Here's why English Medium Education is Essential in India
Recently, I was chatting with a friend about education in India. His point of view was that that there should be no English medium schools in India (it's not a realistic idea of course, but I'm just going with it for the sake of argument), instead, there should only be vernacular or Hindi medium schools or mixed medium that teach some subjects in English, and some in the vernacular. There were several reasons he gave, which we can talk about later. But one of them stood out and made me think. He said we should have schools teach in vernacular languages so that the local culture is preserved. This got me wondering about what exactly culture is and is it worth preserving? And will having vernacular schools help in protecting it, even if we should? Or will this lead to us getting left in the shadows on the global stage? Here are my opinions.
Disclaimer: Culture and education are incredibly broad topics with many variables and many facets, and I will not be going into most of them. I am not a social scientist, a political scientist, a historian or anything else that would give me even a speck of credibility on this topic. But I am a progressive, secular citizen of this country with my eyes, ears and mind open. I'm here to share my perspective and start a conversation.
What is culture anyway?
It's kind of a hard for a layman to really put the finger on this, which is why I wanted to tell you what I mean by that word briefly. I feel culture is not only a vague collection of characteristics of a group - language, literature, art forms, food and clothing. I think it's very close to our tribal origins and mindset. It is the product of an essential part of our evolution. It defines us. It makes us feel that we belong to something unique - something worth preserving. And that's totally understandable. Without it, one might feel lost and without purpose, without a feeling of "home".
Indian cultures are so varied. We are a big salad bowl of provinces grown out of ancient kingdoms, united by rebellion, divided by freedom and still breaking into smaller pieces. Paradoxically, we are also mixing in with each other. Every city has people coming in from all over the country to find work, find a house and even a home. Many of us rejoice with such mingling happening at such a grand scale.
Culture divides us
When I see people wanting to preserve their culture at all costs, I feel there's more about it that divides us than unites. It's one of the primary reasons why states are being divided further. It's one of the most significant causes of unrest in the North East where Khasis are trying to get outsiders kicked out. The same is happening in Maharashtra too and in other states. If you agree with this division, try not to get triggered by what I'm saying, and step back to see the big picture I'm trying to describe.
The reason for this is simple. Tribalism. From the time we lived as tribes on the African savannahs, or wherever our nomadic ancestors wandered, we have had to fight other tribes for resources – land, water, livestock and game. Each tribe was isolated and formed its own traditions and customs. Then, tribes started making alliances, and they got bigger still and formed provinces, then kingdoms, then nations. But they still had to fight other clans. We might not all be fighting each other for land (like India and Pakistan), but we do look at each other with suspicion.
It's always them and us the others, the outsiders, the foreigners, the trespassers.
I feel banning English medium schools and teaching mostly in vernacular languages would deepen this divide in an already divided country. This would mean that kids who don't speak the vernacular languages wouldn't be able to learn the subjects taught in it, and would fall behind in school, and thereby be alienated.
Of course, my friend also put forward the idea that kids who speak in vernacular languages would have a harder time picking up English than those who speak English at home. Good point, I think. But I'm not saying we should make kids go only to English medium schools here. My point is that all these kinds of schools – vernacular, English medium and mixed – need to exist so that kids from different backgrounds can get the type of education they feel most comfortable with.
The Global Perspective
Let's zoom out a little more then. If you removed the borders between states and countries, you'd see only the land stretching in all directions. And if you wandered through those lands, you wouldn't see distinct divisions in culture, but rather a slow transition between one to the next. It's like a watercolour painting left out in the rain. Don't look at the names of languages. Hear the sounds, find the roots.
There are 22 official languages in India spoken by 96% of the population. That's already a very diverse palate of tongues in just one country.
Across the world, over 7,000 languages are spoken, out of which only about 23 languages account for what over half the world speaks. Among these, Mandarin is on top with almost a billion speakers. On the top, as most of us know, it's Mandarin, followed by Spanish, English and then Hindi. Out of these, only English has the most extensive spread across the world and is also the fastest growing language on the planet.
English has become a global language and has become a primary means by which businesses and governments can converse and negotiate. One of the main reasons for India's enormous economic growth over the last two decades is because of our vast English speaking population. That's one of the primary reasons why so many BPO businesses and call centres moved here from Europe and the US. The way I see it, English has made our country a major player in the global economy. Taking away English medium schools means we will start being left behind on this arena.
However, English medium schools are not going to threaten the cultures we hold dear. That is usually a part of life at home, with one's family. It's with our families that we spend most of our time with. Siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and everyone else inform us how to live our lives, show us the traditions we follow, the food we eat and also our belief systems. I think that's a pretty intense and personal introduction to our culture - much more than we can ever get from an educational system.
That's why I believe our culture will persist in one way or another, but it will change from generation to generation. From the time humans came into existence, our culture has evolved. Of course, many people don't think so, but they couldn't be more wrong. Our culture now isn't the same as it was even 50 years ago. A lot has changed. There are always the haters who don't like this or even the concept of change for that matter. They feel if this ""westernisation"" of India continues, their culture will disappear, their descendants will become strangers and won't respect the traditions that have been held sacred for generations. To an extent, that could be true, but not in the dramatic proportions they imagine. I don't think cultures just vanish. They change based on the other cultures they come in contact with.
The mixing of cultures opens minds and hearts to new tribes, new ways of thinking, new ways of living. There is a lot to be learned. Just look at how yoga, Ayurveda, Indian food and meditation has spread across the world! Other cultures are learning from ours; why can't we learn from them? Of course, there are those who don't like this form of ""cultural appropriation"" but I again argue that it's a good thing. When you learn about another culture through friends or associates, they stop being the ""other"", they stop being a different tribe, and a part of their culture becomes yours, and vice versa. Why else do you think we wear shirts and trousers, go out for Chinese food or burgers? Some of us make pasta at home, and some Italians cook butter chicken, I'm sure.
All that said, I do think cultures will become more ""dilute"" if you can call it that. But they won't disappear, at least not anytime soon. As every generation ages, they do become more nostalgic of their traditions and keep them alive at home in some way or another. Even families that move abroad make an effort to keep their traditions intact, often leading to a stagnation of their languages and customs for generations!
When such a situation becomes obsessive and extreme, it can lead people down a dark path. I firmly believe that attempts to preserve a culture, depending on the measures taken, can infringe upon the freedoms of those who belong to it. You've seen how so many people say short dresses, fast food, late night partying, foreign cars and pop music are not a part of our Indian culture and should be done away with. Banned even. But should that be the case? Even "love marriages" or marrying outside one's caste, religion or village are very often reprimanded, ridiculed or even violently attacked. The news is overflowing with stories of couples being arrested, being victims of honour killings or simply beaten to a pulp for venturing outside their cultural norms.
This is what happens when the concept of culture becomes toxic.
So how does all this tie into education? I am not trying to make the argument that cultures are bad and should be done away with. On the contrary, I feel culture is what knits communities and countries together. In a way, it ties together the whole human race. Culture started at the dawn of humanity and will persist until we are all extinct. The language, rituals, food and music, will always remain in some form or another by those among us who hold them dear and pass them on to the next generation. But this is where our families and friends come in. That's the role they play in our lives.
Let schools handle our education. Our school systems are here to teach us about the world life and other cultures, along with the information we need to find a career path and be successful in it. Not only are we moving to different parts of the country to find work, but Indians are also getting jobs all over the world. Having a solid education in English has never been more critical to succeed on the global stage.
Our culture will remain, of course, but it will keep changing. And it's imperative that we let it mutate, adapt and mingle. Not only will it help humanity grow, evolve and become a wiser, but it will also mean more freedom for every individual to make their own decisions about the traditions they choose to follow or not, without the threat of judgement, ridicule or harm.
So here's the bottom line. I don't think all schools should be English medium, and I don't think none of them should be. The country already has an extensive network of vernacular and Hindi medium schools, along with English medium ones. That should remain and be a choice of each family to send their kids to the ones they feel is best.
We just need to educate more kids, especially girls, regardless of the medium of instruction. That's the only way to ensure the growth and prosperity of our country on the world stage.