Teaching English

The unique challenge of teaching English in India

The challenges of teaching and learning English in India explains it all – the good, the bad and the ugly side of the Indian education system! India is among the few major countries in the world where a second-language (English) is not just a major communication language but also the academic language – the medium of instruction – in a large number of private schools (and the aspirational language of academics for the rest of the population too!) Indian children are supposed to learn all subjects – history to science – in a second-language. The first-language (mother-tongue) is used in schools only for its own sake (and often as a substitute for the second in academics).

To be more precise, the Indian sub-continent – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka – and some of the English-speaking African countries face the same challenge in respect of English, i.e. teaching the second-language English to the level of first-language and transact all the academics in English. Thus, teaching English is not the challenge of teaching a second–language, per se, it is altogether a novel challenge. We all know the art and science of teaching non-first-tongue as much as the rest of the world. In fact, as much as the world, we know how to teach the third, fourth, or fifth languages to children.

The crux of the matter is that in the vast majority of (reasonably-sized) nations, the second (or the other) language is taught at the conversational/communicational level. Germany teaches French or English in their schools but only at the communicative level, for conversational purposes. Ditto for China and the English or Korean languages, France and the Deutsch or English languages, Thailand and the English language – the list of countries which teach the second-language for conversational purposes is endless! None of these countries have even tried to teach the second-language to even the literary level (‘level 3’ in our hierarchy of language learning that means extensive reading of literature in a language).

No developed country, and many others, ever had the need or the design of taking the second-language to the academic level competence among its children. Consequently, the issues of teaching a second-language to the level of an academic (teaching and learning) language are beyond the radar of significant research. The world does not really know the science and the art of teaching (and learning) a second-language as the academic language.

It also implies that the English language natives – countries such as the USA, the UK, Australia – do not have the credentials to help the part of the world that needs to take English to the level of academic language for a population that does not speak the language as the first-tongue. In fact, these countries have not been very successful in teaching English to the immigrant Asians, Africans and Latin Americans in their countries. It is safe to say that the native English countries have failed to mass-scale the development of English language competence in their immigrant population and their educational institutions do not have anything substantial to tell the rest of the world on how to equip non-natives with academic level English.

Thus, the unique challenge of teaching English in India is that we (and the world) do not know the art and science of teaching English as the first language. We have to invent the process of teaching English for ourselves and the world! And we have not done this in the past 200 years of school education system.

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