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August 12: About 55,000 teachers in West Bengal are going back to school. They are going to be taught English so that they can teach the language to their students.

The West Bengal government has realised that most primary school teachers in the state do not know the ABC of English. Rather, they don’t remember.

The reason is not hard to find. For 20 years the government had banned the teaching of English at the primary level. So children studying up to class V were taught in Bengali. As a result primary teachers were not required to know English, which was taught as a second language from a higher class onwards.

This Time Teachers are the Students
This Time Teachers are the Students [Illustration by Kusum Chamoli]
But it was difficult for the children to pick up English in the higher classes. They were not familiar with it and it was difficult to learn. Coming from lower middle class backgrounds, very few of them had the chance to speak it at home. So an entire generation of students of government schools in Bengal grew up with a very poor knowledge of the subject.

As a result they have lost out on many good jobs, which requires employees to speak well in English. The state government, in turn, can’t find people with a good knowledge of English to work for it. But it has realised the absolute need to introduce English to children at the primary level itself. It reintroduced English from class II to class V in 1998.

This created problems for the primary school teachers. They found they could not longer teach English. They had forgotten how to. ‘The Telegraph’ published a report on this recently.

The government then understood how important it was to train the very people who were required to teach English to students. It probably didn’t want to repeat the example of Bihar where the story goes that some college teachers teach post graduate or MA English Literature courses in Hindi!

Training to these teachers will be provided by a team of 35 senior teachers teaching English in well known colleges and universities. Other trainers include teachers who have taught English at the primary level for a long time.

Training of the first batch of 1,500 teachers in Calcutta has already begun. After training these teachers will be appointed to train teachers in the districts. The total training programme will be in four phases. It is hoped that all of West Bengal’s primary teachers will have learnt English by then.

West Bengal is not the only state in India anxious to teach English to its people. Sometime ago the state of Haryana, too, announced similar plans of teaching its primary school teachers English. The Delhi government has changed its English primer in a way as to make the reading of English fun for young students in government-run schools. Every letter of the alphabet gives examples that are a part of these children’s surroundings and, thus, familiar to them — and so easy to learn.

After years of telling themselves and their people that they don’t need English, these governments have suddenly woken up to the importance of English, which has become the world’s first language today. Though, it will be interesting to see how many kinds of Indian English will come up in the next few years, thanks to the efforts of all these state governments.