Celebrated on April 23, English Language Day is one of the six language days initiated by the United Nations to mark the multilingual nature of our world today.
Celebrated on April 23, English Language Day is one of the six language days initiated by the United Nations to mark the multilingual nature of our world today. However, English clearly plays a dominant role across the globe—particularly in the spheres of business and education; proficiency in English gives people an advantage in terms of access to information and opportunity for employment. English often acts as a lingua franca or a linking language to enable individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds to interact, and forge personal and professional relationships. This is true internationally, but in a diverse and large country such as India this link language can enable communication between individuals from different parts of the same country. Knowing English gives people options for mobility and employment with globally-facing organisations.
This functional role of English has emerged over the last few decades. It has moved from the status of a ‘library language’, allowing access to literature and largely confined to reading and writing, to one that firmly enables communication, social interaction and networking. It is no longer enough for students of English to be drilled in the grammar and vocabulary of the language, rote learning passages from key texts in order to reproduce them in end-of-year exams.
Young people today need a much wider repertoire of language skills centred around listening and speaking. As these skills develop, aspiring professionals need to develop related soft skills such as presentation and negotiation techniques. In the trade sector, for example, employees often need English to understand and discuss administrative procedures including health and safety.
Worryingly, in some cases, children have not had the opportunity to develop adequate linguistic skills in any language due to the dilution of instruction across multiple language domains. While good English skills can certainly unlock future opportunities, a solid foundation of literacy and linguistic ability in the mother tongue is of utmost importance.
Subdued standards of basic and secondary education mean that many employers find new recruits lack essential English communication skills—along with associated areas such as critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and creativity. Studies including recent reports by Nasscom suggest that more than 80% of young people in India are ‘unemployable’ because of low ability in these areas.
Programmes have emerged recently which seek to improve prospects for young people. These include support for teachers to more effectively teach English as a subject. Good language teaching involves a focus on learning, the ability to assess students to understand their strengths, and where they need further support and knowledge of how to develop those areas in a motivating and memorable way, with ample opportunities for practice.
Young people with access to the internet can take control of their own learning and seek content that can help them reach their employability goals. British Council’s myEnglish programme, for example, allows aspiring professionals from across the country to undertake taught English lessons of the highest quality from the comfort of their own home and at times which are convenient to them. The English Channel website enables all-important engagement with real world uses of the language in a variety of cultural contexts.
The author is Assistant Director Schools, English and Skills (Academic), British Council