The English Language, virtue or tyranny?


he Tower of Babel, as depicted by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1529 - 1565). Biblical tradition has this as the source of the World's languages.

The Tower of Babel, as depicted by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1529 – 1565). Biblical tradition has this as the source of the World’s languages.

Proficiency in understanding and using language is one of the keys to learning. Anyone who has ever spent much time in a country where they are lacking the basic skills of communication in the local language, will have realised that they are in a position of significant disadvantage. It is therefore understandable that issues surrounding the medium of instruction and the languages to be taught in schools should be a regular focus of debate. For much of the time contentions around the teaching of languages simmers beneath the surface of educational disputation, but occasionally it boils over into an effervescent tumult of dissension.

In India a current altercation that is keeping both policy makers and teachers exercised is being built around which languages should receive a place of prominence in the curriculum. A number of establishments formerly known as ‘central schools’, but which today are referred to as ‘Kendriya Vidyalaya schools,’ were originally founded to educate children of Indian Defence Services personnel families. A recent directive from the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to remove the teaching of German from these schools and to replace this with instruction in Sanskrit has met with considerable opposition. The documentation presented by CBSE lacks transparency, but it would appear that at least one motivation for this action is to instil a greater appreciation of Indian culture in the pupils attending these schools.

Sanskrit is an important foundation language which has provided much of the vocabulary and grammar to be found in Indo-Aryan, Munda and Dravidian languages and therefore a great influence upon many of those spoken in modern India; (it also has, to my untutored eye, a most elegant written script संस्कृतम्). As with other ‘root languages,’ such as Latin or Ancient Greek in Europe, it is important that an understanding of these sources, and their influence upon our learning and culture is maintained. However, the current debate in India is not so much about the importance of etymology, but rather one of the utility of languages as taught in today’s schools. The replacement of a modern language, in this instance German, with one that is seen largely as being archaic, has raised more than a few eyebrows.

For most of us viewing this debate from the outside, there is a tendency to see this as little more than the proverbial ‘storm in a teacup’, yet beneath the surface there are significant issues that should perhaps demand our attention. The relationship between language and identify is an important one as has been demonstrated in many parts of the world. As an example of this, I need not look far from home. In Wales in the first half of the twentieth century, the Welsh language was taught only in a few regions of the principality, but national pride and a resurgence in seeking to understand cultural heritage resulted in a policy that has led to all schools in the country now teaching the language and a re-emergence of its domination in several parts of the country. For many Welshman this has become a source of national pride, and anyone attending a Wales versus England rugby match will attest to the conviction of Welsh speakers in this regard. As a regular visitor to the Republic of Ireland, I seldom hear the Irish language spoken, though it remains a requirement that all primary school teachers can demonstrate proficiency in the language, and it is a core feature of the school curriculum. This is a prime example of defending ‘national culture’,  with very few people anticipating that Irish will replace English as the lingua franca of the nation.  Sadly, other languages of the British Isles, such as Kernowek, once commonly spoken in Cornwall remain obscure and largely unknown even to the residents of the areas in which they may once have flourished.

There are however, important matters here that rightly exercise the minds of educators. Two in particular have come to mind whilst following the Sanskrit or German debate. The first may be seen as the Anglicisation of the modern world. Today we witness a situation whereby the English language has come to dominate the worlds of business, academia and modern media. I am always conscious that as a native English speaker with a relatively good command of the language, I am at an advantage in many situations. I notice this particularly when working with professional colleagues, who are undoubtedly intellectually adept and highly educated, but may struggle to work as effectively as they would wish in English, when it is their second, third, or even fourth language. As English speakers we make few concessions to those who we expect to learn our mother tongue, and seldom make the effort to meet them half way. This situation has resulted in a significant part of the world’s population being at least placed at a disadvantage, and in some instances excluded from major activities that many of us take for granted.

A second concern must be for those children and teachers working in communities where English is rarely spoken and who learn for the most part in their local language. It has become evident that the availability of high quality teaching resources in these languages is often limited. There are far greater profits to be made through the production of teaching materials in English than in a language such as, for example, Telugu in India or Xhosa in South Africa. Language has become a vehicle for social mobility, or conversely for the limiting of opportunity. Just as in terms of material comfort the gap between those who are wealthy and those who are poor can be seen to be increasing, so is the disparity between the Anglophones and those who depend upon local language becoming a tool of oppression.

I can, of course understand why in India, as in other parts of the world, parents strive to secure places for their children in English media schools. As a parent myself, I am aware of the immense linguistic advantage that my children and grandchildren have being brought up in England. But I am also saddened by the fact that local languages, so often rich in history and literature, are in some instances being devalued. The choices being made by education policy makers are important, and I can see the tensions that exist in making decisions that affect the lives of so many learners. I suspect that the demand for German language (if ever this existed in the first place) in India is likely to decline. But it would be reassuring to think that greater educational value could be given to those beautiful languages such as Kannada, Tamil or Marathi that are still used by majorities in Indian states.

I will possibly return to this issue, but leave you today with this thought. If a child could learn to speak English, Chinese, Arabic and Spanish, he would be able to communicate efficiently with more than fifty percent of the world’s population.