Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Coming full circle: Medium of instruction from colonial to post-colonial times in Tamil Nadu

This post is not about Moodle but about something else I'm passionate about: language. I work with people in different countries, and sometimes I get asked if I studied English at school in India. I used to find this question funny until I began to consider it in a post-colonial context.

My mother's parents were born in the 1920s in the Madras Presidency of British India, and they went to schools where the medium of instruction was English (that is, the language in which all subjects are taught). By the time India gained independence in 1947, they were young adults with high fluency in English. They had their first child - my mother - a few years later, and many others followed. None of them studied in English. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, my mother's generation in this part of the country went to schools where the medium of instruction was usually Tamil, the dominant language of the post-independence Madras state (which later became Tamil Nadu in a further division of Indian states along linguistic lines). English was simply a subject at school with not much relevance to daily life. It was however still the medium of instruction at university, and my parents, like most people at that time, struggled to adapt to the change from Tamil to English.

Why wasn't university education offered in Tamil? Some courses were, but I suppose it would have been an impractical project to translate entire bodies of knowledge into Tamil. With the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965, the importance of English as a 'link language' in the nation was strengthened. Indians have always been migrants to lands abroad, and it must have been obvious all the while that any international prospects for one's life and career hinged on English skills.

So it was perhaps natural that English would re-enter schools in a big way. My brother and I studied in English-medium schools in the 80s and 90, and this was completely normal for a middle-class Indian family. There was no question of studying in a Tamil-medium school. Such schools were considered to be rundown places of education run by the government for the poor, who aspired to send their children to English schools.

But Tamil is in no danger. It is a language with a long written history spanning 2,000 years. The Tamils are fiercely proud of their linguistic identity to the point of offending people from other parts of India, even if they can only use English to make their point.

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