In India, Dreams Unfold in English

At Uma's English Academy in Bhopal, Indian students of all ages tackle a language one said has become essential to success in "the big league."
At Uma's English Academy in Bhopal, Indian students of all ages tackle a language one said has become essential to success in "the big league." (By Rama Lakshmi -- The Washington Post)
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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 6, 2008

BHOPAL, India -- Life has never been better for Pankaj Srivastava, a tall, soft-voiced insurance manager. He surpassed his business targets and has been promoted twice. His company sends him to conferences all over India and is rewarding him with a three-day vacation in Dubai.

But the faster he rises, the more anxious he gets.

"I am in the big league now. But everybody at this level speaks English, and I don't," Srivastava said in a mix of Hindi and broken English. "I stay in hotels where even the waiters speak English. At the conferences, I stay quiet because I don't want them to laugh at my English."

So for the past week, he has been attending a conversational English class at an establishment here called Uma's English Academy.

India has a reputation as a nation of fluent English speakers, but by many estimates, only 5 percent of the population merits that description. Now, a five-year-long economic boom has triggered a rush to bring the reality into line with the lore. Once the preserve of big-city elites, English is spreading to the hinterlands.

Bhopal, a provincial city of more than 1.5 million, is now thick with storefront schools that promise English proficiency.

In the classroom at Uma's English Academy, Srivastava sits alongside MBA and engineering students, computer salesmen and credit card executives. Some are locals, some are rural folk fresh in from the villages.

They learn prepositions and sentence formation and baffling rules about when to say "a little" rather than "little," "beside" rather than "besides," and "from" rather than "of."

"In this classroom, nobody person is laughing on my English. I not afraid of mistakes, everybody is weak in English here," Srivastava said, smiling and struggling to speak exclusively in the still-strange tongue.

Helping to drive this trend is the sense that financial success isn't enough; the perception lingers that social status comes only with true comfort in English.

"You are judged differently as soon as you speak English in India. My students' inability to speak in English dwarfs their self-confidence," said Uma Shanker, who runs the academy. "Everybody has a dream now in India, and English is central to that dream."

Some Indians call this an embarrassing hangover from 200 years of British rule. Some say that whatever its origin, India's strength in the language is a trump card in a globalizing world.

And some argue that it's all going too far. The popular Indian news magazine Outlook ran a cover story last month decrying the "English Speaking Curse."

"English is increasingly becoming a source of anxiety, even despair, for those attempting to cross the boundaries separating those who 'have' English from those who don't," the article said. It cited four recent cases of suicides by students unable to compete in a college system where all the textbooks are in English.

Sometimes the anxiety is more benign. A recent television ad by a Chennai-based English-teaching center called Veta showed a middle-class teenage boy sleeping over his books while a maid in a sari cleans the floor, humming a song in English. The boy wakes up in shock; in this class-conscious society, he can't believe that his social inferior speaks English.

Last month, an entertainment TV channel launched a show called "Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain" (In English, We Say), set in an English-language classroom.

"As India progresses, English has become a power tool," said Shailja Kejriwal, the channel's executive vice president. "Our target audience is the entire country. We also show our characters making mistakes in English that are common in India."

Another member of the class at Uma's Academy is Abhishekh Gupta, 21, who came from a rural town to study engineering in Bhopal and calls himself an "above-average student" in the class. He spends time in the city's trendy coffee hangouts and on the social networking site Orkut but starts trembling if he has to speak English.

Now in his final semester, Gupta has endured evaluations by several high-tech Indian companies in which students are put through a grueling group discussion followed by a one-on-one interview.

"The group discussion is conducted in English. It is merciless," he said. "Even before I can gather my thoughts and form sentences, I lose my chance to someone else. It is my bad luck that I got so many opportunities with big companies but was rejected."

In the classroom, Shanker rebukes Gupta and the other students for what she calls "thinking in Hindi and forming similar sentences in English" and for getting their articles and prepositions wrong.

Another teacher across town goes more with the flow. She asks her students to debate hot topics such as cricket and Bollywood in English but does not correct their grammar, so as not to intimidate them.

"English-speaking is a self-confidence issue in India. It is not about grammar," said Vinita Bhatnagar, professor of communication skills at RKDF Institute of Science and Technology in Bhopal. "Unfortunately, I make a living out of this national inferiority complex."


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