1. English vs vernacular: India seems to be producing students not comfortable with either

English vs vernacular: India seems to be producing students not comfortable with either

While PISA 2009, in which India participated, and its methodology have been debated, in both English and vernacular, Indian students’ performance was sub-par. This is partly because of generic frailties in education delivery.

By: | Published: September 21, 2017 4:58 AM
We seem to be producing students who are comfortable in neither English, nor the vernacular. (IE)

Dutt and Panchamukhi —sounds like an entry in a bibliography from an academic paper or book. That title was meant to pique your curiosity. The two gentlemen have nothing to do with each other. The Dutt in question is Manmath Nath Dutt (1855-1912), sometimes also spelt as Datta. Unless you are interested in English-language translations of Sanskrit texts, you may not have heard of Manmath Nath Dutt. Other than books on the Buddha, Hindu metaphysics and ayurveda, he was a prolific translator. For instance, he is the only one to have translated both the Mahabharata (including Hari Vamsha) and Valmiki Ramayana into English. Naturally, I mean unabridged translations, not abridged ones. In addition, there were translations of several Dharmashastra and tantra texts, Rig Veda and at least 5 puranas (Agni, Garuda, Markandeya, Vishnu, Bhagavata). In the English language, he was India’s greatest translator, by a long shot. That was a different day and age. People weren’t prone to bombard you with—“watch my interview” or “read my article/book”. Perhaps immersion in such texts also helped curb proclivity towards “I” and “mine”. In any event, posterity knows precious little about Dutt and his biographic details. He was described as Rector of Keshab Academy. He was also described as Rector of Serampore College (founded 1818). Both are cold trails, with no additional information. As a translator of the Mahabharata, Kisari (also spelt Kishori) Mohan Ganguli (1848-1908) is remembered much more. As far as I know, there is nothing else Ganguli ever translated, not even Hari Vamsha. The contrast in styles of these two contemporary translators is palpable. Ganguli seemed to mimic what he imagined to be good Victorian English. Dutt wrote what he had assimilated as natural English. Because of his scholarship in Sanskrit (and Pali), Dutt was conferred the title of “Shastri” and he was equally comfortable in both worlds.

In 1946, there was the report of a Bhore Committee on Health. In 1949, there was an export promotion committee chaired by Gorawala. In 1979, there was Dagli Committee on controls and subsidies. Alexander Committee on import-export policies was set up in 1977. These are a few random instances. There are those who mistakenly think India’s reforms have a World Bank or IMF seed. These four instances, and there are several more, underline indigenous roots too, though jargon used then was somewhat different. VR Panchamukhi was a member of Alexander Committee, but his contribution, as an economist, was much more than that. He applied game theory to international trade policy (that was his 1963 PhD dissertation from Delhi School of Economics), worked on effective rates of protection (ERPs) when such expressions were still not fashionable, wrote an influential 1978 book on India’s trade policy, worked as economic adviser in finance ministry, was founder-director-general of RIS, chairman of ICSSR and a host of other things. Born in 1936, he has effectively retired from public life as an economist and I have also lost touch. But there are few economists who will not recognize the name. However, not every economist will know VR Panchamukhi is not just “Professor” or “Dr”, but also “Vachaspati”. Lal Bahadur Shastri Sanskrit University conferred that degree on him in 2008, because he is also a Sanskrit scholar and Indologist. He has written essays and poetry in Sanskrit and also (I think in in 1998) translated and published the first chapter of Economic Survey in Sanskrit. He was equally comfortable in both worlds, English and Sanskrit, Economics and Indology.

Neither Dutt, nor Panchamukhi, perceived it as either/or. This is reminiscent of paraphrasing of George Bernard Shaw, “Those who can do, those who can’t preach.” They could do. Swami Vivekananda wrote powerful Bengali prose and also composed in Sanskrit, but most of his writing was in English. For that matter, how about Sri Aurobindo? I think chips exist on shoulders of those who are not comfortable with either world. One then gets fixated on symbols or tokens. Consider lakh and crore. With several things standardised and globalised, should India stick with lakh/crore or switch to million/billion? Let’s not budge from lakh/crore. Doesn’t USA adhere to Fahrenheit, gallon and mile, bucking all global trends? I suspect it doesn’t matter either way. But assuming we don’t budge, I presume we write million as 10 lakh and billion as 100 crore. There do exist Sanskrit words for both. Million is prayuta and billion is maha-padma or maha-arbuda, arbuda being one hundred million, just as koti (crore) is ten million. However, to be able to use these, one needs to know difference between arbuda and budbuda (bubble).

I have used Sanskrit to make the point, but I think the malaise extends to vernacular. From 2021, India will again participate in OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey. The last time India participated, on pilot basis, was in 2009. Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh took part and reading scores are indications of language ability (English, Hindi, Tamil). While PISA 2009 and its methodology have been debated, the limited point is that in both English and vernacular, Indian student performance was sub-par. Other countries performed far better. This is partly because of generic frailties in education delivery. That being said, in the futile English versus vernacular debate, we seem to be producing students who are comfortable in neither English, nor the vernacular. Most students can’t write a single coherent sentence in either.

Bibek Debroy
Member, NITI Aayog
Views are personal

  1. Raman Govindan
    Sep 23, 2017 at 8:46 am
    students and parents are confused on importance given to medium of instruction. local language or mother tongue enables students to understand the subject better. but students encounter difficulties with continuing education on the subject and at higher studies . there are less professional magazines nor even popular one or media that uses the local language. the students are less familiar with terminology . it can be surmounted with with adopting the English terms for them. but pride, I feel in one's own language make it difficult and leaders of language insist on coining their own language term,. for a simple example, I, a Tamil speaker do not understand what Niti Ayog stands for even though the term is in use for few years and hits the news every day.
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