The Role of Native Culture and Language in an Indian L2 Classroom

Essay, 2010

18 Pages


The Role of Native Culture and Language in an Indian L2 Classroom

Sulagna Mukhopadhyay

Teacher, South Point School, Kolkata, India

The main aims/questions that will be discussed in this paper are the importance and need of learning English in today’s world right from the primary stage and the hindrances in teaching the English Language in a non-English speaking country, for example India.

Teaching English becomes more and more relevant particularly in a multilingual and multicultural country like India. In the framework of a comparative study projecting eclectic teaching Methodology examples from the classroom will be presented and discussed.

Taking a pan-Indian view on the country’s education system, we observe that not only are there various types of schools catering to each section of the Indian society, correspondingly there are various boards of education following different English Language and Literature syllabi. A significant difference is also observed between the private and the government schools in this regard. Today each Indian child has to learn English. Keeping this in mind, teaching methodologies are designed. English language course designers in India are trying to bridge the multicultural and multilingual gap as perceived in the indigenous cultures, languages and religions. We follow an eclectic method within the classrooms to develop the four skills in Communicative English. More workshops and exchanges between teachers’ experiences across the world would help us overcome the hurdles.

Keywords: multi-culture, multi-lingual, cultural awareness, language pedagogy, media, teaching methodology and child-learning


It was a day before Christmas, last year—the last working day in our school before the winter vacation. After finishing my day’s normal lesson, I was telling my little learners, in the age group between five and six about the typical Christmas cuisine---Ginger Bread, Mince Pies, Roast Turkey and Christmas Cake. In this age of McDonaldization1 of the society George Ritzer says, ‘…. McDonaldization,….is the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world’ ( 1993:1). The concept of Christmas is not unknown to theses learners as this festival is not only celebrated in Missionary schools but in all English-medium private schools. My learners are acquainted with the term Ginger Bread, courtesy McDonald’s Food Chain. The Roast Turkey did not take much time as the bird already exists in their knowledge on birds. But Mince Pies and Christmas cake were totally unknown to them as these are not within their everyday parlance. They have the taste of normal fruit cake which is usually found in the cities during Christmas. The question which popped up was—“What do they look like?” Thankfully, apprehending miscommunication, I had carried to class on that day pictures of all these items. The pictorial representation of these two “unknown” words could satisfy their query to a large extent. I realized that the problem of miscommunication lies in the culture but not the language or the teaching method.

Culture and Language: Their correlation

On April 5, Gandhiji2 was speaking in a conference at Allahabd. He told his audience about Indian Culture, “Many of us are striving to produce a blend of all the cultures which seems today to be in clash with one another. No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive. There is no such thing as pure Aryan Culture in existence in India Today. Whether the Aryans were indigenous to India or were unwelcome intruders, does not interest me much. What does interest me is the fact that my remote ancestors blended with one another with the utmost freedom and we of the present generation are result of that blend.”When we learn a foreign language, the purpose of learning the language is fulfilled only when we know about the food, customs and other nuances of the target language. Kramsch’s3 observation about foreign language learning and foreign culture is of great importance in this regard: ‘Culture in language learning is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It is always in the background, right from day one, ready to unsettle the good language learners when they expect it least, making evident the limitations of their hard-won communicative competence, challenging their ability to make sense of the world around them’ (Kramsch, 1993: 1).

Language teachers all over the world since the 80s have felt the bond between language teaching and culture. The question which has at times raised brows of the English Language teachers earlier is whether the culture of the target language should be a part of the language class. Recent studies on this issue especially by scholars like Byrams, Kramsch, A. Pennycook and many others now prove the fact that language and culture have an intense relationship and they complement each other. A child is made aware of her own culture even in her mother-tongue language class. So the seamless importance of culture in an L2 class makes both the language learning and teaching more effective. Citing an example would make my point more clear. The European Seasons’ Calendar has four seasons beginning with Spring and ending with Winter, whereas the Indian Calendar has two more, beginning with Summer and ending with Spring. It is at times difficult for foreign language teachers in India to make little learners understand the concept of Autumn, which is so very different in Europe with its falling leaves and darkening days from the corresponding season in India which is sunny and clear after the heavy rains of the monsoons.

English Language and its importance in the Indian Context: (i) Pre-Independence Period

India was under British rule for a span of 200 years. The first half was under the English East India Company and the second phase was governed by the British Monarchy. The British wanted the acquiescent Indians to learn, speak and be devoted to English. Anglicists like Charles Grant, William Carey, T.B. Macaulay, to name a few, supported English education. It was Grant’s essay which compelled the directors of the East India Company and later the House of Commons to send the Missionaries to India in 1813 not only for the purpose of spreading Christianity but also for English Education. One should not forget Thomas Babington Lord Macaulay in this regard. He wrote in his Minute on Education in 1835 that, ““It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population”. The government under Lord William Bentinck, the Governor General of India between 1828 and 1835 accepted his proposal and passed a resolution on March 7, 1835. This policy had a mixed effect. On one hand, this policy increased the scope of exchanging ideas and information in a multicultural society like India. On the other, it hindered the development of the Indian languages. It should be noted that at the time when Macaulay was propounding English education in India, the major universities in England still taught only the Greek and Latin classics.

Right from the inception of the proposal of English education there were controversies among the Orientalists and the Anglicists regarding English education. The Orientalists led by H.T. Prinsep was in favour of educating the natives through their own classical languages like Sanskrit and Arabic. They felt that many students would remain ignorant of their national languages and that would lead to deracination. But there were also supporters of the Anglicists among the Indians, who enthusiastically advocated English education. Raja Rammohan Roy and Rajunath Hari Navalkar among others persuaded the East India Company to give orders in English, rather than in Arabic or Sanskrit. They thought that the target language would open up windows to the scientific developments of the Occident

The beginning of the nineteenth century saw great importance attached to the study of English. Krishna Sen, Professor of English at the University of Calcutta and also writer-editor of many scholarly articles and books writes4, “The new social phenomenon of an Indian middle class owed its provenance not to the traditional categories of birth and wealth, but to academic merit, professional competence, and capitalist enterprise, all of which were facilitated by knowledge of English.” (p.124)

(ii) The Post Independence period till date

Following independence in 1947, however, there was a haste to usher out English because of the colonial association. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad, the first Education Minister of free India, favoured the early replacement of English by an Indian language, particularly for the purpose of instruction. Hindi was chosen as the medium of official instruction. But the Southern part of India and also the East resented the imposition of Hindi as a form of linguistic hegemony as that would symbolize the supremacy of Northern India. In the hierarchy of languages in the Indian Constitution, English attained the status of second official language. It was decided that English would enjoy this status till 1965. But till now this language has no replacement. According to the census report, India has a population of 1, 100,000,00, of which 232,000,000 speak the target language5.

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Commissions like the Radhakrishnan Commission, the Kothari Commission to name a few were set up to review this issue. The Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) in 1956 recommended that three languages should be taught both in the Hindi and the non-Hindi provinces at the middle and high school stages. Most of the states adopted the three language- formula as suggested by the reports of these Commissions. But English remained the lingua franca between the different multi-lingual states of India, and in states like Nagaland and Meghalaya, English is the ‘official’ language. The Eurasian or Anglo-Indian community also has English as its mother-tongue. A number of English Language Teaching Institutes and Regional Institutes like CIEFL (now EFLU. i.e. English and Foreign Languages University), RIEs and ELTIs were established for training English teachers. India gradually attained the position of the second largest English-speaking country where between 36 and 40 million people find the target language playing an important role in their lives. In 1979, about 7,000 books were produced in English in India. Newspapers also hold the second position in production after Hindi. In West Bengal, where I live and teach, Pabitra Sarkar Commission suggested, keeping the rural scenario in mind, that English should be taught Class III onward and informally introduced in the previous class. The learners have not been able to benefit from such stands of the government. The pioneers of ELT have beleaguered this policy of the State Government and now keeping abreast of the demand of the language, English is re-introduced from Class I in schools taking aids from the government.

In the Indian education system, each state has its own board with its individual curriculum to evaluate the children both in classes X and XII. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) is the principal one. It is in charge of conducting examinations not only at the capital city of India but also at the twenty-eight different states and the seven Union Territories. This board is followed by the CISCE or the Council of Indian School Certificate Examination which is mainly a board for the Anglo- Indian studies in India and also the National Open School established by the Government of India in 1989 mainly to provide education to those children who fail to attend former schools. The individual state boards and International boards are also a part of the Indian education scenario.


1.Ritzer, George (1993) “The McDonaldization of Society”, Pine Forge Press.

2.Kumar, Dr. Ravindra (15.09.2007) “Global Politician---Gandhi: The Embodiment of IndianCultural Heritage”:

3.Kramsch, C. (1993) Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4.Sen, Dr. Prof. Krishna (2009) “Post-Colonialism, Globalism, Nativism: Reinventing English in a Post-Colonial Space”: Identity In Crossroad Civilisations: Ethnicity, Nationalism and Globalism in Asia, Volume 8, Amsterdam University Press.

5.List of countries by English-speaking population, Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia.

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The Role of Native Culture and Language in an Indian L2 Classroom
University of Kassel  (English Language and Literature Studies)
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Influence of Culture in a foreign Language Class
role, native, culture, language, indian, classroom
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Sulagna Mukhopadhyay (Author), 2010, The Role of Native Culture and Language in an Indian L2 Classroom, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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