Decoding what multilingualism means for India with British Council's Gauri Puranik and Janaka Pushpanathan 

As the British Council celebrates the shared linguistic heritage of India and the UK, we discuss what language means for today's India
From the event 'Meet the Authors' | (Pic: British Council)
From the event 'Meet the Authors' | (Pic: British Council)

"Education is an important pillar of the India-UK bilateral relationship," responds, Janaka Pushpanathan, British Council's South India Director, when questioned about the Union Cabinet's memorandum of understanding on mutual recognition of academic qualifications between the United Kingdom (UK) and India. However, education also happens to be a significant pillar in the shared history of India and the UK since the language of the colonisers, English, has become the lingua franca of multilingual India and, consequently, the medium of instruction in most schools and colleges. What does this signify for India, a colonial union?

In our conversation with Janaka Pushpanathan and Gauri Puranik, the Head of English Programmes in India of the British Council, we unpack the role of English as a lingua franca in a multicultural India. Is it English that binds the country in its Unity in Diversity? "Although there are currently more than 7,000 languages in the world, English is the universal language of today. With around 1,132 million speakers, it is the most widely spoken language and the default language of international communication," says Gauri Puranik.

Unity in Diversity
In truth, English has replaced other languages as the de facto global lingo owing to the increase in globalisation and the influence of the internet, which favours the language. Thus, it has emerged as the dialect of growth and business, and it is understandable that nations that want to compete globally stress the value of knowing the language. As a British organisation that specialises in creating opportunities for culture and education, the British Council plays a crucial role in India. "English is an official language in 53 countries around the world, including India. Therefore, as a skill, it can create many opportunities and enable national and international global employment opportunities," explains Gauri Puranik. She goes into additional detail about the part the British Council plays in helping Indian students become more fluent in English and get better employment skills.

When talking about the year-long cultural exchange programme of the organisation, Gauri Puranik says, "British Council's the India/UK Together Season of Culture is celebrating the long-standing relationship between the UK and India. As a part of this initiative, an overall programme has been designed to celebrate a shared linguistic heritage." The shared linguistic heritage, however, cannot overshadow the multilingualism of the audience in India. Recently, the British Council's "Meet the authors" explored the opportunities of writing for a multilingual audience, how it can be more inclusive and what it means to be a multilingual author. In her description of the occasion, Gauri Puranik notes, "The theme, ‘Multilingualism and empowerment’...focussed on adding diversity and inclusivity to the existing English textbooks and teaching and learning materials. To celebrate India-UK shared heritage in literature, the eminent speakers discussed the role and future of translated Indian literature, and linguistic diversity for a global audience." She continues, "Overall, the authors’ experiences highlighted the importance of ensuring textbook content reflects students’ real lives, creative writing is encouraged in addition to the emphasis on scoring well in examinations, and the heterogeneity of the classroom is celebrated. The event also aimed to explore the role of multilingualism in today’s digital space." 

Linguistic elitism - The art of belonging
The topics covered during "Meet the Author" included linguistic diversity and hierarchy in the classroom. English as a language remains aspirational for Indians. It is a means to climb the social ladder, a measure of one's worth in the urban population and the language of the elites. This linguistic elitism of the country extends itself inside the classrooms. "The students are often being taught not in their first language but in a common language that is the medium of instruction. This is both – a challenge to address, and an opportunity to celebrate linguistic diversity in the school environment," says Gauri, adding, " Language mixing in classrooms should be accepted, developed and adopted in classrooms to ensure children can build on multiple language resources to develop good reading comprehension as an essential skill for learning across school subjects and for conceptual understanding. It is essential to provide teachers with training on how to successfully integrate multilingual methods...." 

A couple of years ago, a professor at a premium institute was belittled for his inability to speak decent English. Few people argued that being able to speak English was not necessary to teach a particular subject, and it was, in fact, the concepts that counted most. Others maintained that a professor's proficiency in English is indispensable; Gauri's viewpoints belong to the latter category. Referring to the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, she states the necessity of professional development for teachers and academic leaders for teaching and learning to be successful in the classroom. She mentions, "Our work with various state governments is supporting the principle of the National Educational Policy that focuses on multilingualism and its implementation in state schools. MultiLila research project acknowledges that teachers' familiarity with English needs to be secured before teachers are asked to teach in English."

India is a linguistically hyper-diverse country, but how does this diversity find its place in the English-reading generation? Gauri Puranik reminds us how translation works are where English readers find access to marginalised authors. "Translation of vernacular literature in English has found a lot of favour as it is an international language and is read almost all over the world. It has been acknowledged that translation has become central to Indian literature. Also, the usage of the English language in the translation of literature from different Indian languages can open doors for writers from the Indian heartland," she elaborates. 

English as a means to neo-colonise?
Globalisation is frequently described as neo-colonialisation and an attempt to impose English on non-English speakers. This idea complicates the role English plays in English-speaking post-colonial countries. However, as a political and economic tool, English becomes a means to compete with the colonisers. The Head of English Programmes of India of the British Council again refers to NEP 2020 and emphasises their support for multilingualism. She further adds, " The primary takeaway from our extensive research is that at the primary level of schooling where English is not the student’s home language, English should be taught as a subject and not as the medium of instruction. Children should be encouraged to communicate their understanding in their preferred or strongest language so that any lack of proficiency in the stated medium of instruction does not impede the learning of key concepts."

Here are what a few other conversations were like:
Speaking of ties between the UK and India, recently, the Union Cabinet’s memorandum of understanding on mutual recognition of academic qualifications between the UK and India will enable recognition of mutual qualification and bilateral mobility of students. How do you think that will benefit the Indian students aspiring to study in the UK?
Janaka Pushpanathan: 
Education is an important pillar of the India-UK bilateral relationship. The agreement for mutual recognition of academic qualifications (MRQs) will expand cooperation and exchange between the two countries’ higher education systems, and boost TNE opportunities for students in India and the UK. The agreement simplifies the continuation of academic study and recognition of credentials for employment, benefitting thousands of talented students in both countries. 

The MRQs MoU is quite comprehensive and covers over 80% of the courses opted by Indian students. Under this milestone agreement, all levels of higher education qualifications from bachelor's to doctoral degrees will be recognised by both countries. This means Indian upper secondary qualifications will be recognised as meeting entry requirements of higher education institutions in the UK. UK Master's degrees will also now be formally recognised in India – enabling Indian graduates to apply for post-doctoral qualifications when they return home. 

The Tamil Nadu government partnered with the British Council to enhance English communication skills and teaching methodology recently. How important do you think English communication skill is in teaching?
Janaka Pushpanathan: 
In India, our focus in English programmes has been on partnering with state governments to collaboratively build capacity and sustainability within the education ecosystems. This, in turn, leads to improved quality of teaching and learning in the classrooms, benefitting millions of students. In the past decade, we have partnered with 21 state governments to positively impact teaching skills and classroom pedagogy for approximately one million English teachers. These include governments of Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana, Bihar, Odisha, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and all of the Northeast states.

Recently we signed an Operational Alliance Agreement (OAA) with the Tamil Nadu government. The agreement will facilitate the development of a sustainable solution to enhance the communicative skills of learners and the teaching methodology of faculty under the Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Grameen Kaushalya Yojana (DDU-GKY) scheme. The specially customised training for the faculty will help them upgrade their teaching methodologies and deliver high-quality English language learning. This new OAA will be a new addition to the British Council’s work towards setting standards in the quality of teaching and learning English in the state and will allow the trainers to be more effective and deliver a high-quality education to students under the DDU-GKY scheme. 

In today's hyper-stimulus world, students are losing their knack for reading books. How do you think that can be addressed?
Janaka Pushpanathan: 
Reading is a cognitive process that augments our critical thinking and imparts knowledge. It is a multi-dimensional process involving word recognition, conception, fluency, and motivation. 

According to a Scholastic Survey, 92% say that they read books for fun at least one day a week. As per our data from the Library offers, reading has gone up during the pandemic – be it avid readers getting more time to read or non-readers taking up reading for leisure or skilling. Our Digital Library memberships and usage have witnessed significant growth during the pandemic. During the period, demand for content formats such as audiobooks, online newspapers, magazines and journals saw a significant rise. Our total checkouts have also gone up year-on-year during the pandemic. For the 6 months Apr-Sep in 2020, we witnessed a 60% increase in the total number of checkouts over the previous year and a 36% increase in 2021 over the previous year. 

To do its part to encourage reading habits among children, British Council Library launched the ‘Reading for Life’ programme. The six-week course encourages kids, between the age bracket of 5 to 12 years, to read one book every week from the collection of books, magazines and comics. The programme is organised for children, to encourage them to read for fun, improve their English and become confident readers. 

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