Saturday, January 28, 2017

Tamil identity: A telephone conversation with a jallikattu aficionado

‘Identity,’ he repeated. There was an air of finality in his voice.

The speaker was an old college buddy, a Madras-bred sexagenarian, and the subject of the telephone conversation was the mass movement for jallikattu in Tamil Nadu. I had asked him to explain the phenomenon of almost the whole of Tamil Nadu coming together on the issue of jallikattu. ‘A sense of identity’ was his explanation.

Bull-taming being a mark of Tamil identity! I was amused. ‘Come on, don’t try to bullshit me!’ I protested. ‘Jallikattu is by no means a pan-Tamil-Nadu sport. It’s, in fact, a regional, all-male sporting event, confined to just a few places like Alanganallur, Aavaniapuram and Kandupatti. And a seasonal one at that. If this is a mark of identity, then it doesn’t make sense to me how the gangs of youth fighting for a revocation of the ban on the sport share this identity. Aren’t they, by and large, urban youth unacquainted with country life and pastoral practices, let alone jallikattu?’

I could hear snorting through my BSNL landline followed by a torrent of grunting. Then he bellowed like the Kangayam bull. ‘Listen, the problem with you is that you are a cultural cringe – a philistine, as a matter of fact, lacking in cultural values. It’s a pity that you are a Tamil. Coming to your question, yes, of course, the whole of Tamil Nadu doesn’t take part in jallikattu. So what? Every one of us, true Tamils, Tamils who are truly Tamils at heart, shares the spirit of the sport – the spirit of valour which is the spirit behind jallikattu. In that sense, it’s indeed pan-Tamil. Is that clear?’

‘Not quite,’ I said. I wouldn’t expect the Tamil Dalits, who form over 20% of the population of Tamil Nadu, to share this so-called identity. Let’s face it, the Dalits are not allowed to take part in jallikattu; they can’t even watch it standing with the caste Hindus. They can only stand at a distance – at a place earmarked for them – and watch the game. At the most, they can beat drums – that’s the only kind of participation they are allowed; they just can’t touch the bulls in the jallikattu arena. When the sport is so casteist, when it excludes a huge section of the Tamil population, where is the question of its representing a pan-Tamil identity? I do agree that the sport with all its violence and cruelty to the hapless jallikattu bulls is indeed part of Tamil culture, but the problem is that the Dalits don’t seem to be part of this cultural landscape.’

‘This is cultural ignorance,’ he said. His voice, however, sounded subdued and bovine now. ‘It’s common knowledge that even those who enjoy a popular culture are part of that culture.’

‘Isn’t that a construct rather than reality?’ I persisted.

‘The pan-Tamil identity,’ he started off on a scholarly note ignoring my question, ‘lies in the spirit of valour we all share, irrespective of our caste. This spirit is as old as Sangam literature itself.’

‘But my question…’

‘No true Tamil,’ he continued, raising his voice, ‘will remain uninspired when he reads Kapilar’s description of jallikattu in Kalithogai: எழுந்தது துகள்; ஏற்றனர் மார்பு; கவிழ்ந்தன மருப்பு; கலங்கினர் பலர் (Vaadivasal is thrown open, and the bulls come leaping out with heads down, charging at the tamers. Dust rises, so do the chests of the young tamers, and the spectators scamper out of their way, terror-stricken). Again, கொல்லேற்றுக் கோடஞ்சுவானை மறுமையும் புல்லாளே ஆயமகள் (Valour was valued so high that not even in her next birth would a herdswoman take the hand of a man who dreaded the killer horns of the bull).’

‘Isn’t this glorifying and romanticizing an anachronistic, if not a primitive, practice and misleading young people? Don’t you think we live in a world vastly different from the hyperbolized one presented in imaginative literature of yore? The reality is that even as you are fighting for what you call honour and valour and identity, the Tamil land is experiencing the worst-ever rainfall in 140 years, so much so all the 32 districts have been declared drought-hit and 17 farmers have committed suicide. The reality is that we are living in dishonourable times when the majority of the elected representatives of the Tamil people, who claim to be ready to lay down their lives for honour and valour, are busy prostrating themselves before their political Ammas and Chinnammas. Or, are you saying that Tamil culture is so complex that it also recognizes discretion as the better part of valour?... Hello, are you there?’

He had hung up.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

English medium instruction in municipal schools: A viable proposition?

Often enough, in India, Shakespeare's "whining schoolboy" is in the news – in relation, I must add, to the language in which the Bard wrote about him.  They both – the schoolboy and the English language – are in the news again now. A few months ago, the government of Andhra Pradesh (AP) dropped a demonetization-like bombshell when it announced that, with immediate effect, English would replace Telugu as the medium of instruction (MoI) in the municipal schools in the State. In response to protests by teachers’ unions, however, the government has relented on the issue; yesterday’s papers said that the ‘controversial move’ had been ‘put on hold’ (The Hindu, Vijayawada Edition, 6 January 2016, p. 1).

English-in-schools policies in India
The state governments' English-in-schools policies are interesting.  In some states, English is not at all part of the primary school curriculum.  In some, it is, as in Andhra Pradesh, but is offered only from Class III.  Maharashtra, which had been offering English only from Class VIII, changed its policy at the dawn of the new millennium and introduced English in Class I itself.  The West Bengal government, which had been firmly against a place for English in the primary school for more than two decades, changed its policy in the year 2000 and introduced English in Class III, following the Tamil Nadu example.  Later, it dispensed with the policy altogether and introduced it in Class I itself.

The obsession with English in AP
But, this post is about English as the MoI in the government-run schools in Andhra Pradesh. During the past ten years so, irrespective of the party in power, the government of AP has been keen on introducing English as the MoI in all schools. In 2008, six years before the State was bifurcated, the government rolled out an interesting MoI policy called SUCCESS, an acronym for Strengthening and Universalizing Quality of and Access to Secondary Schools, for implementation in select schools.  In these 6,500 schools identified for SUCCESS, instruction was made available in both English and Telugu, and parents could opt for one of these two languages as the MoI for their children. There are only 3072 SUCCESS schools in AP now, as 3428 became part of Telangana in 2014. In 2015-16, the government wanted the SUCCESS schools to become fully-fledged English-medium schools with the Telugu-medium sections in them being shifted to non-SUCCESS high schools in the neighbourhood, and issued orders to this effect, but has failed to implement the orders so far. The government also announced that the teachers of the SUCCESS schools would be trained by UNICEF, the British Council, and English and Foreign Languages University during summer holidays, but this plan also remains only on paper. The last two events in this English as the MoI history are the decision to replace Telugu with English as the MoI in all the municipal schools and the climb-down a couple of days ago.

The reasons for the obession
Why is the government so fixated on English as the MoI? I can think of two reasons.

First, enrolment in government-run schools in AP has greatly declined, and perhaps the government thinks that “upgrading” them into English medium schools will give them a makeover. At the beginning of this academic year, there were as many as 5639 primary schools with fewer than 20 children in each, and the government wanted to close 2,300 of them by merging them with upper primary schools. (The situation is worse in Telangana where 6,361 primary schools are facing the threat of closure.)

Can English medium provide the needed attraction? The government seems to think so. But, it is not altogether wrong because, the Telugus, unlike the Tamils, the Malayalees and even the Maharashtrians, seem to put a high premium on English language education to the extent of ignoring their mother tongue; the craze for English-medium education runs so deep here. During the three school-year period till 2006, enrolment at the upper-primary level in English medium schools in AP registered a dramatic 100% increase (i.e. from 10.6 lakh to 20.9 lakh), while the figures for Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Kerala for the same period are 17% (from 14.7 lakh to 17.2 lakh), 12% (10.6 lakh to 11.9 lakh) and 3% (2.4 lakh to 3.2 lakh) respectively [].

Secondly, the government seems to think that an early start in English is necessary to cope with the needs of a fast globalizing economy.  It seems to assume that an early start will serve to equalize learning opportunities and empower the underprivileged sections of society.  Implicit in this assumption is the cynical belief that the mother tongue is inimical to the child's success in the job market.

Can an early start in education through English help?
Are the government’s assumptions about an early start in English education yielding gains valid?

Research has shown that a late start in a second or foreign language is not at all a disadvantage: late starters can easily catch up with early starters, using the skills they have learnt in their first language, if they have attained, in the first language, what is called CALP (cognitive and academic language proficiency). And acquiring CALP in the first language doesn’t involve a long and painful process. Proficiency in the mother tongue is, therefore, a resource.  A good deal of research has been done in the area of the best starting age for learning a second language. The findings (e.g. Lightbown, P. M., and Spada, N. 2006. How Languages are Learned. Oxford University Press) indicate that unless an L2 learning situation is similar to that of an L1 acquisition situation, which is possible in the case of total immersion, learning a second or a foreign language in childhood is not at all an advantage. As a matter of fact, research results suggest that one can learn a second language more effectively if one starts around 12-14 years.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that an early start is advantageous, its success depends upon competent teaching.  Is this possible in our State-run schools?

Can our State-run schools cope with the demands of English as the MoI?
Yesterday, I did a good deal of field work visiting a few SUCCESS schools in Vijayawada Urban and discussing with a cross section of teachers the teaching-learning situation obtaining there during the past eight years, ever since the introduction of English as the MoI alongside Telugu. From what the teachers said, this is how I understand the situation:

1.The teachers were pushed into teaching  through English with no preparation or training.

2.When the SUCCESS programme was launched, the government promised to train the teachers adequately through different means. GO Ms No. 76 Education (SE-TRG) Department dated 10 June 2008 promises the following, among others:

  (a) adequate training for the subject teachers drawing upon the expertise of English and Foreign Languages (EFL) University and the Regional Institute of English (RIE);

  (b) long-term training for 40-45 secondary-grade teachers at EFL University, the RIE and other institutions and then using them as resource persons for conducting district-level training programmes for the rest of the teachers; and

  (c) equipping each of the 6500 schools with an English language lab and 6 English-Telugu and 6 Telugu-English dictionaries).

All these grandiose plans have remained a pipe dream to this day; none of them has materialized. Except for a 5-day orientation programme in 2008, there has been no training whatsoever during the past eight years or so.

3.Far from putting in a mechanism for training teachers, the government has withdrawn the only mechanism available, namely the District Education Centre for English (DECE). In Krishna district, for instance, a DECE was set up in Vijayawada under a Government of India scheme with funding from MHRD for the first five years. This had been done in 2006, two years before the SUCCESS programme commenced, and as Director, Loyola ELT Centre, I was also associated with the training programmes of the DECE. But, in 2011, when the SUCCESS programme was in full swing, the DECE was closed down because the funding from MHRD stopped. Ironically enough, the GO referred to above orders the Director of School Education to strengthen the existing DECEs with ‘additional training and hostel facilities’ and set up three new DECEs in each district where there is no DECE ‘to provide training to the High School Teachers in improving their English language abilities.’ Do you know how the Department of School Education implemented this? By winding up the only DECE in Krishna district, leaving the district with neither a DECE nor an ELTC!

4. Neither has the government been serious about equipping schools with adequate number of teachers. According to the latest National Assessment Survey (NAS) conducted by the NCERT, (a) State-run schools in AP are short of 17,129 teachers; (b) 31% of the headmaster posts are vacant; (c) absenteeism among teachers is very high; and (d) 50% of the teachers are not teaching at all. (The last of the four findings involving arithmetical precision intrigues me; perhaps, this has to do with the figures for teacher absenteeism, too. For more information on the subject, one may read the paper, ‘Teacher Absence in India: A Snapshot,’ by Micheal Kremer of Harvard University and four others, including three World Bank officials, in Journal of European Economic Association, April-May 2015.

When the subject teachers are so ill-equipped and feel demotivated on account of the cold-shouldering by the government, one cannot expect their teaching to be very competent. It is an open secret that even in private English medium schools and colleges, English education is by and large impoverished. While subject teachers rarely use English, even English teachers teach the content through Telugu even in urban areas. When this is the situation in the majority of the private English medium schools themselves, if the government expects teachers in State-run Telugu medium schools, especially those in rural areas which constitute the majority of our schools, to become competent teachers through English through their own efforts, it is living in a dream world.

The way forward
But, governments don’t listen. I’m sure that later if not sooner, municipal schools will become English medium schools with the bulk of the teaching taking place through Telugu and the students doing a poor job of memorizing answers in English to serve examination purposes. That cannot be averted altogether, but disaster management is certainly possible. If only the government makes a sincere attempt to follow the programme of action it set out for itself eight years ago in GO Ms No. 76, then it is possible to achieve some degree of success in the implementation of English-as-the-MoI policy in the municipal schools and remedy the situation in the SUCCESS schools.