It is not just inertia and coercion that work in favour of English. It is also, these days, popular demand. English is the language of technology. In Africa and South Asia, most higher education is in English, so those who aspire to a college education must master the language. “In higher studies, like medicine and engineering, English is a must,” says Atul Kumar Srivastava, president of the Association of Private Schools of Uttar Pradesh, and headmaster of St Basil’s School, Lucknow.
English-medium education is no longer the preserve of the elite. Sameena Asif, whose husband is a street hawker, sends her three children to private school in Lahore, Pakistan. “They won’t get a degree or a job if they can’t speak English. I have a BA in Urdu, but it’s useless. I’m embarrassed that I was educated in Urdu.”
Many state governments in India, like that in Uttar Pradesh, are establishing or expanding English-medium education. All primary schools are English-medium in Jammu & Kashmir; Andhra Pradesh announced last year that its elementary schools would convert to English; others are experimenting on a smaller scale. In Pakistan, the Punjab provincial government announced in 2009 that it would go English-medium, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa announced the same in 2013.
The medium clouds the message
Yet there are problems associated with much English-medium schooling. Visitors soon discover that, except in elite establishments, interviews in most “English-medium” schools have to be conducted through an interpreter, in the local language, because neither teachers nor pupils speak much English. At the Lucknow primary school, the head teacher and two out of four teachers speak reasonably good English, but the other two little. Since most of the pupils’ parents are illiterate, they are unlikely to be aware of that.
Such difficulties are reflected in the findings of much research into the educational outcomes of English-medium schooling. The most-often cited study into private versus government-school outcomes in India, carried out in Andhra Pradesh in 2013, found that on average pupils in private schools performed a bit better than those in government schools. But pupils in Telugu-speaking private schools did considerably better in maths than those in English-medium schools.
History provides some intriguing examples of the effect of being educated in the mother tongue or some other language. A policy change in South Africa introduced in 1955 by the apartheid government used the medium of education to sharpen the divide between whites and blacks, increasing the years of schooling that children got in their mother tongue. Two extra years of mother-tongue schooling, instead of schooling in Afrikaans or English, raised both literacy and wages, according to a recent study of historical data.