Saturday, November 25, 2006

Bridging the gap

Bridging the English gap

My American friends, Heather and Mark, who I met last year through my God daughter, love India, its people, the spicy food and the adventure and spirituality it has to offer.

When they visited me last year from New York, they expressed a keen interest in volunteering with my not-for-profit, India Vision Foundation. I suggested they conduct an English conversation training course for the teachers of our rural primary school, 35 km outside Delhi. They were very excited. Given their busy schedules – Heather is a Managing Director at Standard & Poor’s/Crisil and Mark is the editor of an archaeology magazine – they decided they would undertake the effort during their next vacation trip to India.

Before I knew it, they were getting organized, gathering support and working around their schedules. Heather got across to her employer’s parent organization, McGraw-Hill, a major US publisher, for educational materials. Heather’s colleagues at India-based Crisil volunteered translating children’s stories for the effort.

The couple volunteered to stay on the project premises in the village, knowing well, that the rural setting had erratic power supply, mosquitoes, and dogs barking at 3AM, besides many other constraints of connectivity etc. But their focus was their students.

With the active support of our in-house project co-coordinators, Chandni and Shakira and others, they got on to work with the teachers and some school children, the very next day of their arrival. On our side, there was a great deal of anticipation and enthusiasm amongst the “students” about learning to converse in English without being teased or jeered at.

I was naturally curious to assess the impact of this exercise. I therefore took an open feedback session. I truly came back with an experience I will cherish forever.

It proved beyond doubt certain realities of our schooling today and particularly for those educational institutions whose strength and focus is not teaching adequately and correctly, the English language. It had messages for those in governance, administration, education, community service and parents.

Here is some of the feedback in the participants’ own words.

1. “I had lost 10 to 12 years of my life without knowing how to converse and convey my feelings in English when I needed to. I had a burning desire in me to regain my lost time. This course has given me that...”

2. “Every time my children would correct me and at times made fun…now I will be happy to be corrected and also correct them for now I know the right way to say…”

3. “The world has opened up for me. Earlier someone else spoke for me while I looked on. Now I will no more be a mere onlooker”.

4. “We were never exposed to such sort of training. No one explained to us and taught us this way. We got no chance... This is the first time I got such an opportunity”.

5. “Environment of learning is so important. Once in a while I used to open a dictionary for help but it never worked. Also after school there is so much of house work and children to be taken care of. There is no time to self educate. Here it has been so much of joyful focused learning”.

“Besides learning to communicate in English, have you learnt anything else”? I asked.

They said…

*... “I will now not skip the English news.”
*... “I will now not avoid reading English newspapers.”
* ...“I will not hesitate sharing in our afternoon reviews in English.”
*… “At home I will be able to speak with my children in English.”
*… “I will read my children’s English books. Earlier I used to put them aside.”
*… “I have learnt to do better time management by seeing them organize and work efficiently.”
*… “I will not feel hesitant anymore in speaking in English even if I am feeling that I am making a mistake. Because this is the only way I will keep up my practice.”

We, at the rural project, realized how important English speaking was to all of them. How left out they had been feeling when others spoke in their presence. How deep within them was the inferiority complex of not being able to communicate in English. How inadequate they felt missing out on books, news, English movies etc. How hesitant they were reaching out to their own children when tutoring them.

It was really insightful when I was told by a ten year-old girl student that her mother said…
“You are learning for your Zindagi…(life)”

While our teachers and some school children learnt English from both the visitors, Mark tried learning Sanskrit, after class hours, from the priest amongst the students.

Here is what Heather and Mark had to say…

“Even though there were minor inconveniences, these were all outweighed by many positive surprises. We were very impressed by the breadth and commitment, extraordinary effectiveness, the personal touch, and good humor of all and the treats of fabulous Indian vegetarian meals and the beauty of the afternoon light falling on the court yard. As to our mission, in the space of just two weeks we saw participants speaking more confidently and progressed with pronunciation beyond their own expectations…We have to come back again …To share and to learn….”

After the feedback session the entire class rode out on their bikes as they had planned, to the nearby lake chattering and singing.