Engineering and medical colleges do little to help such students cope with the subjects that are largely taught in English

It has only been a year since newspapers carried his photo, predicting he would soon fulfil his dream of becoming a software designer in a big company, but Prabhakar Rajan (name changed), a student of the College of Engineering Guindy, from Salem, who secured a State rank in class XII, is not keen on talking about those times now.

“I often don't even understand the question in an examination. I have memorised all these programs but I will forget them in a week,” says the computer engineering student. His notebook is filled with questions which have cross marks next to them — ‘write a program that creates a palindrome' or ‘create a graphic with a pendulum that strikes after an hour's interval and says, ‘Hello'.' He plans to ask friends for their meaning.

“I topped in English in my school. But here, there are no ‘paper patterns' or important questions. Teachers help you if you approach them, but I can't do that every day,” says the second-year student.

For students like him, the first few months of engineering education are nothing short of a maze. Even As Anna University boasts of an increasing number of students from Tamil medium schools joining its courses, its students are facing increasing difficulties in understanding and clearing exams without arrears piling up.

Second-year engineering students of a college here say almost 50 per cent of the class comprises students from Tamil medium schools. Surprisingly, most students face maximum difficulty with mathematics that is integral to engineering, at least for the first two years. “Theta, differentiation, integrals, probability – getting used to these terms takes a long time. We understand the concepts, but it takes a long time to register symbols and formulae. In exams, we lose out on speed itself,” says Anivar Kannan, a third-year student. “Even those who speak English fail in mathematics but they write the theorems or explanations and get some marks.”

Besides, digital signal processing and subjects that involve mathematics also end up being difficult as do those with theory. “It is okay with mechanical and civil subjects and those with diagrams and flowcharts. With some diagrams, we write a little to get pass marks,” says Gunaskaran, a third-year engineering student.

There were no bridge courses in the first year and that made it all the more difficult. In the second year, these students had a 15-day course wherein the basics of engineering were taught. “Still, it is difficult. Some lecturers motivate us, but others tend to be rude,” says a student of mechanical engineering who still has a few papers to clear.

Two years ago, Anna University started offering civil and mechanical engineering in Tamil medium too. Both streams have 60 students each, mostly hailing from rural areas. Ganesh, a first year student says, “I had 87 per cent in class XII but I joined Tamil medium because I didn't want to fail. I am scared of reading English. Many of my school friends who are studying courses in English are getting arrears every year,” he says.

“But reading from the few available Tamil books is very difficult so we entirely depend on photocopied material. The basics of visai (force), tiribu (stress) and thagaivu (strain) are easier to comprehend, but when it comes to larger concepts, Tamil words become difficult. But I can't write or learn in English because I just don't get the concepts and depend on my friends' understanding of it.”

Professors handling these courses explain everything in English and Tamil and the students can write exams in either of the languages, he says, adding, “Most students prefer the English courses over these mainly because there is no use, I think. Professors have already warned us that companies might not take us,” the student says.

Despite private engineering colleges' claims that they offer bridge courses, spoken English classes and facilities such as language laboratories, students from rural backgrounds have only their teachers for support, particularly in the first year. The issue assumes significance as 68 per cent of students who joined engineering education in 2011-12 came from Tamil medium schools.

S. P. Dhanavel, head, English department, Anna University says that the Tamil medium students who come from families that watch English news sometimes, or have access to a library card or even a good English teacher in school, tend to do better than many others. “Given that many here come from very modest backgrounds, they don't relish the concept of leisure that can be used to read. Their vocabulary is limited to their course, which limits their sentence-making abilities as well.”

“While some work really hard, to learn English others fail to realise that they cannot avoid a subject they have to learn their entire course in. Also, they memorise everything possible without understanding. And so, they don't relate to the subject at all, he adds.

The scenario is no different when it comes to medical education. Aravind Santosh, a first-year student of the Madras Medical College (MMC), feels the problem lies in the school system in the State that encourages rote learning and never bothers to teach students any concepts. Most Tamil medium students find it difficult to cope with the English language as the text books prescribed for medical education are usually of very high standards, he says.

“You cannot say that they lack talent. But ‘medical English' is tough and without help from their classmates and teachers it might be really difficult. One year is not adequate for them to learn the language and the subject,” Aravind says. This is true in most cases.

For Prabhakar, studying three theory subjects in computer engineering, two application-oriented ones and clearing four earlier arrears, all in a span of four months is a huge task.

“Sometimes, I feel as if attending class is a waste of time, not because the teaching is bad, but because I don't understand anything,” he says.

Even as Anna University, Chennai, is in the process of fashioning a new curriculum for engineering education from the academic year 2012-13, senior professors at the university suggest a system that is student-friendly and industry-oriented.

Robert Bellarmine, former English Studies Officer, British Council (south India) says, most bridge courses are sympathetic to learners but not empathetic to them. They are based on a ‘something is better than nothing,' approach which does not help, he says. “You have to motivate the learners too, and provide them with accessible translations. Knowing a few English words is not enough to complete engineering. Both teachers and students need to know that.”

(With inputs from B. Kolappan)

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