Every fifteen days, I have to read 3-5 papers for Current Science, the most prestigious interdisciplinary journal in India. While reading some of them, I am filled with despair: why do some scientists in India write so badly? Compared to papers from China in the same journal, papers from India often read badly. Though India was a British colony and therefore, Indians routinely learn English as a second language.
I started studying English from the 3rd standard. I calculated the number of hours spent in English classrooms: 45 minute classes every academic day for 180 academic days per year from 3rd to 10th standard; and then one hour classes in plus 2 and plus 3; by the time I graduated I had spent more than 7 man years in English classrooms! In spite of that, subject verb agreement and use of articles go totally wrong when I write. I wouldn’t be publishing anything except for my wife who spoke English as a first language at home.
I have met people with an MA in English Literature, who can’t speak or write in English. Though I did my Masters in Science, I am lucky that I can at least express myself in the language. But that is not the case with many of the scientists meet. I once interviewed an INSPIRE Faculty on video. Out of the half hour video, I could not find even a single sentence that can be used in the programme that I was making without making the person look uneducated. After more than 7 man years spent in learning English, we can’t speak English.
To me, the answer is simple. The British set up the educational system in India. They set it up to create manpower to help them run the huge and diverse country. They needed clerks, policemen, army professionals etc. They did not want anybody who would talk back to them and that too, in their own language. So they set up an educational system that is appropriate for their needs.
45 minutes of English followed by 45 minutes of Mathematics that helps you to forget the English you learned a while ago, followed by 45 minutes of Science that helps keep mathematics out of the minds of children who otherwise might get fascinated by Maths – a regular variety show to keep the children engaged, to keep them out of harm’s way and out of their parent’s hair – the pedagogic design is successful because it creates a win-win situation for all concerned. The system has worked so far and very well indeed, even after the British left.
What the British did not really anticipate is that a few might escape the net. In spite of the fact that it created a citizenry who cannot appreciate the poetry in mathematics or the mathematical precision and brevity in poetry, the system allowed survival and growth of a handful who could think and act on their own. So the British had to, ultimately, leave.
But despite the numerous documents, policies, plans, reforms and so on, the educational system in India has not diverged from the essential path that was set. Even independent India needs clerks, policemen, armed forces…
But then, we also need thinkers, artists, scientists who have the ability to take up tasks that need focused attention for hours, days, months…
Language and Education by Immersion
Indeed, it is possible to get children to speak and write English in a few months. If children are immersed in a language, any language, when they are very young, they pick up the language quite easily, without anybody trying to teach them over 7 man years. It does not take an educationist to recognise that children at certain age groups have immense ability to learn to speak languages. Let alone the three language formula followed in India, one can conceive of an educational system that follows a 5 language formula and is more successful and that too in shorter time. But then the strategy would be to immerse children in a particular linguistic environment, rather than breaking it up into 45 minutes per day. But that can’t happen in an educational system.
Of course, we need the present system. We cannot afford to shake its foundations since we still need to run the country. We need people who will not question. We need people who will be disciplined enough to sit in a chair from 9 to 5. People who can shift focus from one issue to another without any time to find the interconnections, implications and impact of their decisions and actions. It is easier to rule this complex country only with support from such people…
However, the harm that the system does to future scientists is multiple. First, in science classes, the students are repeatedly told that it does not matter whether the spelling or grammar is wrong, but that all the points have to be there in the answer sheets to get good marks. Except, of course, they should not write ficus for cycus or sulphide for sulphite. So the future scientists grow up disregarding spelling and grammar and do not mind if the communication is scrambled. So far as all the points are there, you will get good marks.
Second, by splitting science into theory and ‘practicals’, we assure that the students do not ever understand the relationship between the two. Thus, you may learn the theory in the first academic month and do the ‘practicals’ in the last month. You may also do the experiment in the first month and learn the theory in the last.
Our labs have limited equipment and the population of students is large, so we have to do the experiments in batches. So this is the only way we can impart science education to our students. Sorry for being a developing nation. Even if it means we create a citizenry that do not completely comprehend the relationship between theory and practice.
Third. Even if you do not understand, if you can reproduce the text in the theory exam you get good marks. Even if you don’t know why you are doing a particular step in an experiment, if you can reproduce the expected results in the practical exam, you get good marks.
The learning that happens in the system is apparent in some of the papers that I read. Besides the tendency to be long winded – the more pages you can fill, more marks you may get – besides the attempt to make things sound more complex than they really are – confuse the evaluator a little to get some benefit of doubt and hence more marks – you will also find Materials and Methods sections that read like recipes – just follow what the procedure/protocol says.
Sometimes I wonder whether it is cultural. I had seen some fourth century documents on mathematics that says do this do this, do this and you will get the answer. The ancient teachers too, never cared to explain why.
The worst case is when scientists, like students in exam halls, write down all the points. And do not care to put related points together to bring out the relationships between them. That is when I feel like doing hara-kiri.
I do not really care about the educational system or science education in India. But I would definitely like to read papers which are better written.
And I find quite a few papers in Current Science that are so well written that I feel healed. I do not lose hope. Something can be done in spite of the system. In fact, the existence of the system could be leveraged to improve the quality of Indian scientific writing.
That is what my experiments in the last few years have shown consistently demonstrated in the area of science writing. A column titled Science This Week in Sakaal Times that reported science done by scientists in Pune that ran for 10 Sundays and the column titled Science Last Fortnight in Current Science that is still running may be presented as evidence.
But science writing is distinct from scientific writing in that it targets the public whereas scientific writing targets other scientists in the same discipline. So perhaps I am jumping the gun and making wild speculations and claims…
I request for a chance to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to improve the ability of Indian scientists to write reviews, scientific articles and papers. Organise a workshop in your university of institute. Call me to conduct it.
But, because of English, our own languages are going down. In a science journalism course in Kerala there was not a single student who wanted to write in Malayalam. In another 10 years, the language is going down. If the trend continues, many of our own languages would thus deteriorate.
It is not a matter of English. It is a matter of learning. Good libraries in all schools is what we should be campaigning for. It is easier.
Computer and broadband access for all school children may be cooler. But posited in the future. But a library in every school would bring out the unused books in good Samaritans’ hands. If a person wanted to learn, he or she should have adequate resources close at hand.
And it need not be just English. Books in English and in local languages must be available easily for children who have learned to read. The flow of information is the key to transformation. Not the language used.