The Chennai Corporation, which introduced English medium sections in class I in 70 schools, is set to add 30 more sections

“My name is Karthik. What is your name?” asked the class VII boy, trying hard to hide his timid smile. That was just the first question. After the ice-breaker, he asked several more — from when my report would appear to whether The Hindu was an English paper. While he seemed quite keen on speaking in English, he switched to Tamil right after the first question. “English is very tough,” he told me, in Tamil.

English, in many government schools and Chennai Corporation-run schools, still has the image of being a difficult subject. More importantly, it is seen very much as a ‘subject' rather than a language that can be used for communication and understanding.

The Chennai Corporation, which introduced English medium sections in class I in the nearly 70 schools run by it, is getting ready to add 30 more sections the coming academic year. Now both, class I and II, will have the English medium option. But before merely adding to the number of such sections, the Corporation would do well to pause and think.

The State Government had, for long, held a rigid position on language learning in schools — the Tamil Nadu Tamil Learning Act 2006 being a clear example of that. However, a heartening shift was seen in 2007, in its approach paper to the 11th Five Year Plan. The State sought a strong push to ensure fluency in English among school students. For the first time, it deemed knowledge of English essential in today's scenario. This, along with the fear of losing more children, particularly those from modest backgrounds, to private English medium schools, prompted the government as well as the Chennai Corporation to introduce initiatives in the past few years which were aimed at imparting English skills to students.

However, some important questions emerge. For example, when should English be introduced as a medium of instruction — and how? With the present approach, children in English medium sections learn neither the language nor the concepts: fundamentals escape them as they cope with a new language. Students like these often have traumatic experiences in college.

Teaching English to children going to government schools requires double the effort than in the case of students in, say, Vidya Mandir, Padma Seshadri or DAV. This is because of two reasons: one, these students mostly come from humble backgrounds and the exposure they have to the English language is confined to the classroom. Two, teachers at Corporation-run schools are hardly trained to teach in English. The Corporation merely transfers teachers from the Tamil medium to English medium sections. They use English textbooks, but seldom teach in English.

As a result, even though the classes are supposedly conducted in English, the medium of communication — between teachers and students, and among students themselves — continues to be Tamil. Unless the civic body hires trained teachers, students will at the most pick up a few expressions in English — “what is your name?” — and never acquire the skill or confidence to speak or write in the language, thus defeating the very purpose of introducing English-medium sections.

Meera Srinivasan is the Deputy City Editor of The Hindu.

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Meera SrinivasanJune 28, 2012

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