Bengalis lobby for English

July 10, 1998

YEARS of official neglect of English - dismissed as a "colonial hangover" - is beginning to tell in India, and the first sign of panic has come from Calcutta, original seat of the Raj.

Employers complain of poor knowledge of English among university graduates and have asked the local government to set up separate departments for teaching "spoken" English.

An entire generation of university graduates grew up without learning to speak English. With the globalisation of the Indian economy in the early 1990s, interest in English has revived and state governments have been under pressure to restore it to its original "glory".

A group of leading industrialists, academics and technocrats has come together under the banner of "Bengal Initiative" to lobby support for putting English back on the academic agenda. In a memorandum to West Bengal's Marxist government they have said that most university graduates are "devoid of communication skills in English". Engineering graduates are particularly poor in spoken English.

"The students cannot carry themselves with confidence when being interviewed in English.

"The problem is real and has become more acute by the entry of boys and girls from rural backgrounds," the report says. Its recommendations include reintroduction of English in the joint entrance examination for engineering courses.

With the opening up of the economy to foreign investors, mostly from English-speaking countries, it is no longer enough to be professionally qualified and employers are insisting on good communication skills particularly in English.

Amid the post-independence nationalistic euphoria most states stopped teaching English or made it optional, giving more importance to the "mother tongue".

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