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India's English problem

While Indians who speak English get ahead, the many who don't are left out of the economic boom.

Ten-year-old Suma, the daughter of a farm laborer, learns English at the Siddapura Government School in the suburbs of Bangalore. (Saritha Rai/GlobalPost)

BANGALORE, India — Eleven-year-old Ravi loves Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. “I wear new clothes and eat special sweets,” he says in a sing-song voice.

Shilpa is 10 and her favorite celebration is her birthday. “My birthday is on Dec. 9, I will get chocolates,” says Shilpa ever-so-hesitantly. Spontaneously the class bursts into the universal “Happy Birthday” song.

But this is no ordinary lesson. In a local-language government school in the Siddapura suburbs of Bangalore, India’s high-tech headquarters and its outsourcing hub, a group of poor schoolchildren is being taught rudimentary English.

In the impoverished neighborhoods of India, a country with 18 official tongues and hundreds of other languages and dialects, there is an increasing sense that English is the language of the future.

An English education is seen to offer a chance to partake in India’s new economy and as a leg up to those at the very bottom.

More than a third of India’s population of 1.1 billion is of school-going age. But six decades after independence the lack of access to basic schooling, particularly English schooling, is seen as a barrier to breakneck progress. Now, in cities like Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad, groups of volunteers — employees of outsourcing companies, wealthy Indians with a conscience — are pitching in with teaching time.

Like in other state-run schools, the 115 students enrolled in grades one to seven in the Siddapura Government School pay no fees and are served a free lunch. The school has only three classrooms and three teachers. The shortage means that while children of some grades study, others play in the schoolyard.

Still, as government-run schools in India go, this is among the better off. Along with math, science and social studies in the local Kannada language, its students are being offered English lessons.

On the blackboard are the words "cake," "sweets," "flowers" and "balloon." The class is being taught by volunteers — affluent women in the neighborhood donating their time and effort to a cause. There is no set material and teachers improvise to grab the attention of the students.

The classrooms often echo with the sweet sound of children singing popular English nursery rhymes, counting numbers or reciting the days of the week. Visitors are greeted with enthusiastic "Good mornings" and breathless, "How-are-you-I’m-fine-thank-yous."

The hundred-odd students in the school are the children of poor farm laborers from the surrounding fields, a majority of them first-generation school-goers.

English lessons began six months ago and since then there has been buzz around the school. The school’s head teacher, Suneeta Padmanabhaiah, said the lessons have fueled enrollment and better attendance. Padmanabhaiah said she too is picking up English alongside her students.