How knowing English helps

Delhi’s move to introduce spoken English lessons for govt school students taps into a long-felt desire.

Written by Manish Sabharwal | New Delhi | Updated: May 28, 2018 5:14:42 am
How knowing English helps In Lucknow, a jungle of institutes offering spoken English classes. (Photo: Vishal Srivastav)

Last week, the Delhi government announced the launch of a spoken English course for students of government schools. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted: “Government school students mostly come from economically poor backgrounds… This was their biggest demand — sir, hame English bolna sikhwa dijiye.” MANISH SABHARWAL, co-founder and chairman of human resources firm TeamLease Services, explains what drives this demand, and how learning English helps the backward classes climb up the social ladder.

Is there really a clamour to learn English among India’s poor?

Absolutely. And this clamour is not just among the economically backward, but also among the socially backward — e.g., the Dalit agitation for government schools to move to English in Andhra Pradesh and in many other parts of India. This represents the recognition of English as a vocational skill.

Read | ‘Spoken English’ course for students in Delhi

What is the reason? Is it economic benefits or a desire to climb socially?

Think of English as an operating system, like Windows. In a country with multiple languages, labour mobility is much higher for those who speak the link language of English. This is amplified by the reality that India’s farm to non-farm transition is happening to services and sales — unlike China’s, which happened to manufacturing. English is now a vocational skill. The wage premium for people who are comfortable with English is higher than 100% for the same job — e.g., a security guard who can handle Reception at lunch, or a driver who can use Google Maps, or a plumber who can use WhatsApp. Also, these people fish in different ponds — thus, a migrant from UP often gets a salary of Rs 8,000 per month with us because they start as packers/loaders while a migrant from the Northeast will get Rs 20,000 because they start in the front office. I think there is some social signalling value, but the bigger value is the wage premium and higher odds of formal employment.

For what kinds of jobs is this true?

The contours and details of India’s five ongoing labour market transitions — farm to non-farm, rural to urban, subsistence self-employment to decent wage employment, informal enterprises to formal enterprises, and school to work — mean that the fastest growing formal jobs in India are sales, customer service and logistics by function, and healthcare, education and retail by industry. All these jobs and industries require extensive human and computer interfaces. Since we can’t take jobs to people, we will have to take people to jobs through migration, and migrants need the link language. Also given that 90% of the Internet and the world’s software interfaces are in English, people aspiring for current areas of job growth have an unfair advantage.

And in what ways does the knowledge of English open the doors for people to rise higher in the social hierarchy?

My sense is that the social signalling value of English is a consequence of the wage premium and higher labour mobility for English-speaking people. Just as English fluency may be replacing the lazy filtering for graduates by many employers, the marriage market is starting to become more discerning about filters. The divergence between demographics and economic success between the South/West and North/East of India also contributes to this in hard-to-measure but real ways. Signalling value is a complex and real issue in labour markets; Michael Spence got his Nobel for suggesting that one of the primary upsides of college may be signalling value. More recently, Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley got their Nobel for suggesting that while financial markets clear on price, labour markets clear on information. I would not rule out the value of English as resume signalling for both employers and prospective in-laws.

How do other countries and academic research think about multilinguism?

Research suggests that multi-linguilism generates diversity and drives innovation, which in turn stimulates economic growth; people have demonstrated its value in building more entrepreneurial societies. This motivation is complemented by initiatives like the Salzburg Statement for a Multilingual World whose objective is “to go beyond valuing languages but to harness them and cultivate them, to do justice to the cultural treasures they represent”. Of course, language is fundamental to national identity, but bilinguism has demonstrable cognitive benefits — higher exam scores, positively correlated with college performance, improves memory, and seems to offset age-related memory loss. Research also suggests that students who acquire another language tend to be more successful problem-solvers (since they have to learn how to look at any given issue from multiple perspectives). The Flynn Effect — a global rise in IQ over the last few decades — has many causes, and one of them could be the rise of multilinguilism.

Why then have state governments long pushed for the use of Hindi or other languages to the exclusion of English?

Governments have often confused the demand for English with the complex issues of mother tongue and loss of heritage. But demands for English in India are about being bilingual, not about substituting something — remember that both Harivansh Rai Bachchan and Firaq Gorakhpuri were professors of English literature at Allahabad University. We don’t have to be Western to be modern, but perhaps sometimes politicians do not give Indians enough credit for their cultural self-confidence. Some worry that more than 400 of the 780 languages spoken in India are at risk of dying in the next few years, but we can’t really predict the future. Lyricist Gulzar once said that Urdu was saved as a language by Hindi cinema; similarly, many things could have happened because Indians were clear that learning English is not a dangerous or a zero-sum game.

Is running summer camps the best way to improve English skills of children? What else can be done?

Literacy can be defined to include the skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking. The English camps proposed by the Delhi government target spoken English for kids after Class X and are a great idea; they will improve employability and, therefore, employment outcomes. This is a great place to start but a longer-term solution that could be considered would be to introduce English as a second language in all government schools starting the early grades. Becoming fluent in any language takes time, and we need to give teachers time across many years. English learning is more about schools than college because it is hard to get adults fluent in a language later in life or in a few months (even though you actually only need 272 English words for a job in retail). The politics of regional languages will always be complex but my sense is that the rising aspirations of our youth — there were 100 million new voters in the last election and there will be 100 million new voters in 2019 — will change if not mute the traditional politics around this issue. Policymakers should consider the connections between aligned standards, sequenced curriculum, instruction, and assessment. We know that effective instruction starts with assessment; assessments have a dual purpose — to know where a child’s learning level is, and looking at trends in student data based on the same assessments used over time with all children to throw light on areas for instructional improvement. Harvard research suggests we need to be strategic about curricular approaches to language — play-based in early years, escalating to phonics, word recognition, thematic language, and then comprehension.

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The states: English in government schools

CLASS I: Govt schools in most states, including Punjab, Haryana, Himachal, Maharashtra, UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, TN, Kerala, introduce English at primary level. In Delhi, students start as soon as they enter a govt school at any level, including pre-primary.

LATE START: In Odisha govt schools, English begins in Class II. In Gujarat, it was taught from Class V until 2013-14, when it was advanced to Class III — but without textbooks in the first two classes. In West Bengal, the LF had stopped English before Class VI; it began the subject from Class I in 2004.

EARLIER: Among the states that have English from Class I, most introduced it only in recent years. Punjab had English from Class VI until the current academic year, Haryana from Class VI until 2004, Maharashtra from Class V until 2001, and Bihar from Class III until two years ago. ENS

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