Many realise the need to learn English only after they finish school education

“When people spoke in English, I used to scorn them, till I sat for an engineering entrance exam in Madurai,” narrates Chandra, a student from a Tamil medium school, awaiting her Class XII exam results. “The instructions were in English and all around me, students were asking questions in English. Though I too had doubts to ask, I felt too embarrassed to speak.” A top-ranking student in her school, unnerved by the experience, Chandra did not perform well in keeping with her preparation.

The transition from school to college is a leap in itself, but for Dalit students like Chandra from Tamil medium schools, who also happen to be first-generation college goers and hail from poor families, the switch is riddled with nightmarish fears. Most students realise the need for learning English only after finishing school, says John, a student from Kumbakonam. “In school, I saw English only as a subject I had to pass. After the exams, everyone was talking about college. When a relative asked me if I knew that all the subjects would be taught in English, it scared me.”

Students from various districts attending a residential programme in spoken English for Dalit youth at St. Joseph’s College in Tiruchi, shared their anxieties about sitting in a classroom where subjects would be taught in a language they did not understand. Some students admitted they were still not sure what a noun meant.

With English being one of the subjects in school, how did they manage to pass all these years? “Teachers mark important questions for us to learn,” says Deepa from Salem. Tilak, a student from Musiri, explains what seems to be the popular method, “I mug up all the words in their proper order for every sentence, though I might not understand the meaning of half the words. The trouble is if I forget one word, then the rest of the sentence falls apart.”

Among the careers these students wish to pursue are medicine, engineering, commerce, bio-technology and civil services. “Why do we have to learn subjects in Tamil all through school, and then learn them in a different language in college?” demands Sujitha, a student from a government school in Perambalur.

“I wanted to learn to speak in English, but there was little I could have done about it. Perhaps if my parents had more money, they could have sent me to an English medium school,” wonders Britto Raj from Kumbakonam. “Even if we manage to get a course in Tamil, don’t recruiting companies demand knowledge of English?” asks Tilak.

A firm grounding in basic English grammar and ensuring Tamil medium students know how to speak in English could make them more confident, feels Surya, from Tiruvarur.

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