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Representative image of a government school in Andhra Pradesh
Representative image of a government school in Andhra Pradesh
Andhra Pradesh

Why English As Medium Of Instruction Is Important

Andhra chief minister Jagan had announced introduction of English as medium of instruction in government schools from Class 1 to 6

Jinka Nagaraju

Jinka Nagaraju

The Andhra Pradesh government headed by chief minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy has introduced English as Medium of Instruction (EMI) at the primary level in the state.

In the first phase classes, one to six are covered. The original plan was to introduce EMI from Class one to Class eight.

It was later amended and restricted to Class six. Either way, by doing this Jagan was only responding to the long felt popular demand from parents from rural and semi-urban areas. They are mostly from lower castes or lower economic strata and illiterate backgrounds.

So far, English as Medium of Instruction has been the prerogative of urban middles classes. Now the wards of primary schools in the public sector can also start feeling proud as their counterparts in urban convent schools do.

People realised that the English language is a vehicle for social and economic upward mobility. Andhra Pradesh is not alone in this. The entire non-English-speaking world, including Japan and South Korea, is gearing up to introduce EMI at the primary level on a massive scale.

A 2014 report jointly prepared by Oxford and British Council revealed a worldwide shift from EFL (English being taught as a foreign language) to EMI (English as the medium of instruction).

The report defines EMI as ‘the use of English language to teach academic subjects in countries or jurisdictions where the first language (L1) of the majority is not English.”

In many countries, the introduction of EMI has become controversial. Instead of issues related to learning, emotive aspects of language like mother-tongue and patriotism is igniting the debate.

India too is passing through this shift from EFL to EMI on a rapid scale. Though parents strongly believe that English communication skills would enhance the employability of their children, there is much to EMI than meets the eye.

Outside the purview of employability, English is the language of academic research and corporate governance. About 95% of academic research is available in the form of English publications.

If one wants to stay current with their field, the best option is to switch over to English. Students have no option but to learn English if they want to pursue courses in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). As for the corporate sector, it has become the primary need for employment across the world.

As far as employability is concerned Indian parents are correct in gauging that EMI can make their children well equipped with a language tool kit which in turn helps them gain access to the job market.

The Government of India’s National Employability Report-Graduates 2013, conducted by Aspiring Minds frighteningly revealed that half of the Indian graduates were not fit to be hired because of deficiency in language skills.

The report said the employability of graduates varies from as low as 2.59% to 21.27% depending on the areas namely accounting, sales and BPO/ITeS. As much as 47% were found not employable in any sector, given their English language and cognitive skills.

It is a firm conviction among the people as well as policymakers that English as a key skill has the potential to transform the employability of India’s youth.

So, they argue that in the Indian context, EMI at primary level alone can help these students acquire a level of verbal and written communication skills. Unless Indian students acquire skills pertaining to job interviews, presentations, group – interactions, telephone and telecommunication they do not become competent graduates. English language skills are expected to help Indian graduates become global engineers to cross both national and international cultural barriers.

The Opposition To EMI

A section of intellectuals, however, is trying to foment opposition to the EMI in primary schools with old-fashioned argument and logic. These intellectuals, mostly well-settled retired senior government officials, teachers and those who enjoyed elevated status in the society with their association with the Telugu language, cry foul at the EMI at primary level.

They state that EMI would undermine the mother-tongue and native culture. But, the concept of mother-tongue is a political construct of the nineteenth-century and the role of English in its evolution is a thoroughly studied topic. And using it to counter EMI appears politically motivated.

Many scholars have studied how Indian languages transformed into mother tongues through the process of translation from Indian languages to English and or vice versa after the introduction of the printing press in India.

Lisa Mitchell’s brilliant work Language, Emotion, Politics in South India traces the process by which the Telugu vernacular became the mother tongue.

Another illuminating work that mapped the process of a vernacular tongue becoming mother tongue was done by Ashok K Mahapatra (Construction of Mother-tongue: Translation, Culture, and Power) in the context of Odiya. They have proven that invoking mother-tongue has an inseparable caste and religious angle to it.

Employing terms like a ‘disservice to mother tongue’, ‘native culture’, to denounce the AP government’s decision is nothing but spreading myths about the language acquisition process by children.

The arguments against EMI are devoid of the sociological angle of the problem, supporters of EMI argue.

These critics of the AP government’s decision argue that the primary education has to be in the mother-tongue of the children as it is best suited for them at that tender age.

If this is true how can one explain the success of millions of children of NRI parents who have not studied in their mother-tongue?

Should we demand that the children of Indian migrants across the world be given primary education in their mother-tongues alone?

While many studies have indicated the benefits of using mother-tongue as a medium of instruction at the primary level, there is no dearth of studies that point to the positive impact of EMI on the academic achievement of wards either.

Some studies demonstrated how the EMI environment had helped and motivated students to acquire better English proficiency which again helped students excel in other subjects.

A most recent study on the use of a foreign language as a medium of instruction reveals that instead of creating problems or imposing an excessive burden on the mind and brain of younger learners it can work in remarkable ways in changing the brain networks that leads to skilled cognition, fluent language performance and facilitating new learning.

Another aspect that the critics of EMI spread is that education in one’s mother-tongue helps cultivates a love for one’s own nation and culture. All these points show the entire criticism ranged against the EMI is focused on the emotive aspects rather than issues related to learning.

All the critics of EMI are blind to the fact that corporate schools have long banished Telugu from their institutions. But they are unsettled when EMI was introduced in government schools whose wards mostly are first-generation learners from the illiterate families and true custodians of Telugu language.

Now coming to the crux of the issue, the mere introduction of EMI does not guarantee the academic growth of the child.

The government should not give short shrift to the issues of competence of the teachers, teaching methods and quality and timely availability of textbooks which play a crucial role in achieving the objective of the EMI.

If the gesture is politically motivated and ignores the creation of a proper EMI environment, the experiment is bound to end up as an academic disaster.