2 October 2008

Teach English

This entry come from New Delhi. I'm getting a dose of sisterly love, excellent hospitality of her fiancee and visiting an Asha project that is dear to my heart and unexpectedly, has become a symbol of all the things I want to do with and for the next generation of Indians. At Asha, I have two very different projects that I am involved with - one works with adults with various types of disabilities and the other, which I am visiting, runs a number of centers that provide after school education for underprivileged children. Actually, I would be doing project WHY (We Help Youth) injustice if I labeled them as just providing education. They also run creches, a foster home, women's center and, a center for physically and mentally challenged children. I'm going to summarize my visit as a 'site visit report' and will post a link to it later. For now, I want to talk about what I think is the single biggest thing I have learnt from this visit and that is, everyone, teachers and children, want to learn and speak good english. 
Even in a metro like Delhi the predominant language is hindi and there is little or no conversation that takes place in english. As a language english is taught early on in government schools, from the 3rd standard in fact, yet this translates poorly to the daily use of english as a spoken language and as a written means of communication. Most children read just fine but they do not comprehend what they are reading. In a typical english textbook there are lessons in english (short stories or essays) followed by questions. The students merely underline the answers in their books and reproduce it verbatim in the exam. The same rote learning skills applied to learning the 15 times table is applied to a language. 
Quite often when we listen to activists working in the field of education or directors of NGOs who speak passionately about their kids we feel inspired and inevitably ask the question, "What can I do to help?" So, I think I have a simple answer to that - Teach english. There are two goals we need to achieve with our children who come from backgrounds where parents may not know or talk in english. First, we have to give the children the confidence to speak in a non-native language. Second, we have to give them the skills to truly comprehend a passage in english. 
For whatever reason the ability to speak fluently in english is taken as a defining standard of your education and background. Thus, for the parents, teachers and children of the slums, speaking english is a necessity which I think will help liberate their confidence. And this is a skill that would certainly help in any vocation the child wants to pursue later on. I strongly believe that we should never assume what people want and certainly applied that to this situation. So, it was gratifying to learn that the children and teachers are also keen to learn english. At project Why there is volunteer who will be working on teaching them english over the next 9 months and I am excited to see if their desire is strongly backed by commitment to learn the language. 
Strangely, this desire was also reflected by the teachers I met in a govt. school in Bangalore and I also remember Dayamani didi talking about the tribal children in Bihar for whom she wished a better english education. Certainly my examples are not exhaustive but it's interesting that people from different parts of India echo the same wish. 
I suffer greatly from angst on where to begin on the various fights that are important to me which, I recorded in my previous post. I think I have the tiniest glimmer of where I want to start my education fight! Teach english. 

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