Why Does Sharada Want Her 8-Year Old Son to Read and Write Kannada?

Sharada’s family lives in one of these independent republics which has seceded from India. But it’s completely land-locked by it. Like many of her friends, she feels she doesn’t have the choice of returning to India. Her son’s school, NAFL, is perhaps one of the best English medium schools in Bengaluru. That means Sharada has signed up for ten-foot compounds, closed doors, and a standing instruction to stand outside the compound while the instruction happens inside. Good English-medium schools make a virtue of these vices, and you’re easily sold since you have the picture of your office cubicle in mind. You leave your child to the self-appointed experts and go do what you think your job is.

Day before yesterday, I got an interesting message from a good real-life friend on Facebook. “Hi, I need a favor,” began Sharada,

Dinesh’s school decided to drop Kannada from their curriculum. Dinesh loves his school and generally doesn’t like displacement so I offered him 2 choices, change school or learn with me. He has agreed to learn from me. I don’t know how to teach. Do you have any suggestions?

Dinesh is eight. He’s a pure Kannadiga by birth, meaning both Sharada and her husband Ramesh (a childhood friend of mine) are Kannadigas. Dinesh’s school is the so-called National Academy for Learning, or NAFL, situated somewhere in Bengaluru.

I don’t know about you, but the name of this school suggests to me that the educatables aren’t exactly kids there. More like adults getting ready for some serious national stuff.

Why did Sharada ask me for this favor?

I think she asked me because I’m pretty serious about education in the mother tongue, have written a book or two in Kannada, and take Indian languages more seriously than most of her friends.

My 9-year-old son attends a world-class school in Mysore, and my 4-year-old daughter will join the same school this June. It’s a private Kannada medium school called Arivu.

Arivu‘s world-class-ness doesn’t come from a stately building with a ten-foot compound. It comes from the great teachers, the atmosphere of fun, experiential learning, zero-stress, parents’ involvement, and total integration with the rest of the world around the school, not to mention the language of instruction.

It’s the kind of school which actively and constantly pesters parents to come and visit the campus, sit in the classrooms, make tea, sing, dance, teach children what they know best, and so on and so forth.

I know, I know, this is crazy. I don’t get the time to do this many a time, but I have no doubt in my mind that any right-thinking parent wants to do more of this, not less.

English-medium schools can’t come even close to being like Arivu

It’s impossible for an English-medium school to have the above qualities in India. Why? Because they make money from exactly the opposite of everything Arivu stands for.

(I’m not just throwing this at you. I have first-hand experience with these schools. I was educated in an English-medium school, never in a Kannada-medium school. My wife and I also reviewed the best of the best English medium schools in Mysore before settling for Arivu for our kids.)

If your neighborhood has seceded from the real India, a good English-medium school can appear to have some of these good qualities. Besides, they throw in a lot of other goodies like horse-riding, French, etc., so your idea of what makes a school good is quite blurred to begin with.

Sharada’s family lives in one of these independent republics which has seceded from India. But it’s completely land-locked by it. Like many of her friends, she feels she doesn’t have the choice of returning to India.

Her son’s school, NAFL, is perhaps one of the best English medium schools in Bengaluru. That means Sharada has signed up for ten-foot compounds, closed doors, and a standing instruction to stand outside the compound while the instruction happens inside.

Good English-medium schools make a virtue of these vices, and you’re easily sold since you have the picture of your office cubicle in mind. You leave your child to the self-appointed experts and go do what you think your job is.

Besides, people like Sharada in cities like Bengaluru don’t have too much choice. There aren’t too many Arivus in Bengaluru. Not any more. The ones that are there aren’t necessarily close by. And even if there’s one close by, how can you send your kid to the kind of school your housemaid has begun to dislike?

That would go completely against the tide of the times… which is to secede from India as completely as possible. That’s where the money is, and that’s why there aren’t too many Arivus in Bengaluru.

Does Dinesh really need Kannada?

I have to disclose an important fact for you to get the big picture: Dinesh-the-Kannadiga can’t speak Kannada.

He has the potential (who doesn’t?) but right now he can’t speak it. He barely manages to understand his parents when they speak to him in Kannada, but always replies back in English with a superb call-center accent. I know good English, obviously, but I don’t get his accent. I’ve tried.

I also think his parents speak more to him in Kannada when I’m around. Oops! Did I just say that? I think she and her husband will kill me for this. They’re two of my best friends in the world!

But my point is this. The kid is eight, and he’s already schooled like a foreigner in Karnataka. His apartment complex doesn’t need him to speak in Kannada. His school doesn’t. His republic doesn’t. The Indian nation doesn’t (it wants him to learn Hindi, which his school is patriotically teaching, anyway).

The auto-rickshaw drivers are a dying tribe; everyone is switching to Ola or TaxiForSure or Meru or whatever, so he won’t need Kannada to move around independently in Bengaluru.

Even housemaids are in the line for a visa to Dinesh’s republic, so Dinesh won’t need Kannada to talk to the housemaids. In fact, kids don’t speak to housemaids so much anyway.

So why does Sharada want her son to read and write Kannada?

However you look at it, there’s a good reason why NAFL is kicking Kannada out of its classrooms: it’s possible to paint the picture of a Bangalore, an India, and a world in which Kannada is unnecessary.

That it’s inferior, and that it’s already dead, is already being driven into children’s heads, so that makes it easy to convince parents to let go. And the parents have already conceded that the experts in the matter are within the school’s compound.

So, why, why, why does she want her son to read and write Kannada?

I’ve told her a couple of times that Dinesh must first learn to speak Kannada. Reading and writing must come later.

Somehow, she doesn’t appreciate this point. She thinks her duty is to teach Dinesh how to read and write Kannada when he can’t speak the language. In fact, she thinks he does speak Kannada. But trust me, he cannot.

I broke my head over the question. Why, why, why does she want Dinesh to read and write Kannada?

I’d have loved to ask her directly, but she’s not answering my phone. Perhaps I’ve been too direct in telling her that Dinesh must speak Kannada first. Perhaps that hurt her.

The only answer I have is that she’s driven by an irrational urge. The kind of urge that a sandalwood tree has to ensure that its saplings carry its scent.

It’s stupid to ask why. That’s how the tree is wired. That’s how we’re wired.

And oh, here’s the suggestion you wanted from me, Sharada – the same one again: don’t teach Dinesh to read and write Kannada. Make him speak it first. Do whatever it takes. That’s how you grow the Kannada sapling.

As far as NAFL is concerned, I don’t expect it to do anything better than kick Kannada out of campus. That’s how those trees are wired. The question is whether your Kannada sapling can take nutrients from them and gradually outgrow them, or not.

(Note: Names changed to protect privacy, but this article is based on a real-life incident.)

Colonialism and the Question of Medium of Instruction

In 2009, I had written a review of Prof. James Tooley‘s book The Beautiful Tree on my English blog, Karnatique. My basic critique of the book was, and is, that Tooley is so focused on looking at education as a market, and private as God, that he fails to see that his favorite low-cost private schools openly defy the principle that mother-tongue based education is the best scientific choice for children. Let me make a few comments on the topic here, since an interaction with the author on Twitter earlier this week has provided me new insights that I think are worth sharing.

Tooley thinks the market is making an independent decision in choosing English as the medium of instruction in India. But he seems not to see that it is basically an effect of colonization – a word I haven’t seen him use. World over, the low-cost private schools he visits are run in the language of the colonial power, current or past. He hardly advertises this fact but makes a big deal of the privateness of the said schools. Because he sees no coercion in the ‘market transaction’ of admitting children to these schools, he claims, everything is in order. But many things are not in order, and the open neglect of the mother-tongue is foremost among them.

When I began the Twitter discussion on language with him, Tooley asked me whether I tweet in my mother tongue. I told him I do, and also the other things I do related to Kannada. But what I want to dissect here is the nature of Tooley’s argument. He seems to want to prove, if possible, that I myself don’t respect my mother tongue, and claim that, therefore, I had better give up this line of argument. It’s not disrespect for my own language, if it exists, that he is interested in criticizing, but a possible hypocrisy or inconsistency in my argument.

Indians have not yet come out of their colonial experience. In fact, places like Bengaluru are facing their second colonization, this time from what calls itself as India. Due to the reckless fetish of including diverse peoples under one administration, the British could not give patronage to education in Indian languages. T.B. Macaulay has stated this very clearly in his arguments for English as the medium of instruction in the education system he helped erect. The independent Indian nation, which continued that colonial fetish, also treats Indian languages as necessary evils, not more, and this is most visible in large cities like Bengaluru. Now, if Indians use English and dump their mother tongues, it does not illustrate a free choice made in the Utopia of pure liberty but the effect of these historical assaults on liberty.

I must admit that I am fortunate not to appear hypocritical in this whole argument. My family, especially my wife, has stood by me in my decision to continue my non-paying Kannada work and in my decision to get my son admitted to a Kannada medium school by choice. Unfortunately, I see that every educated Indian cannot claim to be this fortunate. But that does not take away the merit of the argument that mother-tongue education is best for children. Circumstances force them to send their children to English medium schools; it would be folly to think pure liberty is at play here, as Tooley seems to think. It is a case of pure coercion, with the subtle detail that the coercion has occurred in the past.

Tooley is not worried about any of this. His view is rather myopic, unfortunately, and the basic line of his argument is that the choice of language of instruction is an inexplicable market phenomenon that we had better respect. His first response to my question regarding the medium of instruction betrays the feeling that any inconsistency between the walk and the talk of the questioner, with regard to language use, can be used to defeat him in the argument. But even such an inconsistency, where present, is itself a result of colonization. Colonization makes the colonized individual a mess of inconsistencies and contradictions. It is a similar inconsistency that led Mahatma Gandhi to hate the Indian Railways on the one hand but use it to travel all over India on the other. I write in English, and Indians want to send their children to English medium schools, because history coerces us to do so. Those whom I have to call away from English are today immersed in it, and I have no option but to use a thorn to remove this thorn.

In short, by neglecting the medium of instruction and dedicating his book to the privateness of the low-cost schools, Tooley proves to be not so much of an educationist in the first place. His arguments are ethics-free and education-theory agnostic, and threaten to make the world forget, even celebrate, the gory history of colonialism and its adverse impact on education. His are arguments that legitimize the neglect of the world’s linguistic diversity and thereby the true education and liberty of the people of the world, all in the name of a strange thing that has come to be known as liberty in some Western scholarly circles.

But the Indian who is truly concerned about the future of his children, as of India in general, has no option but to recognize the importance of mother-tongue education. He might not be able to send his own children to mother-tongue schools for various reasons today, but that neither diminishes the truth nor relieves him of his duty to tell his children why they are being sent to English medium schools. They’re not being sent because of an inexplicable and sacred market phenomenon, but because of our colonial history.

If children are told this truth, a day will dawn on which we can claim to have fully reversed the effect of that history, a day on which Tooley’s favorite low-cost private schools will fall head over heels to offer education in the mother-tongue (not that he particularly cares). Indian children will not take too long to recognize that the phase of English-medium craze we’re going through is a temporary one which they can stop in their own lifetime, even if they have themselves had to undergo English education.

Only, most of us will have to stop hiding the truth from them or think we’d be hypocritical to use English at work and send children to English medium schools but advocate for mother-tongue education. This is not hypocrisy but one of the many contradictions introduced by colonialism. I see no reason for Indians to feel guilty for using English at work or sending our children to English medium schools. But at the same time, we must not downplay the importance of the mother tongue in education. The apparent contradiction is put in place by our colonial past, not by us. At no cost must we let our thought side with untruth, however much we may be forced to act against our will. It will take time and effort, but the truth will ultimately triumph.