Learning English

Everywhere you go in India, you hear the need for English Language Teaching, and to the layperson (such as I), it appears to be a recent development. Consequently, I was amazed to read the excerpt below from Ramachandra Guha's fascinating new book "Makers of Modern India" (Penguin /Viking, 2010). It is by Syed Ahmed Khan ( the founder of Aligarh Muslim University), from 1882:

"Vernacular education is no more regarded as sufficient for our daily affairs of life. It is only of use to us in our private and domestic affairs, and no higher degree of proficiency than what is acquired in primary and middle vernacular schools is requisite for that purpose; nor is more wanted by the country. It is English education which is urgently needed by the country and by the people in their daily life. It will be useless to realise the truth of what I have said by any theoretical argument when we practically find so many proofs of it every day. We see that an ordinary shopkeeper, who is neither himself acquainted with English nor has any English knowing persons in his employment, feels it is [a] serious hindrance in the progress of his business. Even the itinerant pedlars and boxwalas, who go from door to dr selling their articles, keenly feel the necessity of knowing at least the English names of their commodities, and of being able to tell their prices in English. A gentleman who visits a merchant's or a chemist's shop to make necessary purchases , but is neither acquainted with English nor is accompanied by a person knowing that language, feels his position as one of real perplexity. In consequence of the facilities afforded for travelling, respectable men are often under the necessity of sending and receiving telegraphic messages, and their ignorance of English proves a serious hardship to them.

..The state of affairs has therefore been so altered during the last thirty years that a necessity for English education is as much felt as that for a Vernacular one..."

I found it astonishing that the argument is so unchanged over 128 years, with the possible need to replace the telegraphic message with e-mail. And still we debate...


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