TN bats for English, plans language labs; past efforts show it’s futile
Though the state government plans to set up English language labs in 6,000 government schools, lack of specialists and poor teaching innovation may act as roadblocks
At a time when Tamils are vehemently protesting Home Minister Amit Shah’s remark about using Hindi an alternative to English, the Tamil Nadu school department has announced an ambitious plan to set up English language labs in at least 6,000 government schools at a budget of ₹30 crore.
The decision may seem a fitting rejoinder to the Centre’s attempts to implement Hindi as a link language, but academics wonder if it would work on the ground, given the dismal fate similar schemes have met with in the past. While similar language labs have been set up by South Indian states like Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Tamil Nadu is set to be the first in the region to implement it across the state.
Historically, Dravidian parties have chosen English over Hindi as a link language between states, and the new announcement is being perceived as an extension of that principle. During the regime of CN Annadurai, the founder of the DMK, the three-language policy was removed in state run schools. Under the policy, it was mandatory for children in government schools to learn Hindi apart from Tamil and English.
According to the Constitution Assembly, the three-language policy was introduced so that English could act as a link language for people to interact with the outside world and Hindi as a link between the states. Annadurai, however, reasoned that if English can serve as a link to the world outside India, then it can also be used to interact within states, too.
“So, why one language for outside world and one language for inside India? It’s like boring a smaller hole in a wall for the kitten and a bigger one for the cat,” he said. Besides, he said, learning three languages would become burdensome for children.
“If a Tamil student has to learn three languages, then he or she will be required to learn three different sounds and three different alphabets. Tamil, English and Hindi are three different types of languages,” Annadurai said.
Lofty goal, shoddy implementation
In 2004, the state government introduced English as a subject from Class 1 in government schools. Earlier, students in government schools were initiated to the language only from Class 3. To ensure that students in higher classes are proficient in the language, the government introduced language labs for Classes 6 to 12 from 2003.
As part of the 2005-06 policy document of the school education department, orders were issued to establish language labs in 600 government high schools and higher secondary schools. It was expected that in one academic year, the labs would be extended to an additional 300 schools. However, the programme wasn’t as successful as the government expected it to be.
“We cannot say that the programme was successful. It did not take off in many parts of the state due to lack of equipment, training and outdated technology,” PK Ilamarana, state president, Tamil Nadu Teachers Association, told The Federal.
He said that a non-teacher, mostly a person well-versed in computers, was appointed in many schools as a language instructor, as the English teachers of those schools were not tech-savvy. “Since the students were not introduced to these labs by the respective language teacher on a daily basis, the programme didn’t bear fruit. But we hope that this time round such glitches will be fixed,” Ilamaran said.
Besides establishing language labs, the government introduced English as a medium of instruction in government schools from 2013 onwards, but to no avail.
Lack of innovation in teaching, specialists
Anand Thiyagu, a government school English teacher from Thiruvarur district, said that language labs require language specialists rather than English teachers.
“Although the English alphabet has 26 letters, there are 44 kinds of sounds (phonemes). A teacher who teaches English as a subject can teach the alphabet and the grammar. But to improve the diction of students, we need specialists who have thorough knowledge of the language and can handle these labs. But before students are introduced to these labs, the foundation – listening, speaking, reading and writing – should be made strong,” he said.
Experts say what is most lacking in these labs is innovation and that teachers should go the extra mile to nurture the language skills of their students.
S Murugavel, former professor of English and one of the coordinators of the English Language Teachers Association of India, Pudukkottai district, said English teachers, for starters, should be up-to-date with changes in English language teaching.
“For example, many colleges today have introduced a separate language class called ‘Communicative English’. This is because English and communication using that language have become important in every field. These classes use software which provides results then and there. But most of the English teachers are not up-to-date on these developments. Instead of reading from the book, the teachers must go beyond the classroom. They should focus on students’ articulation of the language,” he said.
English for employment-readiness
In 2018, Assembly Speaker M Appavu, himself a former school teacher, filed a public interest litigation in the Madras High Court, requesting an order to the then AIADMK government to introduce spoken English classes in government schools.
“Though English was taught, a student even after successfully completing Class 12 with very good marks, is able to not speak or understand communication in English. There is a difficulty for these students in speaking or writing in English fluently and it causes problems when they pursue professional and other degree courses, because the classes are conducted only in English,” he said in the petition.
After hearing the petition, the court directed the school department to take necessary action. Accordingly, in 2019, a spoken English programme was introduced in government schools. Under the programme, students between classes 6 and 12 would receive spoken English training for 45 minutes every week.
In addition to this, the state took another initiative, called ‘Naan Mudhalvan’ (‘I am the First’), in a bid to increase employment opportunities for the youth. Under this programme, in order to improve the English proficiency of government school students, the government signed a MoU with the British Council on March 8 this year.
Practice is critical
Amala, an English teacher in Tiruvannamalai district, said that even though teachers are putting 100 per cent effort in taking spoken English classes, they also expect the same level of commitment from the students.
“In rural areas like ours, students really show an interest in attending these classes. However, once they leave school and go home, they are unable to use what they learn because their parents are either illiterate or don’t speak English. They don’t have anyone to communicate with them in English. Over time, the students lose interest in learning the language,” she said.