POONAM M. GANGLANI on the increased interest in foreign language learning in the city

If you think that foreign language learning is a recent lah-di-dah phenomenon in the city, then it's time for you to wake up and smell the coffee…or if you prefer, the café,the Kaffee, the kohi. Yes amigo, it's true. Foreign languages have become a fixture on the city's intellectual landscape, and a growing number of Chennai-ites are jumping on the bandwagon of learning a new language. Whether it is the neighbour's son perfecting his bonjour on the weekends, or the colleague slipping in an arigato during a client call, foreign language skills have become a survival mechanism in today's competitive global jungle. Language centres are now swarming with students with clearly defined objectives — from joining the French film industry to reading the Gita in Japanese.

Trade links

The French connection has been the strongest foreign language link in the city. French stepped on scene as a second language at the Madras University in the 1920s, and reigned supreme in Chennai for a number of decades. The only foreign language taught in a majority of schools until recently, it remains the only foreign language offered as a major course at the MA, MPhil, and PhD levels at Madras University. Since 2000, French has consistently expanded beyond its scholarly territory owing to emerging trade connections between India, France, and the Francophone countries.

“More and more French companies such as Renault and Areva have now set up in Chennai,” explains Marie-Paule Serre, Director, Alliance Française of Madras. “The demand for French in companies has increased tremendously, and we now offer them a menu à la carte — courses completely adapted to the needs of the enterprise.” But while the popularity of French in Chennai has grown and diversified, there is growing concern about its ability to break further ground.

“The competition is hotting up for French,” stresses Prof. Chitra Krishnan, Chairperson of the School of English and Foreign Languages, Head of the Department of French, and Director of the International Centre of the University of Madras. “While we believe in multilingualism, we need to be concerned about losing even one square inch of French to any other language. Unless the various agencies join hands and improve the potential of French, we will reach the point of no return.”

German seems to be the city's strongest contender at present. Introduced as a second language at the Madras University along with French, German was shunned after the Second World War and lost sway thereafter. Following a rocky progression, German language teaching steadily re-emerged and now appears to be marching uphill. “In the last ten years, the demand for German has grown beyond our reach,” says Prabhakar Narayanan, Head of the Language Department at the Goethe-Institut. “Everyone, right from housewives, to MBA students, to retired government officers come to learn. Technical research and engineering go hand in hand with German, so learning the language is extremely useful for these areas.”

German also made its foray into schools recently with the institute's ‘partner school initiative', supported by the Tamil Nadu Directorate of School Education. Subhasri Vijaykumar, a trainer under the programme, is confident that this marks an upsurge for German in the coming years. “German will grow in leaps and bounds hereafter,” she affirms. “Since German is slowly coming into the limelight, the accent is on quality control.” Another language that has shown significant promise, of late, is our Asian tomodachi, Japanese, which has made substantial headway over the last 20 years. “Japanese companies like Komatsu and Nissan are zeroing in on the Sriperumbudur belt,” says Prof. N. Krishnaswamy, president, Indo-Japan Chamber of Commerce & Industry. “The Japanese appreciate the committed Indian workforce, and a good number of our own students get handpicked for employment in multinational companies.” He adds that while the last ten years formed the ‘Bangalore decade', the trends are now shifting in Chennai's favour.

Other metros

This raises the curious question of Chennai's position on the foreign language scale vis-a-vis other metropolitan cities in India. “Delhi will always be head and shoulders above the rest of us,” affirms Prof. Chitra Krishnan. “It has all the consulates and conferences. Mumbai is popular as the country's commercial gateway. Chennai is slower to change, but the evolutions have been more permanent.”

The city is speeding ahead in the foreign language marathon, with other languages catching on. “Spanish attracts a lot of people who like South American food and music, or who have business-oriented interests,” explains Lorenzo Peral, a teacher at the Instituto Hispania. Sarah Zareen, Programme Coordinator at Language Labs, adds that individuals dealing with Chinese counterparts learn Mandarin Chinese as a long-term investment towards better business relationships. She also points out the interesting fact that the foreign language market has experienced a contrary impact of the economic recession.

“Foreign language learning has been recession-proof. People are now looking at other options, and foreign language skills are increasingly seen as a gateway to a new profession.”

So is there still room to doubt the established and expanding place of foreign languages in Chennai? Je crois que non. And if you don't understand that amigo, then maybe it's time for you to go out and learn the langues, the sprachen, the kotoba that the city is now speaking.

General Course Information

University of Madras: French offered at MA, MPhil, PhD levels; also offered as certificate, diploma and soft skills course. German, Italian, Korean, Russian, Spanish offered as elective, certificate, diploma, and soft skills course all year round. (25399422, 25368778)

Alliance Française of Madras: General language courses offered at levels 1,2,3 (160 hours), 4 (200 hours) and 5 (240 hours). French for professionals intensive courses (120 hours). Cross cultural training in English or French. Courses for teenagers (11-14 years) (40 hours). (28279803, 28271477)

Goethe-Institut, Max Mueller Bhavan: Intensive Weekday ‘Standard’ Course (10 weeks). Extensive Weekend ‘Standard’ Course (15 weeks). Carry on German/A1,2,B1 (first three levels in 5 months, for students going to Germany for higher studies and aspiring German school teachers). (28331314)

Indo-Japan Chamber of Commerce & Industry: Fast-track program in Japanese (300 hours) combining basic and intermeiate levels. Weekend basic Japanese program (150 hours). (24352010, 24354779)

Instituto Hispania: Basic and intermediate certificate courses, diploma courses in Spanish. (24614850, 24614852)

Language Labs: Basic level courses in Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, German, Japanese and French. (9840930300,9840860061)