sanskrit taught in schools is so basic that it is virtually of no use. I studied Sanskrit from class VI to VIII and do not remember much of it. Teaching foreign language(s) is a good decision but again, the quality of teachers is so damn low that like your daughter, students have to attend private centers for this thing. The education system of India sucks big time.

Nice post :)

Ankita said...

I agree with your views. Most of the decisions concerning syllabus and education are driven for political motives (of giving tit-fot-tat) that's why Sanskrit has suddenly popped up in place of German. Also, the Sanskrit taught in schools is so basic that it is virtually of no use. I studied Sanskrit from class VI to VIII and do not remember much of it. Teaching foreign language(s) is a good decision but again, the quality of teachers is so damn low that like your daughter, students have to attend private centers for this thing. The education system of India sucks big time.

Nice post :)

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