English Language Teaching in an Oral and Multilingual Ethos

In has been pointed out by Jacques Derrida that most of Western thought and knowledge since Plato have been organized in terms of binaries such as primitive and civilized,...
Ivy Hansdak on English Language Teaching

In has been pointed out by Jacques Derrida that most of Western thought and knowledge since Plato have been organized in terms of binaries such as primitive and civilized, male and female, oriental and occidental, oracy and literacy, and so on. These binaries do not operate on equal terms; rather, one is usually centred and privileged while the other exists on the margins (Derrida 1976: 52). In post-colonial India, some of these Western binaries have continued in the standard pedagogical practices of our schools and universities. This paper will examine the issue of English Language Teaching (ELT) in India, particularly among the Adivasi/ tribal/ indigenous communities of Eastern and Central India, with reference to some of these binaries.

The debate over English had begun in the colonial period with the Orientalists and the Anglicists, who had advocated the use of one language as the most suitable medium of instruction for higher education. This debate had followed a predictable trajectory, as seen in the setting up of two neat binaries – English and the Indian languages – which were believed to be opposed to each other. So while English was seen as an elitist tool of empowerment that would alienate its users from their cultural roots, the Indian languages were seen as conferring authenticity on their users. Incidentally, all vernacular languages were lumped together without referring to their internal hierarchies. This debate was decided in favour of the Anglicists by Lord Macaulay’s infamous Minute on Indian Education, 1835. Here, he dismissed the literary and scientific knowledge contained in the Indian languages and proposed the formation of “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and intellect.” Macaulay’s Minutes also proposed the Filtration theory, which advocated the notion that modern education would filter down to the masses through the elite, English-educated classes.

However, though Macaulay’s proposals were accepted and implemented in the colonial education policy, he had some detractors even among his fellow-Englishmen. So Lord Mayo had criticized the Filtration theory in a letter written to H. H. Hunter, in these words: “I dislike the filtration theory…The Babus will never do it. The more education you give them, the more they will keep it to themselves and make the increased knowledge (a) means of tyranny.” (Nagaraj: 1984, cited by Mukherjee 2006: 5)

Moving to the present, post-globalization, cultural scenario of India, we find that this neat binary has been replaced by a more complicated situation. Seen today as the language of commerce, of science and technology, of administration, of international and inter-regional communication, English is desired even more now than it was in the colonial past. In fact, it has been pointed out by Meenakshi Mukherjee that the most articulate champions of English in today’s world are not the urban westernized classes but the Dalits. She illustrates this by citing the words of Chandrabhan Prasad who writes in his column ‘Dalit Diary’ in The Pioneer: “Goddess English is all about emancipation, Goddess English is a mass movement.” Here, Chandrabhan Prasad’s deification of the English language goes hand-in-hand with the Dalit aspiration for upward social mobility. (Mukherjee 2006: 3-6) In the same vein, another Dalit writer, Kancha Ilaiah, also comments on what he calls “Black English” and draws inspiration from it: “The South Africans have turned English into a Black language. English has become a different language in their socio-cultural context: it communicates globally but carries a lot of Africanness with it.” (Ilaiah 2012: 171) Hence, it becomes clear that from being the language of the culturally-alienated elite minority in the colonial period, English has evolved into a vehical of empowerment for all Indians, irrespective of caste, class or creed. It has lost its colonial stigma and become a truly pan-Indian link language. Finally, it has also been acknowledged as the “window to the world”.

The special status of English has been recognized by the Indian Constitution, which has made it an associate official language. To quote Article 343:

  • The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in the Devanagari script.
  • Notwithstanding anything in Clause (1), for a period of fifteen years from the commencement of this Constitution, the English language shall continue to be used for all the official purposes of the Union for which it was being used immediately before such commencement.
  • Notwithstanding anything in this article, Parliament may by law provide for the use, after the said period of fifteen years of
  • the English language…for such purposes as may be specified in the law.

Coming to the pedagogic aspect of English in Indian schools, the Radhakrishnan Commission of 1948-49 had recommended that education should be only in the mother-tongue from grades 1 to 5, and that English should be studied in the senior grades. This Commission had favored the development of the Indian languages by using them as the medium of instruction at the primary level, and later introducing English at the secondary level. However, its recommendations had been over-turned later by the Central Advisory Board of Education of 1957 and the National Integration Conference of 1961, both of which had recommended the “three-language formula” for the secondary stage, the three languages being: (i) the regional language, (ii) the national language and (iii) English. A little later, the Kothari Commission of 1966 had also recommended a “graduated three-language formula” according to which students of the Hindi-speaking belt were supposed to learn Hindi, English and a modern Indian language, preferably from South India, while students of non-Hindi speaking belt were supposed to learn the regional language, besides Hindi and English.

In the mid-1980s, three important documents have dealt with the issue of English language teaching and learning at the middle and senior secondary stages. These are: i. Challenges of Education – A Policy Perspective, issued by the Ministry of Education in 1985, ii. the National Policy of Education 1986 and iii. the Programme of Action 1986, both issued by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in 1986. These documents have repeated the earlier recommendations, with some slight modifications.

In this context, the dismal condition of English Language Teaching (ELT) in India is worth a closer examination. In a recent article in JSL, Shantanu Ghosh, who teaches English at IIT Delhi, has pointed out three basic contradictions in the English teaching and learning process in India, i.e., the nature of educational institutions, the educational policies and the status of the discipline

In examining the actual teaching scenario, he has focused on three difficulties, i.e., practical, methodological and conceptual. Among these, he has given more importance to the conceptual difficulties. In simple terms, according to him, in the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-racial society of India, ELT is fraught with conceptual problems when viewed alongside the regional variations in standard and language. This has served to reduce the commonly-used phrase “the Indian classroom” into an almost meaningless generalization (Ghosh 2007: 69-72)

In applying Shantanu Ghosh’s findings to Eastern and Central tribal India, it is found that there is an additional difficulty. This stems from the distinctive oral ethos of many Adivasi communities which has distanced them from the dominant literate/ print knowledge system. As Ian Adam says, though in another context, “…in post-colonial thought oral practice is associated with departure from universal standards imposed by the written forms of European languages.” (Adam 1996: 97) The pertinent question that begs to be asked here is: Do the Adivasi languages face extinction as a result of the enormous influence wielded by English?

An unanswerable question, indeed, and one that carries within it the dilemma facing many marginal communities today. At a recently-held International Conference on “Languages of the Earth Meet: Bhasha Vasudha”, 7-8 January 2012, at Vadodara, Gujarat, speakers of over 900 languages from across the globe had come together to address their fears pertaining to language extinction or aphasia. Many linguists, anthropologists and cultural activists had also focused their academic discussions on this issue. In this context, the cautionary words of G.N. Devy may be quoted:

If the visibility of tribal languages has remained somewhat poor, those languages need not be blamed for the want of creativity. The responsibility rests with the received idea that literature in order to be literature has to be written and printed as well. Tribal literary traditions have been oral in nature. After print technology started impacting Indian languages during the nineteenth century, the fate of the oral became precarious. A gross cultural neglect had to be faced by the languages which remained outside print technology. (Devy 2009: p. xiv.)

Finally, while the teaching and learning of the English language and literature is inevitable in the present Indian scenario, it is also necessary to ensure the survival of the Adivasi/ tribal/ indigenous languages and their oral traditions. For without them, our rich cultural and linguistic diversity would be reduced to a dull monochrome.


Adam, Ian (1997), “Oracy and Literacy: A Post-Colonial Dilemma”, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXXI, No. 1.

Derrida, Jacques (1976), Of Grammatology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Devy, G.N., Geoffrey V. Davis and K.K. Chakravarty (eds: 2009), G.N. Devy’s “Introduction” to Indigeneity: Culture and Representation. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan.

Ghosh, Shantanu (Spring 2009), “Evolution of English Language Teaching in India: History, Current Status and the Future”, JSL, New Series 7.

Ilaiah, Kancha (2012), Buffalo Nationalism: A Critique of Spiritual Fasism, Kolkata: Samya.

Mukherjee, Meenakshi (2008), Elusive Terrain: Cultural and Literary Memory, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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Dr. Ivy Hansdak

Dr. Ivy Imogene Hansdak is the younger daughter of (Late) Dr. Stephen B. Hansdak and (Late) Mrs. Alice Murmu of Mohulpahari Christian Hospital, Dumka, Jharkhand. She has completed her M. Phil. and Ph.D. in English Literature from JNU, New Delhi, and is presently employed as Assistant Professor in the Dept of English, Jamia Millia Islamia Central University, New Delhi. Her areas of interest are Subaltern Studies, Tribal Studies, Indian Women’s Writing and Indian Christian Writing. She has several academic publications in edited volumes and national journals, such as Mainstream Weekly and The Quest. She has two books to her credit: a collection of short poems, The Golden Chord (Writers Workshop, Kolkata: 2010) and an autobiographical narrative of her late father, A Doctor among the Santals (ISPCK, Delhi: 2012). She started translating from English into Santali in 2012 and has one translated short story published in Sahitya Akademi’s literary journal, Indian Literature (by Sunder Manoj Hembrom). She has also organized two national seminars, Jagwar: Santal Literary Meet (January 2013) and Jagwar-2: Writing Memory, Writing Loss (February 2015), both at Dumka, Jharkhand, and an ICSSR-funded international conference, Tribes in Transition: Conflict over Identity, Resources and Development (March 2014), at Santiniketan, West Bengal. She has presented over twenty-five papers at seminars in India and abroad. She is also one of the members of the pan-Indian literary circle of Santali writers, publishers, academicians and other intellectuals centered in Kolkata, West Bengal.
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