English for Marginalized youth: can language lead to empowerment and hope?

Sheetal (name changed) comes to our foundation for an English Immersion Course. The course is for the disadvantaged, the marginalized and we have an entrance test and interview to ensure that the learner has knowledge of Basic English. The course is called basic English but we do require learners to have completed their 10th Std. board exams. There are no employers in the market for non-10th std. pass.


Sheetal completes the course successfully; is recruited by a large retailer; the pandemic strikes; the offer is withdrawn; she is devastated as are so many during the 2020-21 ongoing pandemic.


While many sectors cut jobs, other avenues open…


Sheetal discovers that she is interested in astrology… numerology… she starts learning, reading on the net; watches Youtube … remember she has just completed an English language course.


Sheetal, in a span of 6 months, becomes an assistant to the local astrologer in Sikka Nagar – a locality in South Mumbai, India and starts attracting foreign tourists for him….


The BCFAI Business English webinar was planned for May but in view of the devastating 2nd wave, was postponed to July 3 and was appropriately titled: English for marginalized youth: can language learning lead to empowerment and hope?


Panelists, moderators, organizers and participants passionately discussed the myriad aspects of this complex topic.


In India, when we talk of English, we cannot speak of one single language: colonial English our so called elite speak; Indian English that most speak; functional English our many service providers speak…


In India, speaking of the marginalized involves a number of parameters: caste, class gender; differently abled; social hierarchy and for our youth (ages 18-24) that constitute more than half of our employable population, that aspire to white collar jobs are marginalized in terms of language. Here the English language is a marker that keeps them excluded, hence marginalized.


In India, a vast geography, what does language teaching and learning entail: can we have the same course material for engineers as would we for drivers? Can online learning be used in remote villages where the internet is not available? Are our rural teachers equipped to teach English?


Spoken English classes flourish in India; they promise livelihood and empowerment. But the pandemic we have seen has disempowered certain sections of society to a point that, at present the question is of life, not livelihood.


Can we sow seeds of hope where there is despair? Learning English cannot represent a ‘panacea solution’. Much is needed. Can you teach a visually impaired young man English without ensuring him the promise of an interview? Can more and more corporations adhere to the real principle of diversity? Can more and more mentors come forward to encourage and motivate our disempowered sections? Can we reach remote parts of the country using technology?


Is the learning of English, then, essential in Modern India? Sure – it can help, it can empower, motivate, give confidence….. but need that be the only hope? Let us not forget that there is a raging debate on right now on the English speaking skills of Mansukh Mandaviya… But that has not stopped him from becoming India’s newest Health Minister!


 

A teacher and trainer for the last 35 years, Neelambari has a Masters in Foreign Language Methodology from the University of Sorbonne, Paris and a diploma in Business Administration from the University of California, LA. She founded Sujaya Foundation, a not-for-profit focussed on bridging the digital and linguistic divide among the underprivileged Indian youth. She is a consultant in the domain of language and cross-cultural training. She has developed and delivered training programs for several reputed organisations including the HRD Ministry and has helped promote the Graduate++ program which provides enrichment courses for graduates in Tier 2 cities in India.


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It’s a known fact that we as Indians have our own way of speaking English which differs from the language spoken by the native speakers. Our usages of words, idioms, phrases and pronunciation deviates