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.