The Cock Doth Crow

The cock doth crow
To let us know

If we be wise
Tis time to rise

English class, English rhymes, English language in Kolkata.  Next comes the alphabet:

A is for Ass

This is English in Kolkata, with words we would not use, and probably words the children will never use, unless they end up on the streets in the US, talking about cocks and asses.  As for "doths" they haven’t been heard from in a long time.  Where have all the doths gone? 

It just feels funny standing in front of a class of little kids talking about cocks, doths, and asses. 

I write only partly in jest, but also seriously, because the debate about teaching English is at times a volatile one.  To the poor, English being the language of the colonizer is less important than English as opportunity to rise above poverty.  In West Bengal, language is the great divide.

We send the children to a "Bengali Medium" government school.  The West Bengal government had removed English from primary education about 25 years ago, but due to public pressure has just reintroduced it at a minimal level.  One consequence of having removed it is that it is  difficult to find teachers fluent in English, except among the elite. 

Why our girls are in Bengali government school:

1. We had no papers to get them into schools, and we had a local connection with the school, a friend who persuaded to school to take the children. 

2. Our girls had never been in school.  They weren’t socialized with respect to behavior or language.  When angry or moody they use an assortment of Hindi and Bengali terms equivalent to cocks and asses, as well as female dogs — and other words no one is willing to translate for me.  This school was/is a place to start while they learned to behave, speak, show respect to teachers, take turns, raise their hands — and most important, learn the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

3. Mother tongue is the language of thought, emotion and memory.  I didn’t/don’t want them to lose that. 

4. They must be literate in Bengali, so when they do speak it, even if they learn English, they still speak in an educated way.  They must learn single and plural, tenses, parts of speech,  sentence structure, and the fastest way to learn that is in a familiar language.  Then it can be transferred/translated. 

5. Our girls are starting school very late.  It’s harder to do mental math problems when you don’t know what the words are. 

"A man went to the store and bought five apples; he gave two to the children standing outside.  Then he went inside and bought four oranges but one dropped and was run over by a bicycle. 

Oranges cost two rupees.  Apples cost 3 rupees 50 paise each.  The man left his home with 50 rupees, but two rupees fell out of a hole in his pocket. How much money did he have left?" It’s so much harder when you don’t even know what "pocket" means, or "fell out." 

6. We have no idea where these girls will find their places in society, what work they will do, whom they will marry, who will be their circle of friends — but they should not be alienated from their cultural origins.  Bengali is a lyrical language rich in artistic and literary heritage.  These girls should know that pride in their heritage.  And they do.

I am learning as we go, as are the girls.  What is the future, what can be the future, of real orphan girls, ones who have no families or communities waiting for them?  An orphan’s life is hard.  For our girls, English will be critical in their independence and upward mobility.  Whatever they do, whether it be nursing, teaching, taking care of children, having English will set them apart, give them an edge in the economic market.  They will become fluent, but not just yet.  It all takes time.

Ganga was sitting in on the class when "The cock doth crow…." was first being practiced.  She loved it, waved her arms, and called out in sounds she tried to approximate to what she was hearing.   So, in spite of my jest, my funny feelings, I find myself at times on the floor, looking her in the eyes, and enunciating clearly, "The cock doth crow, To let us know, If we be wise, Tis time to rise."  And when I then add, "A is for Asses" she giggles and giggles, somehow knowing that these words do not come easily to me either. 

November 2007
%d bloggers like this: