The English evangelist: One man's mission to transform a panchayat in Kerala

baba-alexander Baba Alexander | via Facebook

On March 27, during his vote of thanks to the governor's address in the Budget session of the state assembly, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh had to pause mid-speech. The interruption came from an MLA from Ludhiana who asked Singh to address the assembly in Punjabi instead of English. “If somebody does not understand English, he can walk out. Wherever necessary, I will speak in Punjabi,” retorted Singh. He is reported to have advised his MLAs to "learn a little bit of English."

Baba Alexander, an educator living in Delhi, will probably feel reassured at this support for the English language. He is on a mission to make Mavoor, situated in the Kozhikode district of Kerala, the country's first 100 per cent English-literate panchayat by September 2018. Founder of the 'One World: One Language movement' and 'master trainer' at an NGO called National Child Development Council, Alexander ardently believes that English is the most useful language for improving one's future prospects, guaranteed to give aspiring change-makers a leg-up in the competitive world. Alexander's pilot program of English training will help the entire Mavoor panchayat, with a population of around 30,000, converse and transact their business in English in six months, in the run up to Global Literacy Day observed on September 8.

To realise this, Alexander has devised and perfected a method called "Baby Easy English & Art of English". He says it's an innovative, hassle-free way to learn the language, where grammar is eschewed in favour of more informal tools. Some of the tenets of "Baby Easy English", unveiled at the launch of the project's logo at a press conference in Delhi, include: "Never teach grammar formally or informally"; "If we teach the writing, only after learning to speak, there is no need to teach meaning, spelling and pronunciation"; "correcting creates fear and conflicts in the learner"; "Any verbal knowledge or words without any visuals or music will not go into the subconscious mind".

While his faith in English as the sole arbiter of peace and prosperity is amusing, it is also symptomatic of an obsession with a language which has generated a caste system of its own.

India is believed the second-largest English-speaking country after the United States, as the language remains the official mode of communication in higher education, national media, bureaucracy, upper judiciary and the corporate echelons. English, unfortunately, still determines the socioeconomic status of an individual in a Indian society, and the most aspirational parents want their kids to attend English-medium schools, even though more and more educationists and linguists have opined that learning in one's mother tongue resulted in more positive outcomes. A UNESCO research report states that “children who begin their education in their mother tongue make a better start, and continue to perform better, than those for whom school starts with a new language.”

But try explaining this to Baba Alexander and he would laugh it off. For him, English is the dominant language.