India's English problem

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.

The sari-clad Dhanalakshmi Nagaraj, wife of a farmer who grows cabbages and beans to sell at wholesale markets in Bangalore, has two children studying at the Siddapura school. “English is the main language in life,” said the barely literate Nagaraj.

Gundamma, a farm worker whose three grandchildren study at the Siddapura school, said that the world around her is advancing very quickly. It is comforting that her grandchildren are keeping pace by learning to speak English, she said.

All over India, more children are enrolled in schools than ever before. As a soaring economy spawns shiny airports, super-fast expressways and glitzy shopping malls, it awakens a desire among the country’s poor, raising their expectations about participating in the economic rise.

The demand for English in schools is directly pegged to these expectations.

Since liberalization in the 1990s, urban India has grown and developed quickly. Newer opportunities have opened up for the educated English-speakers, the so-called Indian elite. The illiterate poor, and even the non-English speaking masses, have been at a greater risk of being left behind.

Volunteer teachers like Seema Misra say that English could serve as a key equalizer in India. “The parents of these kids know that they have a good shot at finding jobs, even better-paid jobs,” she said. They also realize that English gives them easier access to information, she said.

Nandan Nilekani, the co-founder of Indian outsourcing firm Infosys Technologies, describes in his recent book, “Imagining India,” that the opportunities for those who live in Bangalore and study in an English medium school are dramatically different from those who live in a village in a part of India where there is no school.

Indeed, language has become an audible sign of inequity in India, where English-speaking multinational workers in cities like Bangalore earn several thousand dollars a month but the vast majority of India’s rural masses subsist on $1 a day.

Indian states have practiced divergent policies on education, some emphasizing only the local language and even banning English in government-run schools. Such policies are viewed as hypocritical by many Indians. They see the denial of access to English as equivalent to denying access to the global economy.

At the same time, India’s roaring growth has created a shortage of skilled, English-speaking labor. As first-generation learners become English speakers, the language generates a new confidence and sets for them goals like a steady job, a cell phone, a motorcycle, a television and so on.

So the deprived masses have come knocking. Vikas Singh, 19, a migrant from the rural Bihar state’s Ara town, showed up at the Siddapura school one recent morning.

Singh, a security guard at a private company in the neighborhood, wanted to enroll his 10-year-old brother in the school. “I want my brother to go where I cannot — to speak English and become an officer,” he said.