Page last updated at 11:26 GMT, Saturday, 11 December 2010

India debates whether to learn English

By Peter Curran
BBC News, Chennai (Madras)

Schools across India have been debating the rights and wrongs of Indians learning English. The debates themselves were conducted in English, as is much of this multilingual country's national life.

A banyan tree grows next to the buildings of Indian Institute of Technology Madras
The Indian Institute of Technology Madras has 250 hectares of woodland

Sitting there at the side door of the lecture theatre is a rhesus monkey.

Education for all? Well, not quite. This is the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Madras - a university in the midst of a city yet with deer, snakes and monkeys moving freely around the sprawling campus.

Huge banyan trees rise up between low concrete buildings - slowly overwhelming man's puny attempt to impose himself on this fecund landscape.

At Chennai airport, rather than use trucks to pull luggage trailers around they deploy big-wheeled farm tractors - as if they believe tractors will always be needed for the perpetual business of working the land, if this air travel lark turns out to be just a passing fad.

One of my fellow judges is the university's director, Professor Anath - a tall symphony of green cotton and graceful moves.

He gives me a small book detailing the flora and fauna of the college he has taught at for nearly 40 years.

As a student-filled car passes us, horn blaring, he confides: "We have 4,500 students and many other creatures here. It's a place of ecological dynamism."

Passionate debate

We walk into the main lecture hall as the young debaters marshal their thoughts.

Student's talking at the Debating Matters competition
Eight schools qualified for the final series of debates in Chennai

Sunipa Dev goes to school in Calcutta and loves maths. She says she dreams of making it through to the Indian Statistical Institute.

I ask her about the difference between this and normal school debating.

"This is a shock. We usually stand up, make our speech and sit down. The debates are a bit like elocution exercises.

"Here we get to argue and test our ideas and have our minds changed by people our own age - not teachers."

Today's motion - "The importance of learning English in India is overstated" - is ripe for nuanced debate.



The disastrous attempt to enforce Hindi as the national language of India in 1965 is cited as a reason why English could be the language of Indian unity

There are 22 constitutionally recognised languages in India and the debaters portray English as either the smouldering dog-end of colonialism or the passport to economic growth, as evidenced by the IT and service industry explosion.

But there are unexpected angles.

One team highlights the need for English to liberate Dalits - the Indian underclasses, formerly "untouchables" who can use English to vault over the social barriers of the officially banned caste system.

The pressure on rural teachers not equipped to teach English to a sufficient standard is highlighted.

The disastrous attempt to enforce Hindi as the national language of India in 1965 is cited as a reason why English could be the language of Indian unity.

Some complained that as doctors were trained in English, they would either go abroad or into cities rather than struggle with local languages, thus denying some areas decent medical care.

Poetic road signs

After lively interventions from the floor we run from the hall through a thunderstorm to minivans and on to lunch.

Two men riding a motor bike in Chennai
Millions of people are injured on India's roads every year

Every inch of the interior of our minibus is lined with highly varnished pale wood panels, carved scrolls and brass handles - if you turned this van inside out, it would resemble a giant coffin.

Perhaps a witty acknowledgement of the perils of travelling on the roads of Chennai.

Even here amid the pinballing cars, trucks and bikes, English is not used as a blunt instrument.

Whereas in the UK the phrase "Speed Kills" is a familiar sight on road signs, in Chennai official signs read "Speed Thrills, But Kills". Rhyme and reason.

Back for the afternoon session I meet Mr Srinvas, a teacher who has brought four boys from The Army School Ramakrishna Puram in Hyderabad.

He is quiet and watchful as his excited pupils ricochet ideas around the room after their debate.

Mr Srinvas' father died when he was a toddler and his mother was illiterate, so his induction into a mission school - and particularly joining its library - was life-changing.

He says with a smile that he could not learn to read English quickly enough to understand the big science books that he cradled in wonder, but his older sister tried to bring him closer to Einstein via the Jane Austen novels she read to him at home by tallow light.

As a successful science teacher, what does he feel about the English language debate? He leans forwards, conscious of young ears nearby and says:

"I love the English language and you know, we don't actually lose anything of ourselves by using it, because although we might speak in English, we think in our native tongues."

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