Do you English?

-Balvinder Sangwan

During the past few months, there has been a lot of controversy regarding the CSAT Paper in the UPSC Civil Services Prelims exam. A section of the aspirants are protesting against the inherent bias that is present in the examination structure against the vernacular-medium students. The protests made me realize that whether this problem is not merely limited to the UPSC Examination but exists even in our college. Through this piece, I shall explore how the structure of education in our college puts students who are not proficient in English at a disadvantage from the very beginning; how it hits students of a vernacular-medium education the hardest; and how our response (or lack thereof) to this issue is the most troubling aspect of all.

To receive our education, we have to make it to the merit lists of the Admission Test conducted every May. The admission test, conducted in English, comprises 150 questions aimed at testing our aptitude which we have to attempt in 2 hours. The test has passages testing legal aptitude and English Comprehension of average difficulty which plays a decisive role in getting into the merit list. Students from more than 20 states and Union Territories clear this test every year. Out of these successful students, some of them have not received what we refer to as the quality English education or possess the requisite skills in the English language. Still, they clear the test, competing against those who have received the quality English Education. And they do so, because they are competent or were deemed to be competent at that point of time. A lot of such students make it to the merit list in some reservation category, but this does not and should not change the fact that even in that particular category they have performed better than those who did receive the quality English education or possess those requisite skills. And this is a commendable feat in itself.

After becoming a part of this prestigious college, which is supposed to be a home away from home, they receive the best of everything. However, that is where the problems begin. Without having received a quality English education or having been part of an educated family or coming from a community that is not serious about education, such students suffer in social interaction with other students in colleges and fall behind in terms of education. I doubt we can understand the effect of such a situation on some 17-18 years olds living far away from the parents for the first time.

The struggle continues with the sense of apathy they face from our teachers. It is not that teachers make them feel unwelcome, but I am unable to recall any concrete effort ever made to make students feel at home. The efforts that are made are both too far and few between and more or less a feeble effort that yields no result. Considering teaching is understood to be more than just a profession and has attached with it a high moral standing, not only a profession and teachers consider it to have a high moral whad attached with it a high moral standing, it is reasonable to expect better more from them. Of course such students cannot be completely absolved from blame. Most of them don’t approach the teachers even if they are unable to follow what is happening in the class and this also forms a part of the problem. However, it is not easy to come out of the shell and say that you do not know English in our college environment, where a mispronunciation is likely to attract a double take.

ImageThey face problems while trying to understand the lectures in classroom, writing exams or projects and during project presentations. Another issue is that the prescribed readings, which form a part of the course material, are either too long or too many, and not everyone is capable of completing them in the required time, because they are at times too difficult to understand. One may respond questioning how someone cannot understand the readings, but “bas kabhi kabhi samajh aata hi nahin.” Irrespective of how many times you may read it, it just doesn’t happen.

As we progress through the years, some of the subjects become more complex and the teachers prefer to cover the subjects extensively which further increases the burden on the students already unable to cope. The end result is that a lot of such students either end up repeating a year, dropout of the college (such instances have reduced significantly), or end up in a situation where passing a year is a victory in itself.

In order to get a better perspective on the issue, I approached a few students and only realized the gravity of the problem while talking to them. One student observed that in the first two weeks of classes they were able to comprehend the same as they could have from a television channel on mute. The problem is not limited only to classes but extends to writing exams. Concerned students face difficulties while attempting the exams as for them it involves a three step process of thinking and cultivating an answer, converting it into English and then writing it and at the same time trying to make sure it is grammatically correct.


It is important to note that there are quite a few students with a language disadvantage, having faced the above-mentioned problems, who have championed the odds and have performed better than most. Two of these students from Hindi-medium schools have a GPA around 6.5 while other students have also performed better with time. One of the students took an initiative himself and approached a faculty member who then suggested that he attempt question papers of previous years question papers which she then checked. The number of mistakes gradually reduced and he is now within the top 15 of his class. One of those inspirational stories which put lesser mortals like me (and a lot of you), to shame for not putting in enough effort or giving in too easily.

Interestingly, there is no serious institutional mechanism to deal with the issue and efforts taken have been more or less personal. The failure of our college to identify this issue and the its manifestations is also reflected in the observations made by our Vice-Chancellor expressing his inability to understand how a student does not clear projects despite a first draft and a final draft which are approved before taking the presentation and how a student does not clear an exam in three attempts despite it being taught in class and it being the same course.

To delve further, I talked to some of the faculty members and some of them have recognised this problem. Dr. Prasannanshu, Associate Professor (English), said that in the beginning of every academic year, he tells his first year class if anyone is facing problems or is uncomfortable with English language, he is willing to help them out. Every year, two or three students approach him for extra lectures but they never go further than three-four classes and he reasons that this is because of the on-campus activities like debating, mooting and activities undertaken as a part of his course. Further, he told that the language lab, to help the students, will be functioning within two to three weeks.

Neha Singhal, Research Associate (Law), who is teaching HLCD to the first years, said that she has a few students facing a similar problem and highlighted the importance of tackling the issue in the first year itself to prevent the process of education being a punishment. She has asked the concerned students to approach her if they are unable to understand something that has been taught in class or for any other problem. She emphasized the need for a positive step from the student fraternity as it is difficult for a student to accept to his/her batch-mates that he/she is unable to understand English. She suggested that we may follow the NLS-model wherein the students from the senior batches identify the students facing the language problem (or any other problem) and take steps to help them by constituting committees for projects, library etc.

Dr. Aparna Chandra, Assistant Professor (Law), also suggested the NLS model and brought to my notice the facilitative measure taken in Yale University where students who are not from English medium are provided extra time to write exams. Dr. Amita Punj, Assistant Professor (Law), who has helped some of the language-disadvantaged students in the past, suggested that the student fraternity should formalize the measures taken by some of the students of the Batch of 2014 where they mentored students who had language problems or were not able to understand the law.

Further, addressing the issue of such students being not able to clear exams, extra classes may be taken by the teachers before the repeat examinations for the subjects with a high number of people who are writing repeats or a criterion could be developed to see who all are entitled to these classes. (The usage of word ‘failure’ in these situations or education system is incorrect and that itself is an issue for discussion). Also, in the current system of examination, no amount of teaching is done between the end-semester examinations and the repeat examinations, which is an implied way of saying that students can indeed pass an examination on their own. A special mention should be made of their batch-mates who take time out of their internships and personal commitments to revise the course and help some of the students to get a minimum amount of marks, and in the process earning an immense amount of respect.

If the current system persists, with no positive action being taken, it would be tantamount to shirking from the responsibility and in a situation like this no positive action is a negative action. The students of my batch are now discussing the steps that should be taken to solve the problem through a faculty-student fraternity partnership.

It just makes me wonder how different things could have been if we had effective academic committees (the system wherein the highest GPA holders become ex officio academic representatives is another issue altogether), or a Student Bar Council or if everybody was equal behind the veil of ignorance that exists. Considering, world is not a wish-granting factory, we are at least two-three years away from seeing the eighty people who enter the college together, pass out of the college together.

Edited: This piece earlier referred to female Professors by their marital status. It now reflects their professional title. We apologise for the latent patriarchy. 

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