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By the BBC's Jill McGivering
"Some people say English is being used as a class divide "
 real 28k

Thursday, 10 May, 2001, 13:32 GMT 14:32 UK
India's language divide
Indian school children
Some Indian schools teach children entirely in English
By Jill McGivering in Delhi

There is a battle under way in India about whether the growing emphasis on learning English is dividing society.

English has been the language of government since colonial days - but now, more than ever, it is being seen as the passport to good jobs.

In many schools, even the youngest children are affected. Their mother tongue may be Hindi - but in school they'll be taught every subject in English.
Indian woman
English is the language of India's elite

These children often come from middle class families. Their parents hope that if their children learn in English, they'll help to make sure they stay part of India's elite.

Getting ahead

When asked which language was better - Hindi or English - one 11-year-old said: "I think English because you need to speak English for many of the top jobs."

More than half a century since independence, most government business is still conducted in English and, increasingly, top jobs in all walks of life require it whether it's actually needed or not.

Some people say English is being used as a class divide - those from privileged families speak it fluently and use that advantage to dominate the professions.

Gaurie Ishwaran, headmistress of an English medium school, admits it is a key social indicator.

When you reach the higher jobs - becoming a doctor, engineer, or computer engineer - they require good English

Headmistress Madhu Ved
"Even if you take the home of English, that is Britain, you have the privileged and the underprivileged," she said. "The Cockney accent also is discriminated against. That is a pattern that is here, but it shows as English or no English."

English medium schools tend to be the hardest to get into - despite research which shows that children learn better in their mother tongue.

Status symbol

English teacher Vijaya Lakshmi says parents see English medium schools as a way of pushing their children up the social scale.

"They think of it as a status symbol," she said. "The parents may be very affluent but not be able to speak a word in English. They put their children in convent school hoping that the child will make up for whatever they lack."

Some people are fighting back. Arvinder Singh is a Delhi councillor who has just tried to introduce a bill and had it thrown out because it was presented in Hindi, instead of English.

He says the special status given to English is absurd, considering most people speak Indian languages.

"Indians are very good at the English language, but it is limited to an elite class," said Mr Singh. "Masses are still speaking Hindi, masses are still speaking their mother language. The official language should be the language of the masses."

young Indian children
Children without English are at a disadvantage
Limitations of Hindi

School at the other end of the social scale teach less privileged children in Hindi. Headmistress Madhu Ved says the children understand subjects better in Hindi - and can do well, but mostly in business.

"When you reach the higher jobs - becoming a doctor, engineer, or computer engineer - they require good English," she said.

"In higher studies the books are not available in Hindi. But as far as your own business is concerned, if you are opening a showroom, then Hindi is OK. You can do everything in Hindi."

Learning Sanskrit may give children a strong sense of identity - but it might not help them much in later life.

For decades, India has associated English with privilege. Now new opportunities overseas have helped to fuel the sense that English is a passport to success - which those with the right social background find it a lot easier to acquire.

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17 May 00 | South Asia
Teaching English the Indian way
01 Mar 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: India
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