The Hegemony of English Language in Private Schools in Urban India

  •  By Dr. Ruchira Das is an Assistant Professor, in Department of Elementary Education  Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi.

“No matter how much I give importance to my mother tongue the reality is that I feel crippled without knowing English. In this global era  not knowing English is the biggest disability one can possess as neither can one be confident intermixing amidst anglicized people in the city nor can one get a prestigious job and acquire a high social status in the society”.    (Parimal, 39 year old, central government employee, Kolkata)

“In today’s world if I leave aside my regional or community sentiment, the practical scene is that my own language is not fit to educate and prepare my children as per the needs of this modern age. There is zero market value of the regional languages. Without attaining proficiency in English my children will never be able to keep pace with the globalising world”    (Utpal, 31 year old, government school teacher, Kolkata)

The above quotations reveal that the cultural politics of education in India is indeed a struggle over unequal and ‘valued’ resources. In the current era, proficiency in English language has become one of the essential components of one’s cultural baggage, a resource that opens up prospects for the middle class to acquire economic, social and cultural capital, crucial to cope with or rather be acceptable within the urban, globalizing world. As a consequence, there has been an increasing trend among middle class parents to opt for ‘public’ (private), English medium schools over government vernacular medium schools for their children as the key route to acquire an elite status.  Furthermore,  the choice for such schools is made by the parents to reinforce upward mobility (through highly recognized white collar professions) that requires marketable language skills which only English medium private schools can provide. For the middle class parents proficiency in English is important not only for attaining ‘good quality’ education and prestigious jobs; but it is also a necessity for wider social interaction and intermixing to acquire and sustain a high class status in the society.

In this age of urbanization and globalization, middle class parents seem to prioritise their mother tongue only to the extent that their children are able to converse at home and interact with the local community.  In fact, they cites feel that their children could for once forego learning their mother tongue but they cannot afford to forego attaining expertise in English. To avoid differential treatment in the global, anglicized world, parents insist that their children develop proficiency in English. Therefore, parents are found to have anxieties with regard to providing their children with the ‘right’ kind of language skills in the ‘right’ kind of schools i.e the private English medium schools.

The above context can be explained through Ruchira Ganguly Scrase and Timothy Scrase’s (2009) work who argued that because of , “a hegemonic project of colonial India, English became the language of the educated middle class, essential for professional employment and their cultural capital” (Ganguly Scrase and Scrase, 2009: 132).  Leela Fernandes (2006) is also of the opinion that English is associated with the rise of a new middle class. “Command over English represents a form of cultural capital of middle class  identity since the possession of such language skills can be transformed into social and economic capital in the labour market. Language in this context is not merely a transparent medium for the expression of predefined class identity;  rather, the distinctiveness of this middle class identity is constituted by language” (Fernandes, 2006: 69)

In a globalizing metropolis, Kolkata, middle class parents affirm that the government is responsible for their shift of choice to private schools for their children to attain expertise in English. Even the dalit and tribal middle class parents  noted that there has been a clear agenda on the part of the center as well as the states to dilute teaching of English language in government schools. Therefore, despite being beneficiaries’ of affirmative action provided by the government, they prefer private schools over government schools so far their children are concerned.  The parents of the marginalised social groups are of the view that proficiency in English can only be acquired in private schools that can increase their chance to gain entry into elite professional institutions so that their children are able to attain and sustain a class status in the metropolis that is otherwise a prerogative of the handful of those belonging to the upper strata of the society.

There are many middle class parents who think that in their young age, about two decades ago, the decision taken by the then  Left Front  government to boycott English as a compulsory language from the primary level in all government schools of West Bengal was a big blow to the urban class families for whom English was important to achieve higher social status in the society. Though the ban was removed after about ten years from the time it was declared, the damage was already done. The consequence has been that, till date, the foundation is so weak that even teachers of the English medium government schools are not able to teach in English as they are products of the same education system which completely discouraged English in schools. In fact, over the years circumstances worsened to such an extent that today English is explained in the regional language i.e Bengali in the English medium government schools. With this kind of training in English which according to parents of Kolkata is ‘Benglish’ and not English, they are doubtful whether their children going to such schools will ever be able to acquire the appropriate language skills that the market demands. With the apprehension that their children will fall behind the competitive rat race for prestigious jobs and not be able to attain an elite class status in the society, parents choose to send their children to private English medium schools.

The situation of the middle class parents can be explained through Stephen Ball and Carol Vincent’s (1993) work where they state that market-oriented choice of schooling on the part of the parents provides strategies through which they as middle class groups preserve their family positional advantages for social advancement and mobility (Ball and Vincent, 1993 cited in Demaine, 2001: 185-188).  However, despite the strong fondness for English on the part of the middle class parents over vernacular languages, there are yet some who voiced the urgent need to dilute the influence of schools over children which forces them to only speak, learn and articulate in English as the learners are forgetting their mother tongue that is central to their ways of knowing and understanding the world.

For these middle class parents, schools indeed provide the platform and access to new languages equipping children to face the changing world. There is no doubt that English is an international language and dominates the market in the global era. But, there is another side to it. Parents note that in private English medium schools which is in high demand, introduction of English over Bengali at least at the primary level damages their children’s confidence,  and demotivates them to such an extent that even if they are able to complete their education, they are not prepared to take on the global competitive world. Parents state that it is a misconception that English is the key to success and social status. The reality is that the condition of the English educated in the city is deplorable. Even after acquiring education in English, a language of high market value, there are many who are yet to access prestigious jobs and achieve a social class status in the society. Thus the parents seem completely disillusioned with the inflated promise that English education provides. Questioning the value of such education, the parents argue that their children should be educated in the language they are most comfortable with, namely, their mother tongue i.e Bengali, even while learning English. This is because in the early years of schooling it is easier to develop reading and writing skills in one’s own language. Children are able to understand and comprehend better since they continuously hear and speak the same language at home unlike the language the schools use i.e English. They believe that English, the language of the school, can be learned subsequently as they move on to the senior classes. Midatala Rani (2009) rightly points out, “Formal education opens up the mind to comprehend, analyse what one has comprehend and to retain what one has analysed to articulate through language in a script one is comfortable with, be it indigenous or non indigenous, or else the idea of education is lost and it becomes merely symbolic” (Rani, 2009: 166).

This paradox  raises certain issues relating to  educational policy . Firstly, the contradictory views of parents affirm the monopolisation of the elite-middle class. For them,English language proficiency forms an essential component of cultural capital that is attained, sustained and passed from one generation to the other. Secondly, the globalising era reinforces unequal educational outcomes and continues to maintain the educational divide between those who are able to take advantage of the anglicised education and those who are only able to reach the level of being mere literates. Thirdly, despite implementation of the right to education act, the government fails to provide necessary cultural capital across social groups for achieving social status and success. Lastly, with the hegemony of English in schools, there is a devaluation of the vernacular languages reproducing many of the cultural problems of the colonial past.

Demaine J (Ed), (2001), Sociology of Today, New York, Palgrave
Fernandes L, (2006), India’s New Middle Class, Minneapolis, London, University of Minnesota Press
Ganguly-Scarse. R, Scarse. T, (2004) Globalisation and the Middle Classes in India: The Social and Cultural Impact of Neo Liberal Reforms, London and New York, Routledge
Rani, M, (2009), Problems of Tribal Education in India: Issues and Perspectives, New Delhi, Kaniska Publishers


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