Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Role reversal

Like many of us, I grew up in a city (Bangalore), received my education in English (the snooty Convent types), and went on to college. I happened to go to Anna University in Chennai (then only CEG, ACTech and MIT), considered to be one of the top technical universities in India, where the medium of instruction continued to be English. A majority of the students there were from cities. Students from other states (perhaps 5-10% of the student population) were always urban, from Bangalore, Mumbai, Pondicherry, Delhi, Cochin, Hyderabad and the like, while most of the Tamil Nadu students were from cities like Chennai itself, Coimbatore, Madurai, and sometimes Salem or Tirunenvelli. Most students were either comfortable in English, or fluent and articulate in English, wrote well in and (in all probability) thought in English.

But since it was a state government institution, it was obviously open to all TN state board students, irrespective of language of instruction. This meant that students from rural or underprivileged backgrounds, with Tamil being the medium of instruction were also admitted. Many of them were first generation learners, and they were meritorious students, who had obtained State ranks. They had done their best in the education they had been provided with, and had scored outstandingly in their 12th board exams. And now, they were suddenly in a world that operated in English.

The thoughts for this post came from a conversation at Charu’s blog. These students often took a while to adjust to the college surroundings. In the first semester, they looked lost. Not only did they have to adapt quickly to the big city, but they had to adopt a language they were not comfortable with as well. Earlier, their classes would all be in Tamil, but suddenly, it was all in English, which was (at best) a second language for them at school. They were extremely uncomfortable in their surroundings, intimidated by more confident urban English-medium students, and reticent. For some of them, it became extremely hard to cope with coursework. Their grades dipped, and going from class toppers (in their old schools) to strugglers probably resulted in a huge loss of self-esteem. Yet, a majority of them took up the challenge with determination. They worked far harder than most of us did, and prepared meticulously for their exams. Most of them stuck it through, and by the end of the fourth year of college, they were different people. Confident and composed, with vastly improved written English, and sometimes even excellent spoken English, many of them are now employed in India’s blue chip companies, Infosys, TCS, Reliance, Bata, Wipro, you name it.

I look at myself, with my English education. Suppose fate had so desired that I had ended up in a college where the medium of instruction was Kannada, or Tamil or Hindi, what would I have done? I can “read” Kannada (the billboards, or the headlines in Prajavani), I can “read” Tamil (the bus numbers and destinations). I can read Hindi (a newspaper or novel perhaps). But would I understand Thermodynamics in any of these languages? Or Unit Operations? Or Laplace Transforms? Or Immunology? Or Bioorganic Chemistry? I think not (do they even teach these subjects in regional languages?). Would I even pass the courses, leave alone maintain a high GPA? Where would my own self-esteem be? Would Infosys ever employ me? Would I have even survived college?

It was commonplace for the students from English medium backgrounds to make fun of these students. It was common for those students from Tamil medium backgrounds to feel lost and a little alone. Yet, where the far greater effort was, and where the greater strength is, is obvious.


Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
My Father in Law Raghavan told me of his college experience and it was just like that. He remembered taking a test and being so frustrated that he knew the answer for one question but didn't know the English word. He used the Tamil word but got no credit.

I think Americans are really spoiled in that we feel no particular need to learn anybody else's language. I don't think that's the right attitude but it is common. I tried to take Hindi for two quarters but learning a language is a great commitment and mine was in grad school economics not Hindi. I think I can still at least pronounce a Hindi word written in Devanagari script.

I can't imagine trying to learn a science and the language that the science book was written at the same time. That is truly remarkable.

Sunil said...

Michael, that's a fascinating point you raise. What if a student knows the answer (as it often happens) but cannot EXPRESS IT IN ENGLISH? Why should that student not receive credit for something s/he knows? But the present system does not allow any different form of expression, especially in India. That seems extremely perverse, given the diversity India has, and also given the fact that in every single classroom (in any school or college across the country) you have students from different social and linguistic backgrounds.....

Suhail said...

Quite well articulated Sunil. Most of us have seen such stories around us. Reminds me of a close relative. She was a matric topper from her Urdu medium school in our native. When she landed in a Eng-med college in a diff. village -- (that migration itself being a big thing at that time, what with staying with a different family and all that) -- she was soon disturbed by the total env. change. She successfully struggled to tide over the language issue for one Sem and did well, but finally called it quits the next Sem. when she could no more take the bullying from guys. Compare and contrast that to her younger brother. He matriculated from a Marathi school, again a top-ranker in the same village, got a chance to come to Bombay for studies, graduated in Commerce, now occupies a high post in a state insurance company in Gulf -- and can easily beat you and me in spoken+written forms of English, Urdu, almost all dialect/accents of Marathi and atleast three Arabic accents. You might ask, where is the lady ? Well she didn't stop there. She learnt some stuff by herself at home, and picked up basic Eng while schooling her kids. What's my point here ?
That even in this vernacular to Eng. transition, girls find it harder than boys -- because of the deep bias entrenched against girls("what is a girl doing studying Eng, anyway?"). There is much improvement in cities, but I can believe that in towns and villages, it's pretty much the same story. Don't mind the personal angle, but just wanted to add one more point to your excellent post.

Finally to end this comment; I read this somewhere, dunno for sure, if it's true.
Final exams of English literature in some top-notch university asks the examinees to write about "Courage". All learned students start writing flowery prose of historical figures, freedom fighters and their courageous stories. Our hero writes a simple 1-line answer: "This is courage". The examiner gives him a 10 on 10

I dream of such a day.

Sunil said...

Suhai.....agree with you completely. In addition, it is extremely hard in India for women, no matter what they do. There's still a long long way to go before women are free to do as they choose.

A.K.B said...

Your post reminds of all my classmates who struggled in subjects like Engg. Mechanics 'coz they wouldn't understand what was being asked in the question paper.. I remember translating simple definitions in English to Tamil.. Most of these had no problems with the concepts.. It was just the inability to express themselves which was the biggest hurdle..

I shudder to think what I'd do if I were asked to study in Hindi medium, though I have supposedly learnt Hindi in school..

Btw I passed out frm Anna Univ(Textile) last yr.. Heard a lot about u frm Bala.. Got ur blog link frm his page..

Bhavna said...

We should thank ourselves that in India, even students from vernacular mediums have *some* knowledge of English. They might not speak very fluently and they might not be very articulate, but they are not at a complete loss when thrown into an English-speaking environment. Now contrast this with students from China. While higher sciences (like medicine or nuclear physics) in India are not taught in Hindi or Tamil, Chinese students DO study Thermodynamics in Mandarin Chinese. The GRE Verbal test is a horror for these students. But what they lack in language, they make up through their perseverance. I have seen Chinese students in my MS course record lectures given by American Professors and replay them over and over again, dictionary in hand, trying to understand what was taught. That, according to me, is dedication.

Sunil said...

Arun.....I know exactly what you're saying....'re right about the Chinese and other East Asian students here....they work three times as hard as any of us. But the points I tried to make were two fold. 1) Why (especially in a diverse linguistic country like India) only knowledge in English is considered worthwhile, and 2) If roles were reversed, and I had to go through a vernacular education AFTER my English one.....I wouldn't have been able to cope the same way they did. And I think that's true for most of us.

Bhavna said...

Sunil, I don't think knowledge in English is considered worthwhile as such. Its just that we don't know otherwise. Its not a question of whether we are superior to or inferior than vernacular medium students. We think in English, they think in their native language. Its but natural that if we are suddenly asked to think in a different langauge, we will find ourselves, quite literally at a loss for words. But that handicap is temporary and can be overcome.

I think that we should be thankful to the British for 2 things : the railways and the English language. English is the reason why we have an edge over China and Japan in the software market. I strongly advocate higher education in English. Yes, the students from vernacular mediums will have a lot more hills to climb...but it will be worth the effort when you consider the world of opportunities that will open up for them.

As far as what you say about students from English medium making fun of vernacular medium students is concerned, I agree. It does happen. But then school is always tough and kids can be really mean. They love to pick on anyone who is too fat or too thin or too studious or too ugly...or speaks a different language. Its hard...but its not life-threatening. :)

Sorry for ranting on for so long.

Sunil said...

this post really did not intend to get into an English vs. vernacular debate at all. That wasn't the intention. And there's been a lot of debate on the british raj etc on the blogworld....take a look at Ravikiran's article for example....
There are enough for or against arguements for what you've said here. This includes discussions on the railways. And ofcourse, to counter the English for IT needs only to look at Japan, Korea, Germany or many other nations that don't bother much with English, but are doing fine. But i don't intend to get into that debate at all.

This post was just to highlight that the determination that drives these students is something I (and perhaps many others) may not have. I tried to imagine myself in a reverse situation.....and the perversity of it all just struck me, thats all. It hit something inside me.

Srikanth said...

Remarkable empathy, Sunil. Though I always tried to help the Tamil-medium classmates in my undergraduate college located in rural India, I have never wondered about such role reversal.

Govar said...

My first time herre... came in thro blog mela. Truly good post. I myself have never wondered abt this, and my comfort with regional languages is pretty much going to rock bottom... can understand what it'd be like.

Iyer the Great said...

Sunil, I entirely agree with you. What drives them is neccesity. I say this from 2 experiences.

When I moved to the US from India, I happened to live in a Hispanic city close to my grad school. No one spoke anthing but spanish and to survive, it was a requirement that I learnt spanish. I was suprised how quickly I learnt it - 3 months and I was easily able to converse with people.

I have been here in Norway for the past two years, and am just comfortable in basic conversation in Norwegian. Why? Because, I did (and do) not need to learn Norwegian to survive here.

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