English Language Education in South Asia: From Policy to Pedagogy

 Farrel, Lesley, Singh, Udaya Narayana & Giri, Ram Ashish (Eds., 2011)

English Language Education in South Asia: From Policy to Pedagogy

With a Foreword by Braj B Kachru, New Delhi: Cambridge University Press/Foundation Books, Pp. 291+xx, Price: Rs.760.00


Except sporadically India has never been one country ‘politically’. During various periods of its history, India has indicated, with some variations, different land masses called Aryavarta, Jambudwiip, Bharatvarsh, Hindustan, India, etc. For some years now, this land mass, comprising all countries from Afghanistan to Burma and Tibet to Sri Lanka, has been called South Asia (SA). All of these countries have a shared history of problems.

One such shared problem is the issue of English language education (ELE). At times, ELE appears to be the only  and significant option in the subcontinent. No other sector of education in recent years in this sub-continent has attracted greater investment. A volume on issues related to ELE in South Asia, perhaps the first of its kind, is, therefore, most welcome. As Kachru puts in his foreword, “the editors of this volume have admirably taken yet another step by crossing the borders of divided South Asian states by providing the resource for a comparative understanding of South Asian English”, (p. x), and, will, hopefully facilitate “a serious exchange of ideas” (p. xi). The book is, therefore, a valuable contribution to scholarship on this region.

The volume has 18 chapters divided into three sections, “Policy”, “Pedagogy” and “Politics of Pedagogy”, covering all countries of South Asia, except Maldives.

In all of these countries, ELE began under, but in spite of, the British Colonial Rule. ELE has progressed due solely to the learner’s motivation, and in spite of the lack of resources and  adequate and properly trained teachers, in spite of large classes, no or relatively limited exposure to English, and confusions surrounding if and how much English to teach at primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education. Besides, in all of these countries, ELE has had to, and as in Afghanistan now, is continuing to, contend with local language education (LLE). Policies vary from “No ELE”, as in Sri Lanka in the 1960s,  to “ELE+LLE(s)”, as in India and some other countries. These confusions and policy struggles have by no means been resolved anywhere, not yet.    

At one extreme has been Sri Lanka (Bianco, pp. 36-60) with only one official language almost in the entire primary and secondary education, a not too distant consequence of which has been the long and bloody struggle between ethnic groups in the country. In Afghanistan (Thinsan, pp. 103-119) today, demand for English is as high as anywhere else, yet it is being learnt in spite of the Taliban, at the risk of learner’s life (p. 111).  On the other end has been India, overloading even children under ten with several languages and teaching none satisfactorily. All the other countries occupy other points varying from early start and liberal attitude to ELE to delayed and a “necessary evil” attitude, as in Pakistan (Rahman, pp.221-232) Similarly, pedagogical practices and policies have also differed.

V. K. Gokak, Tulsi Ram, Braj Kachru, Tariq Rahman among others have extensively worked on in great detail the policies and problems of English Language Education in South Asia. Some recent works1 have given historical background to ELE in India. However, we have had hardly sufficient information about specific nature of the problem in these countries.

Bianco’s (pp.36-60) description of the development of language conflict, and, therefore, of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is well-documented. At the heart of this conflict lay the inflexibility of political masters in Sri Lanka. Had they heeded the warning of the saner voices, recent history of Sri Lanka would have been so incredibly different. Colvin de Silva, then leader of opposition in the Sri Lankan Parliament, had wisely cautioned, “one language means two countries, two languages mean one country”. But it is in the nature of governments leading their nations to doom that they would not reconsider their position. Closing the debate on Official Language Act, 1956 in the Parliament, Prime Minister Bandarnaike proudly announced, “Sinhala only in 24 hours”. Luckily, India was led by wiser people at a crucial point of time in its history.

Articles on ELE in Afghanistan (Thinsan, pp.103-122), Bangladesh (Chowdhury and Farooqui, pp. 147-159), Bhutan (Giri, pp.89-102), and Nepal (Awasthi, pp. 73-88) are informative and insightful. Some of these countries, such as Bhutan, for instance, has taken a progressive attitude to ELE in spite of its orthodox history and geographical isolation. In some places, such as in Afghanistan, fundamentalist forces have offered violent objection to ELE, but popular wisdom has found ways to get across and invest time and resources in ELE. A refreshingly different piece in the volume is one on the teachers associations’ role in and contribution to ELE in SA (Khanna, pp. 160-69).

Sailaja’s piece (pp.61-72) on education commissions in India is comprehensive and finds the common thread and theme through their reports, even when spread over a relatively long period of time. The subject certainly deserves a more detailed treatment. .

Many other pieces are short on research and long on theory.  Following the popular superstition, beginning of ELE in India is attributed to Macaulay (Giri, p. 2) whereas a number of recent works have shown that ELE in India began in spite of the British2.  But, on the whole, the book is a valuable contribution to the literature on ELE in South Asia.

i See, for instance, Chaudhary, Shreesh (2009) Foreigners & foreign languages in India : A sociolinguistic history, New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

ii Op Cit

Shreesh Chaudhary

Shreesh Choudhary is Professor of Linguistics at the Department of Humanities and Social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai. He has published extensively in the areas of Applied Linguistics, Sociolinguistics and Natural Language Processing. His recently completed monograph on language contact titled Foreigners and Foreign Languages in India has been published by Cambridge University Press, India.