Primary languages in Tamil Nadu – a considered view

In my third blog I will try to take stock of what I’ve heard and seen in Tamil Nadu, drawing particularly on three interviews I’ve now conducted with experienced researchers in the fields of language teacher education, child development and the history of English in India.

Firstly, education for primary teachers: there seem to be quite varied programmes for becoming primary teachers with no official requirement to be licenced. The most common qualification for primary teachers is a two year, practically focused college course. There are also four-year courses validated by universities as degree-level qualifications. Pre-service teacher education courses rarely seem to include a module on teaching languages to young children, yet most teachers at government schools are expected to do this. Given the lack of suitable teacher preparation, I was not surprised when my first interviewee, Dr Saras (a retired University professor) proposed that most subjects would be more effectively learnt if they were taught in the State language (Tamil), with English taught just as a subject.

My second interviewee offered a different perspective As a Professor of English, Dr. Shreesh Chowdhry was able to reflect on the changing role of English in India. He reported that the government of India after independence, under Ghandhi’s influence, had ambitions that English would gradually fade out and policies were planned with this in mind. However, the reverse seems to have happened. The areas of life where English is now used have steadily increased. In the 2011 census 315 million respondents reported that they spoke English as a second language. Professor Chowdhry illustrated how things have changed in his own family, explaining that while he and his wife may speak in their mother tongue at home, their children increasingly use English. For the new generation he commented that they even quarrel in English! He related this shift to both prestige and economic factors, also suggesting that, ‘no young man today wants to marry a girl who doesn’t know English, though I don’t know how English makes you a good wife!’

However, as my school visits have shown, this demand for English from Grade 1 is now a huge problem, given the lack of teacher expertise. Professor Chowdhry feels that with the pressure for English from the people, the situation will have to improve. He agreed that the change would not happen overnight, but felt it might only take a decade, or at the most two.

My final interviewee, Dr Anandalakshmy, was one of the team connected with the early development of the activity-based approach for primary schools in Tamil Nadu. Her background in child development and teacher education has led to a career which included serving on many national advisory committees, so I was fortunate indeed to learn from her wide experience. Dr Anandalakshmy’s explanation for the current policy situation related to the whole consultation process. She suggested firstly that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about learning English and English-medium schools. Introducing English-medium schools would not ensure that children learnt English if the teachers were not good at English (as is generally the case). She argued that the mother-tongue should be the language of education and English is best introduced as a subject. Also, much more time should be allowed for both languages, making Tamil, English and Maths core subjects from the start of schooling. In her opinion, the problem with planning the language policy has been that planners failed to consult widely, relying on those who agreed with them already. The hierarchical nature of Ministry procedures in India also makes it difficult for others to challenge poor decisions. The resultant popularity of English-medium government schools is Tamil Nadu may fail to contribute to any improvement in competency levels as a result.

Well, three different perspectives on the question of English in primary schools and still little sense of anything approaching a policy for multilingualism. Next, I travel on from Chennai to Hyderabad to attend the annual education conference – perhaps there I will discover teachers who are working on the development of an effective methodology for multilingualism in the early primary years – or, perhaps not!

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