The English-Learning and Languages Review Æ HOMEPAGE



The Teaching of English in India:

Freedom and Revolution


David Bond


This paper was originally read at the U.G.C. sponsored National Seminar on "Understanding Language Functions and Study of Language: A Multidimensional Approach with Special Focus on English", on 30 and 31 July, 2010, organised by the Dept. of English, D.R.M. Science College, Davangere, Karnataka, S, India.                       



Adult education

Mutual respect in the classroom

The voluntary principle

Interactive teaching to small classes

The curse of desks, daïs and pulpit

The sensible use of technology

Teaching language is not teaching literature

A language has to be embedded in a culture

Towards a "global" approach to language learning

Towards real proficiency in English




I should like in this paper to address some of the things I think are problematic with regard to English teaching here [in India]and perhaps with regard to adult education in general.  Based on my experience both at Kuvempu University, where I am Visiting Professor with the Department of Postgraduate Studies and as a private teacher of French in Shimoga.  During the last six months, while arranging for my contract at Kuvempu University and for the necessary documents from England, I have busied myself in setting up courses in French in the town of Shimoga and I shall talk very particularly of this experience because it is, I think, very relevant to the teaching of any foreign language – English included.



Adult education 


I have spent all my life in adult education, by which I mean the education of adults (young or old) over the age of sixteen.  The essence of adult education – what distinguishes it from teaching in schools - is that it is voluntary, that people do it because they want to.


Now it is precisely this sprit of “voluntarism” – in simple terms “doing things because one wants to do them” - that it seems to me is very often lacking here in India.  It is not of course that people do not want.  They do.  Indians want to do things very much all the time, they want passionately, they often want desperately to do things.........I see this all the time, particularly amongst the young,


So what stops people doing what they want to do?  I have learned much in this regard from the French courses.  The courses have begun as planned, the students that I have are excellent and we are already making good progress.  But many more people wanted to come than in the end actually did come.  So numbers have been rather disappointing.  In many cases, though, the people concerned did want to come.  It was they who approached me.  Some saying they had been waiting for years for such a chance.  But in the end they did not come.


Why?  The answer, I think, one answer at any rate, is that people here often have little or no room in their lives for what they want to do. Their lives are often circumscribed by obligations – things they have to do or feel they have to do.  I have never in my life heard the verb “have to” so much as I hear it in India.  I have to do this, I have to do that.  It is like a continual refrain.  Sometimes people will say it to me in the same way – David, you have to do this, you have to do that.  I soon put them right.  I do not have to do anything.  I do things because I choose to do them. And that is one of the biggest differences in culture that I find here in India.


Very often the problem is the family.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of the family system in India - and clearly there are many, many positive things to be said - it is undoubtedly the enemy of voluntarism.  It generates a comprehensive network of obligations that circumscribe and restrict people’s lives.  A huge amount of time is devoted to a round of largely repetitive and conventional activities from which people feel quite unable to escape.  And in the end very little time is left over for doing what they want.


What I have called “voluntarism” is really just another word for freedom.  And freedom is in my view an essential ingredient in learning and it is particularly important in learning languages.  Nothing is easier to learn than a language when one wants to learn; nothing is more difficult when one is simply doing it out of some sense of obligation.  Compulsory courses in English (or in any other language) achieve very little of value. 


Of course we are just teachers.  We cannot change the world even if we wanted to and we have to live with the world as it is.  There is a phrase in French that does not exist in English to describe those nights when one sits round discussing how society could be better.  In French this is called “remaking the world” (on refait le monde).  Politically I am an anarchist and like all anarchists I have spent a great deal of my life, “remaking the world”.  And like all anarchists, I understand that the problem is not how to create a better world. That is easy.  We could all make a start on that tomorrow.  We all know how the world could be better.  The problem of course is how to move from the present unsatisfactory situation towards that better world that we all want to see.  And that is the problem that no society has been able to solve......  What is true for society as a whole is equally true for education.


But it is too easy to relapse into cynicism and complacency.  There are, I believe, things that can be done and I believe that it is our responsibility (a chosen obligation not an imposed one) to try and do those things.  We cannot change the world but we can make a small difference to it if we have the will to do so.


In a proper teaching situation, the interests of the teacher and of the student are the same.  Yet two often in practice the two appear to be on two opposing sides.  The effect of a system based largely on compulsion and obligation is that often both teachers and students find it difficult to develop a real sense of responsibility.  Compulsion produces obligations and almost inevitably those who act from obligation, act reluctantly and avoid those obligations whenever they can.  Freedom involves responsibility (chosen obligations) and, in the case of teachers and students, those responsibilities are reciprocal and interdependent.



Mutual respect in the classroom


Freedom does not require “attendance registers” and academically meaningless “marks for attendance”.  Such things should be unnecessary in voluntary adult education.  But freedom does require mutual respect, which means, amongst other things, teachers turning up on time for their classes and students doing likewise.  And regular voluntary attendance. This is simply a courtesy that the teacher owes the student, and that the student owes the teacher and his or her fellow classmates.  In language teaching it is particularly vital because “language” cannot be learned from books and something missed in class cannot therefore be “mugged up” outside the class.  Teacher and students need to work as a team.


The curse of “relaxed” time keeping is a natural result of an involuntary system just as tax-evasion is the natural result of imposed taxation and crime is the natural consequence of policing.  I would say to all students present that they should not be prepared to tolerate poor time-keeping on the part of their teachers nor overcrowded classrooms nor antiquated or inappropriate equipment nor the lack of essential facilities.  In adult education, the students are the customers and have every right to demand value for their money. I would say to all teachers, especially young teachers, that they too should not put up with teaching ethics they know to be wrong or counter-productive.  Here at Dawengere, a new University is in the process of emerging.  I repeat the anarchist mantra – the problem is not how to create a better situation.  It is how to move from a bad situation to a better one.  So the crucial time is now – at the beginning.  To avoid the careless practices of the past and try to put in place that “better situation” from the very outset.


I am concerned in my French courses[1] not merely to teach French (although I think that is a worthy and important endeavour in itself) but also to establish as far as I can what seems to me to be “best practice” in the teaching of language.  The building blocks we need to create the “better situation” I have talked of, the fundamental requirement for a thorough going change in the teaching ethos. 



The voluntary principle 


This I have already talked about at length.  In practice it involves a more thoroughly student-teacher-based teaching system. In a proper teaching situation, remember, the interests of the teacher and of the student are the same.  For language teaching in a University situation, it might for instance involve a multiplication of optional courses for smaller groups of students directed towards well-targeted, specific language objectives.  It would involve the provision of open-access drop-in (ideally “twenty-four hour”) facilities for students to work individually (or in small groups) both inside and outside classroom hours.  This is ideally how a language or a computer laboratory should operate.


To describe an instance from my own experience, I was involved in the 1980s in setting up at the University of Exeter (south-west of England) a computer facility for all those studying Arts subjects.  That facility was available to every student on a twenty-four basis (day and night); they merely had to key in a code on the outside door (rather as at an ATM) to get access.  This, remember, was in the very early days of personal computing before the development of the internet when students (particularly arts students) had little or no prior experience of computing.  There were of course (voluntary) courses available during the day as well but the huge success of the project was down to the continuous and continual availability of the service to the students themselves.  The project was set up on a shoe-string budget (though it rapidly expanded on account of its huge popularity with staff and students alike), it had no technical staff whatsoever (although it could call on the University computer unit when necessary) and the lab, which required minimal supervision, all carried out by the teaching staff themselves (just two of us in the first years), cost no more to run than any other lab.


All that is required to bring about change, to create a revolution, is the will to bring about that change.  I do not accept that “these things are not possible in India” and nor should students and nor should teachers.  Where there is a will there is a way and all things are possible to those who strive.  I can think of at least one great Indian – as I am sure can you all - who would have agreed with me.



Interactive teaching to small classes


This is crucial. As teachers we all know that it is crucial. Yet too often we simply accept without demur a situation that obliges us to teach by lecture.  So let me say a little about “the lecture”.  I was fortunate enough to go to one of the oldest European Universities – Cambridge.  Oxford and Cambridge are the home of the “lecture”.  Both universities are able to attract scholars of the highest calibre from all over the world and, as a student there, one can attend any lectures one wishes but one is not obliged to attend any.  I particularly remember from my student days lectures by the critic George Steiner and by a young Noam Chomsky,  both men then at the height of their fame.  But the “lecture” was not how one was taught at Cambridge.  The object of a good lecturer was to inspire, not to instruct.  Nearly all my teaching as a student was one-to-one, myself and the teacher talking together about the subject.  Occasionally we were taught in pairs, sometimes even in groups of five or six but never more.


The sad thing is that, lacking the same resources, other universities have tried to turn the lecture into a system of classroom instruction and of course it does not work very well because that is not what lecturing was designed to do.  There is a place for lecturing – students need to be inspired - but I firmly believe that all teaching (in the sense of instruction) should be done in relatively small groups.  For language teaching this is absolutely essential.  With a group larger than about thirty, one is completely wasting one’s time.  Virtually nothing useful can be taught.


Another corollary of interactive teaching is that it should take place in a suitable environment.  Here in India we are faced always with a series of terrible curses – the curse of the daïs, the curse of the desk, the curse of the pulpit, the curse of note taking.  Notice these are all functions of what one might call the “pseudo-lecture”.  They all have the effect of distancing teacher from student, of creating barriers to learning.



The curse of desks, daïs and pulpit


All that one needs in order to teach (and learn) efficiently and well is a room and, for a little creature comfort, some mats and cushions for people to sit on.  Daïses, desks and pulpits serve no useful purpose except as things to hide behind, which is of course exactly how both teachers and students use them.


Note taking is a particularly noxious habit in a language-learning context.  It prevents students from listening and watching properly (they have their heads in their notes) and it prevents proper contact between teacher and student.  It is also largely useless.  The notes students take are generally complete gibberish (how many teachers here I wonder ever look at their students’ notes.  They might be shocked if they did) and are more likely to mislead than to help them.



The sensible use of technology


Too often technology is simply used without proper thought as a “teaching aid”. So one could add to my list of curses, the “curse of the ubiquitous Powerpoint presentation”.  Pedagogically, like the daïs and the pulpit, this is just another thing for a teacher to hide behind, another barrier between them and their audience. 


It is quite pointless (and quite powerless) for teacher and screen to be saying the same things simultaneously.  Which does not, however, mean that the teacher will not wish to draw the attention of the class to things that illustrate what they have been saying – whether text or images – and here computer technology is of inestimable use.  Let us now talk of the “curse of the blackboard”.


It is absurd in this day and age that we are still using blackboards.  For me they are a nightmare.  My handwriting is terrible and my technique with a blackboard simply means that  I invariably end up covered with chalk and scarcely able to breathe from the dust.  All teaching rooms should nowadays be equipped with projector and screen attached to a computer (a laptop by preference), which can be used by the teacher interactively in innumerable ways during a class as well as for presenting pre-prepared material.


The computer should also be attached to a printer.  Modern technology thus gives us ways of easily abolishing completely the need for note taking.   All material taught can be printed out for the benefit of the students.  That way their notes instead of being scrawled gibberish will be CORRECT and COMPLETE.  And students will have been able to give their full attention to the class.


I do not accept the argument that such things are impossible because India has a high population.  Logically it is clear that if a high population can produce a large number of students, it can also produce a correspondingly large number of teachers.   What is more, much can be achieved by very simple administrative reforms.  English language courses that are currently compulsory for non-language students should be voluntary for those who wish to do them (nothing is achieved in adult learning by compulsion); this would immediately reduce class-numbers radically.  One and a half hours is far too long for classes (it is quite beyond the attention-span of the average student); two groups of forty students, each properly taught for 45 minutes, would learn twice as much twice as effectively as one group of 90 bellowed at for one hour and a half.


Nor do I accept the argument that India is a “poor country” that lacks resources.  There is no such thing as “rich countries” or “poor countries”; there are only “rich people” and “poor people”.  India, it is true, is a country that contains a very large number of poor people but that does not mean it is a poor country.  Those who know the work of the fine journalist P. Sainath know that Sainath has shown, time and time again, graphically and statistically, that the problem in India in general is not lack of resources, it is the way in which those resources are distributed or in which they fail to be distributed.  This applies even more markedly to the University system.  Universities here in India – I see it all the time at Kuvempu – are currently spending huge sums of money that would be the envy of most European establishments (who do not have anything like that money to spend).  It is the disposal of that money that is the problem.  We must argue and lobby incessantly for more money to go, not on buildings and offices and ever more bureaucracy, but on the man- and womanpower and on the (relatively INEXPENSIVE) facilities that we as students and teachers require.  In the case of classrooms we need FEWER facilities in the sense of furniture, but MORE in the sense of useful technology.  If I can provide such facilities at my French club without a penny of capital and with the slimmest of revenues, then I am quite sure that Universities and colleges receiving crores of funds are easily capable of doing so.



Teaching language is not teaching literature


There is a scene in the Vijay Anand film Guide (based on the Narayan story The Guide) where the fake swami (played of course by brother Dev) is tested by two Sanskrit-speaking brahmans.  He cannot speak Sanskrit but defeats them, as it were, all the same by speaking English, which they in their turn cannot understand.


English has in some ways become the new Sanskrit and it is a very unfortunate development both for Indian culture and society and for the language itself.  It leads to all sorts of fantasies and myths.  How often do we hear that the English language is some sort of “gift” made by the English to India as though it was manna from heaven.  What rot!  English is just a language like any other.  It has no more claim than Tulu or Lambani or any other language in the world to embody “values” or to be particularly apt for the production of literature, scientific jargon or any of the billion other functions that any language carries out.


I heard someone the other day describe English as one of the oldest European languages.  It is not.  It is in fact one of the youngest European languages.  It has a fine literature of which, as a native, I am proud, but so do many, many other languages.  It is not the European language spoken most widely as a first language.  That is Spanish, which has a far simpler syntax, a completely phonetic written form and which also has a fine literature.  English is spoken widely in the world as a second language but French is generally reckoned to have more secondary speakers worldwide and the Latin family of languages (readily inter-comprehensible like the Dravidian family here in South India) – French, Italian, Catalan, Spanish and Portuguese - is spoken more widely than English both in terms of native and secondary speakers (about double the number) and English belongs to no such “close” family of languages.  Mandarin Chinese incidentally is spoken by more people in every single category (native speakers, secondary speakers and the two together).[2] 

(For more information on the importance of French and the Latin languages see the Shimoga French Club website


Historically Universities everywhere in the world have had a problem with the teaching of languages.  It could be fairly simply stated as a conflict of interest between the teachers and the students.  In a proper teaching situation, remember, the interests of the teacher and of the student are the same. Students want to learn the language because it is more useful and nowadays promises better job-opportunities; teachers want to teach the literature because it is more fun and carries higher status.  For this reason technical colleges (when they existed in Britain) and specialised language-schools have generally taught language much more efficiently than Universities.  In Europe, Universities make up for this deficiency by ensuring that all their students spend at least a year in a country where the language they are learning is a native language.  This ensures that all students learn the language fluently and proficiently.  How do Indian universities repair the deficiency?  Answer: they do not.


If therefore Indian universities are to teach English (or any other language) well, and are to fulfil the expectations of their students, then they need to concentrate on the full-time teaching of language, and literature has to play a very subsidiary role.  English needs to be regarded as a foreign language like any other, not as a social status symbol and not as a second Sanskrit.


Of course literature should be taught (English literature and indeed the literature of the world) but this is an entirely separate subject from the teaching of English language. English literature is a huge discipline in its own right with a large repertoire of secondary scholarly literature that needs to be read and understood, a repertoire that is constantly changing and expanding and it should only be taught to those students who have a genuine interest in studying literature and a genuine ability to do so.  I am myself a student and teacher of literature, of the history of literature and of cultural studies.  It is one of my great passions in life.  But I have also spent over twenty years of my life as a teacher of language.  And therefore I know the difference between the two.


There is of course also a place for literature (in the broadest sense of the word) in the teaching of language, just as there is a place for every activity that pertains to the culture from which that language springs.  But there is no place in the teaching of language for the “study” of literature, which pertains to an entirely different discipline. And while it is important for students to know that each language, French quite as much as English, expresses itself differently with respect for instance to polite forms or conventional usages, the English language should not be used as some sort of platform for the acquisition of social skills.  Leave that to the yoga teacher.



A language has to be embedded in a culture


Here we run up against the thorny problem of “Indian English”.  I have, let me make it clear, nothing against Indian English nor do I think the differences in vocabulary (prepone, almirah and the rest of it) are of any great significance.  They add colour to the language and will be perfectly acceptable to other English speakers.  But the grammar and syntax of Indian English is unteachable because it has no clear standard forms.  There is therefore no clear distinction that can be made between what is “Indian English” and what is quite simply “bad English”.  “Indian English” is in practice many different things; no two speakers of “Indian English” even within the same region can be sure of understanding each other comfortably.  It is not a language in the sense that “US English” or “Canadian English” or “Australian English” are languages for the very good reason that there are virtually no native speakers of “Indian English” – at least not in India.  In England there are such native speakers but there Indian English (which does not in the least resemble Indian English as spoken in India) is essentially just one dialect amongst many others.  And a language without native speakers is a language  not genuinely embedded in a culture.  It is like having the leaves of a tree without the trunk or the roots.


I do not at all mean by this to devalue Indian English, which can, in literary terms, be of the highest quality.  Most of what is termed Indian English literature is in reality just English literature by persons of Indian origin (usually drawn from fairly narrow élites) but, as we are well placed here in Karnataka to know, there are some remarkable exceptions.  Raja Rao’s Kanthapura is, in my view, a literary masterpiece.  But language is not literature.   The marvellous language of Rao’s novels is, by his own account, a conscious literary construct.  It is a literary “voice”.  The undoubted value of reading and studying English literature both by Indians and those of Indian origin has no significant implications for the teaching of English as a language.


Indian English then is unteachable as a language and, because it does not have native speakers, is, I suspect, likely always to remain so.  I know that there are very distinguished linguisticians, Indian and European, who take a different view but, not to put too fine a point on it, they are simply talking fashionable nonsense to flatter the expectations of their audiences.  It is part of the same mythology that gives us “India Shining”, the phoney (and I believe ephemeral) call-centre culture and all the associated nonsense that goes with it.


English in India therefore needs to be taught (just like any other language) as a foreign language and, to do so efficiently, India will have to develop a culture of foreign language learning that is not simply directed towards the dual objectives of a wide passive knowledge of the language and a smattering of communicative ability.


The teaching of other foreign languages (French, Spanish, German, Arabic, Chinese) would be an important step in the right direction.  It would help to develop the necessary pedagogic culture and the appropriate skills both in teachers and students.


But one needs also to move away from the idea that a language can be taught in truncated sections – the absurdities that get called “spoken English”, “functional English”, “business English”, “English for special purposes”.  None of these things exist except in the fevered imagination of those who seek to foist them upon us.  Like Indian English, these are just a handful of leaves without the trunk and without the roots.


What we need to develop is a holistic approach to language, an approach that understands that language is embedded in a culture, is a reflection of that culture, and that tries to include all aspects of language (spoken and written) and all aspects of that culture.  Not culture with a capital “C”, not high culture, not a sanskritised notion of language, but culture as we all know it in its entirety and its diversity.  It is important for students who study a language to know something of the history of the culture that gave rise to it (but they do not need to “study” history for that purpose); it is important for them to be familiar with the literature (but they do not need to “study” literature for that purpose); it is important for them to know its applications in business and in science and in a multitude of other spheres of life (but they do not need to “study” business or science for that purpose). It is just as important for students to read detective stories, daft romances and comic books as to read Shakespeare; sport is as significant a subject to read about in English as philosophy.  There is no better way to learn the rhythm of a language than listening to song-lyrics.  There is no better way of practising and studying than listening to the radio.[3]


For students to appreciate the cultural background, it is clearly important that they should have contact with native speakers of the language.  But this is part of a much wider question:



Towards a “global” approach to language learning


Europe today gives a very high value to language acquisition.  The talk is of every student acquiring at least five international languages during the course of their scholastic career.  The notion, common in India, that the acquisition of English alone is sufficient and that English is some kind of “universal language” is a dangerous myth.  The working knowledge of English has become simply a minimum requirement, common to almost all those employed in business.  To have something worthwhile to offer employers, people will in the future need to offer far more than that.  Those who speak several languages will always have the advantage over those who have nothing but the bare minimum that most Indians possess (a fairly approximate knowledge of English).


India is not a country where, on average, English is spoken particularly well.  The average Swede, the average Dane, the average Finn, the average Norwegian, the average Icelander, the average German, the average Austrian, the average Swiss, the average Dutchman, the average Singaporean, the average Cypriot, the average Maltese, the average Israeli, the average inhabitant of Hong Kong speaks English rather better than the average Indian.  To say nothing of those countries where English is spoken by a large portion of the population as their native language (Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, the West Indies, Malaysia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and some other African countries, The Philippines, Papua-New Guinea).  And the standard of English spoken in many other countries (Saudi Arabia, for instance and other Middle Eastern states) is very rapidly improving.  If there is a race to learn English well, then, unless it radically changes its ethos, it is a race India is going to lose despite all its initial advantages.


What Europe is doing today in terms of language teaching, many Asian countries will very probably be doing tomorrow.  In fifty years, if things do not change, countries like Japan and China (which now includes a very significant English–speaking region, Hong Kong) will have caught up and overhauled India in this respect. Indian “English”, far from being a world language, will have become a marginalised “pidgin”.


Some of the required changes have already been suggested – a more responsible academic ethos, more appropriate teaching facilities and methods, concentration on language and an ethic of language learning, a holistic approach to language.  To this we should add a more global approach to language teaching and language learning.


In Europe any department of foreign languages at a University will employ what are generally known as “assistant(e)s” (usually, in English usage, given French pronunciation). Most secondary schools nowadays do likewise.  These are young native speakers employed to assist the teachers (who, at University level, will often be native speakers themselves).


I first came to Shimoga three years ago.  I am not, obviously, a young “assistant”.  I am a highly experienced and highly qualified teacher of language (amongst other things) and, because I wanted to stay in India, I was willing to work here for a very modest honorarium. It has taken Kuvempu university three years so far (at great inconvenience and considerable cost to myself) to work out how to employ me.  This was simply because the university had no idea how to employ and because the University registry could not be bothered to find out!  The Vice-Chancellor (now retired) and my academic colleagues, I should say, have been consistently very, very supportive but they, like me, had to battle against a mindless and irresponsible bureaucracy.[4]


I hardly need to stress how absurd this situation is.  The schools, colleges and Universities here should be employing scores of people like myself.  They should be everywhere within the education system.


The problem is not resources; it is simply the lack of will.  Of course it is not easy for Indian institutions to offer salaries that will attract established teachers and academics who have homes and families back home to be paid for.  But every European student has what is called a “gap year” between school and University, which they use invariably to travel and gain useful experience abroad.  This means there is a huge pool to be tapped of intelligent well-educated young people, native speakers of English and other European languages, many of whom would be only too happy to come and work in India for a year.  If India fails to take advantage of this, other countries will.


I have already pointed out that European students studying a language at University level all spend a year abroad in a country where that language is a native language.  There is absolutely no reason why Indian students should not also benefit from exchange schemes to do the same.  This does not necessarily entail, as far as English is concerned, expensive travel to Europe; there are plenty of countries closer at hand where English is spoken as a native language.


It is simply not true that India is incapable of joining the rest of the world in globalising the teaching and learning of language.  India has a “political capital” today, in the cant phrase, like never before.  The interest in India in Europe, in the US, in Russia, in China, is greater than it has ever been and, be warned, perhaps greater than it will ever be again because it is based, at lest in part, on a mythology.  Now is the time to derive the benefit from that by attracting teacher and “assistant(e)s” from abroad and by sending students to study abroad on exchange schemes.  It is only the will to act that is lacking – on the part of the government, national and state,(who could very easily negotiate reciprocal arrangements of the sort described with other countries), and of the academic institutions and their staff.  It is the lack yet again of a proper identity of interest between teachers and students; it is a lack of genuine responsibility (as opposed to complacent and foot-dragging obligation).



Towards real proficiency in English


A teacher is only as good as the system in which he or she teaches allows him or her to be.


In my view far too much emphasis is now being placed here on teacher training and on techniques and far too little on the acquisition of basic skills.  Teacher training and retraining is important but it is essentially remedial.  It is not going to turn a bad teacher into a good one.  And no modern “technique” is going to make up for a lack of the basic techniques of teaching, which, as every good teacher knows, are as old as the hills. 


All teachers certainly should know how to use a computer effectively for teaching and how to provide their students with the benefits of the internet.  This is clearly indispensable.  Beyond this, they just have to have the basic skills (genuine proficiency in the language as far as language teaching is concerned) and know how to teach.  And good teaching is exactly the same thing today as it was a hundred or a thousand years ago.


The real problem in India is far simpler and far more brutal.  There is in India as far as I can see no standard testing of the proficiency in English of those who are going to teach – even at the University and postgraduate level.  As a result too many teachers are unleashed on schools but also on colleges and Universities who are not genuinely proficient in English.  And this of course creates a terrible vicious circle for the generations that follow.  And no training or re-training can remedy it.


For nearly thirty years I prepared students of all nationalities from all around the world for internationally recognized examinations.  Because the school was in Cambridge, the examinations sat were those set by the University of Cambridge board – First Certificate in English and Certificate of Proficiency in English.  But there is also a well recognised US alternative Michigan ECPE (set by the University of Michigan).[5]


Beware of imitations.  There are plenty of worthless gimcrack courses to be found on the internet.   There are only two properly recognised international examinations – those set by Cambridge University and by the University of Michigan, plus, slightly more dubiously, certain recognised “tests” - TOEFL, IELTS and The Pearson Test of Academic English.  Most of the rest are phoneys.


These examinations (Cambridge Proficiency and Michigan) are used in Europe and throughout the world as an international measure of proficiency in the language.  No student who is not a ‘fluent’ or ‘certified’ speaker of English can attend a University in Britain without one (unfortunately universities sometimes bend the rules because foreign students, who pay double the fees, are a very lucrative source of income for them).  In other European countries (and increasingly in other countries around the world) no one is supposed to teach English (at least at University level) or set up an English school without having first passed one or other of these certificates.  Why does India lack any such requirement?


Of course many countries outside Europe struggle to produce a sufficient number of teachers of this calibre.  It is true of Latin American countries, of Japan, of China and many other smaller countries.  Sadly those who are sufficiently qualified prefer to work in business or industry rather than become teachers.  Nevertheless, all these countries are aware that this is the standard of English they need to strive for.  Many (Japan particularly) are making furious efforts to do so.  Why is India so unconcerned to achieve international standards of proficiency in English?


Need I stress how foolish this is, how unfair it is on the students who go on to be teachers, improperly prepared for the task, how unfair it is on the students they in their turn will teach, how worrying it is for the future........


With the advantages it has in terms of English (over China or Japan or Latin America), it would be a simple enough matter in India to make these international examinations a standard requirement for all university teachers.  It would be a simple enough matter for universities to ensure that their students sat such examinations.  And the result would be immediate.  The teaching would have to improve to meet the more exacting examination requirements, many of the reforms I have talked about in this paper would have to be instituted and the standard of proficiency in English would double in no time at all.  With the advantages it already has, India could soon become one of the countries in the world where English was best and most widely spoken. And at the same time develop a foreign language learning culture that could be a model for the learning of all and any other foreign languages.


A further word on those advantages.  India does have English in its lap.  The language is all around and many Indians, even when they cannot speak English, have a wide if largely passive knowledge of the language.  They have an advantage in respect of English that countries such as China or Japan or the countries of Latin America and the Middle East do not possess.  Indians – I have stressed this repeatedly in talks I have given – are wonderful linguists.  Bilingualism is a great advantage for language learners and most Indians are at least bilingual; many are trilingual or quadrilingual.  I am not here referring to English.  Only a small minority are genuinely bilingual in an Indian language and English.  I am referring to the knowledge of Indian languages (Kannada, Tulu, Lambani, Konkany, Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Malayalam, Tamil).  With such a wonderful base to work from, it is a tragedy that India is simply throwing away those advantages when it could do so much more to improve on them.  This is why a change is so urgently needed in language learning and language teaching in India – a change that is no more and no less than a revolution.


[1] The French Club, Jyoti Nilaya First Floor, Krushi Nagar 2nd Main 2nd Cross, Shivamogga.  Tel: 9902331422 email:   skype id: bondfrenchclub   website:

[2] Some authorities would contest these statements about the relative ‘sizes’ of the various languages mentioned. Ed.

[3] I emphasise here radio.  NOT television.  Television, a superlatively passive medium, is almost completely useless from a language-learning point of view.  Radio is difficult (it requires considerable concentration) but a wonderful teacher.  Note that the development of the internet and high-speed broadband connections means that one can now listen (and relisten) to the radio in any language with total clarity and without electric interference.  For more information on this subject see the French Club website

[4] The former Vice Chancellor, I might add, made a ferocious attack on this bureaucratic nonsense in his retirement speech.  I have no doubt that the new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Bari, will be equally determined to stamp out abuses.

[5] Beware of imitations.  There are plenty of worthless gimcrack courses to be found on the internet.   There are only two properly recognised international examinations – those set by Cambridge University and by the University of Michigan, plus, slightly more dubiously, certain recognised “tests” - TOEFL, IELTS and The Pearson Test of Academic English.  Most of the rest are phoneys.



21 January 2011


The English-Learning and Languages Review Æ HOMEPAGE