Tamil Medium Education in Tamilnadu


Tamil Medium Education in Schools

"It is a futile exercise": Ilango Veerasingam

"It is a wise decision": Inia Pandian

TAMIL TRIBUNE, March 1999 (ID. 1999-03-03)
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DMK - Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam

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(EDITOR'S NOTE: In the December 1988 issue of TAMIL TRIBUNE I wrote the editorial supporting Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanihi's announcement making Tamil a compulsory subject and also making it the medium of instruction until the eighth grade in schools coming under the jurisdiction of the Tamil Nadu State government. We received an e-mail from Ilango Veerasingam raising some concern about the wisdom of making Tamil the medium of instruction in schools. His comments and my response are published below.)

Ilango Veerasingam's Comment: "It is a futile exercise"

 I read with much interest the TAMIL TRIBUNE editorial (December 1998) supporting the introduction of Tamil as the medium of instruction in primary schools in Tamil Nadu. I need to make a point here.

I come from Sri Lanka where we were taught all the subjects until the twelfth standard in Tamil. Nevertheless, when we enter the universities we had to accustom ourselves to the lectures in English. Besides the lectures, our references (that is, books, journals, etc.) were all in English. This sudden change to English created hard times for most students in their higher education and also in finding jobs. This led to the situation of employers hiring people with good English knowledge gained from the prestigious English-medium schools in Colombo (Sri Lankan capital) or through private tutoring. Of course these are affordable only to the richer and affluent class. I am afraid that this would be the situation in Tamil Nadu also.

What we all have to realize is that, if we want to teach our children science subjects in Tamil, either we write science books in Tamil or translate English or other language science books into Tamil. In that scenario teaching English as a second language will not be a problem. In the present state of affairs the current exercise of making Tamil the medium of instruction would be futile. We would be depriving the less fortunate or middle-income families of economic mobility.

Inia Pandian's Response: "It is a wise decision"

1. Introduction

In November 1998, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi announced that the government of Tamil Nadu would no longer grant recognition to nursery and primary schools that do not teach Tamil as a subject. Moreover all schools coming under the jurisdiction of the Tamil Nadu State Government must teach all subjects in Tamil until the eighth grade.

I understand Mr. Veerasingam's genuine concern that children from lower and middle income families may be short-changed because of the decision to make Tamil the medium of education at least up to the eighth grade. (Tamil medium education until Bachelor's degree in arts and science is available for many years for those who wish to pursue such a course.) Actually the effect of the government order will be the reverse. To understand it, one needs to look into what the current situation is (prior to the new order) and what the future situation will be after the new order goes into effect.

2. Current Situation (prior to the government order)

Presently the vast majority of schools under the jurisdiction of the Tamil Nadu State Government use Tamil as the medium of instruction (the necessary science books in Tamil are available for almost half a century now). English is also taught as a subject. At present much smaller number of schools have English as the medium of instruction; some of these schools do not even teach Tamil as a subject.

The Tamil medium schools are operated by the state government and are free whereas most English-medium schools are privately owned and students have to pay a hefty fee to study there. So only the rich and the well-to-do can afford to pay the fee and send their children to these English medium schools. Thus a two-tier system of education presently exist - the poor and most of the middle class children learning in the free Tamil-medium schools and the children of some of the rich learning in the English-medium schools.

3. After the Government Order

The new Tamil Nadu State Government order on medium of instruction in schools will put an end to this two-tier system of education. All Tamil children will learn in Tamil until the eighth grade once the government order is implemented in steps. According to the government order, all schools must use Tamil as the medium of instruction in the first grade from the 1999 school year. Tamil will be the medium of instruction in the first and second grade in school year 2000, and so on. After eight years, all schools under the jurisdiction of the Tamil Nadu State Government will have Tamil as the medium of instruction up to the eighth grade.

Actually this new order will affect only the 2% or so English-medium schools because the remaining 98% or so schools already have Tamil as the medium of instruction.

It is important to point out that all schools will continue to teach English as a subject. Outcries by the anti-Tamil elements in Tamil Nadu that English is banned from Tamilnadu are outright false propaganda.

4. Importance of English

This writer does recognize the importance of English. It is the international language of communication in every field of endeavor. A solid knowledge of English is also necessary for higher studies (post-graduate level) in mathematics, science, engineering and medicine because advanced texts and new research findings are published almost exclusively in English. However, it is wrong and without any basis or merit to say that one need to study mathematics and science in English from early school days in order to get a post-graduate education in these subjects many years from thence. This is totally unfounded but repeated again and again by anti-Tamil elements and the misinformed.

I know hundreds of Tamils who had all their education in Tamil medium until they entered college and now hold doctorate degrees in mathematics, science and engineering from universities in the United Kingdom (UK), United States of America (USA) and Canada (all English speaking, English-medium countries). Many of them teach these subjects at universities in these English-speaking countries in English, have received steady promotions and even honor as best teachers. Some of them went on to become distinguished scientists, engineers and physicians of international reputation.

There are also thousands of German, French, Italian, Czech, Slovak, Russian and Japanese professors and scientists who had all their education, including post-graduate education, in their mother tongues and now working in UK, USA and other English-speaking countries with no difficulty. They learned English as a second language, nothing more.

With this data on hand, to say that Tamil children must forsake Tamil and learn everything in English from their school days to advance in the world is positively wrong.

5. Importance of Tamil

Where do all the English-medium educated children go when they complete their studies? Do they all migrate to UK, USA and other English speaking countries to seek their fortunes? No, only a miniscule percentage of them do so. Do the rest of them go out of Tamilnadu to work in Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta or such non-Tamil places? No, only a small percentage of them do so. The vast majority of them will work and live in Tamil Nadu but they do not have good communication skills in Tamil. It is interesting that they study in English medium schools so that they may work outside of Tamil Nadu but the vast majority of them end up working in Tamil Nadu. Their command of the Tamil language is poor and they are better at writing reports and letters in English rather than in Tamil. They could not effectively communicate in writing in Tamil with their bosses, subordinates or the public.

6. Teaching English at Schools

English is a compulsory subject in all Tamil Nadu schools and will continue to be so. I have a suggestion in this regard to the government of Tamil Nadu. Presently English is taught as a "literary language". English text books used in schools consists of stories and essays from Dickens and such authors, and poems by Shakespeare, Sarojini Naidu, et al. I suggest that English be taught not only as a language of literature and culture but also as a language of science. Replace some of the literary essays and poems by chapters from science books. For example, an eighth grade English text may contain a chapter on eighth grade level physics, another chapter on eighth grade level botany, etc. Students may be asked to translate such chapters into Tamil. Similarly they may be asked to translate or summarize in English a chapter from their Tamil Chemistry book. Details of such curricula have to be worked out by experts. The idea is to train the students to understand English scientific texts written at their level of knowledge. This will enable them to adapt to English medium education in science and technology at a later stage at the undergraduate or postgraduate level in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere.

We understand the need for a good knowledge of English but it is not necessary to teach science and mathematics in English at schools. We close this article with a quote from Dr. Thamizh Kudimagan, minister for Tamil Development: "English is like eye glasses (spectacles) and Tamil is like our eyes. We need to use the eye glasses only when it is necessary."


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