Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Of Languages and Higher Education...

Just the other day, I came across an article that had listed the many demands made by Baba Ramdev in his so called fight against corruption. It seemed to be an interesting list until I came to the point where he demands that all Technical and Scientific higher education in India should be taught in regional Indian languages. While I had no real issues with most of his other demands, this particular demand appeared to me to be as absurd as one can get.

Though a large number of people (which obviously includes most of the Baba’s die-hard devotees) would pounce on the opportunity to criticize my opinion, they fail to see facts just beyond the issue of language here. My personal credentials are not so as to speak about other fields of science & technology, but being a student from the Medical stream I thought it better to put my point of view through the perspective of a Medical student, backed by some practical facts. So, the following views should be referred to in relation with the Medical education in India.

The main argument in favor of the above demand seems to be that students, who have had their school education in any regional Indian language, find it tough to follow the Medical curriculum that is taught in English. I have been told that Baba Ramdev didn’t ask for a complete change from English. Rather he demands for a parallel education in regional languages as well.

I don’t have any problem with the idea !

Let’s just suppose that the idea of “parallel education” in regional languages is implemented. Now let us see how it affects a student who has had his education in a regional Indian language throughout his school life.

The student clears the Pre-Medical Entrance Test, and joins the MBBS course in a reputed Medical College which has “parallel teaching in regional languages”.

By the way, here I would like to mention that admission to the MBBS course in all Government Medical colleges in India takes place through either State or All-India Entrance Exam. And 15 percent seats in all such colleges are reserved for the All-India quota. Which means, a college in Delhi with 200 seats would be admitting 30 students from all over India. Which would include students from West Bengal, Orissa, Punjab, Maharashtra, Andhra, Tamil Nadu, etc. (I have not included here the reputed institutes like AIIMS, AFMC, CMC, JIPMER, etc who hold their own exams but are still open to students from all over India)

That means that the very Medical college in Delhi will have to have “parallel teaching” in all of those regional languages too. Assuming that the students from other parts of India have had their school education in their regional language.

According to the eighth schedule of the Indian constitution as of May 2008, the number of “Official Indian Languages” is 22. Which means that the college would need 23 different classrooms for each year of MBBS. One cannot expect people teaching different languages in the same room simultaneously. So, for four Professional Examinations, that would need 92 classrooms.

But we assume that even that is taken care of, and the student has now access to Medical education in his native language.

Now, the MBBS course, spanning four and a half years, consists of 19 different, but inter-related subjects. And each of those subjects has an average of 5 reference textbooks, some of which have up to 3 volumes each. So, that student would now need textbooks of all those subjects in his native language.

Medical text is not something absolute. Each subject undergoes constant revision and addition of text according to new researches and discoveries. Thus, the text has to be constantly updated to keep the student up to date of the latest advances.

Secondly, the translation of Medical text would require the services of persons who are well acquainted with the Medical field. One cannot expect an expert translator to efficiently understand what a particular text desires to convey to the students. Such a person can very well take care of the grammar, but not about the technicality of the text.
But I am told that just the general text needs to be translated. So I agree to that too.

I assume even that is taken care of. And all the textbooks of all the 19 subjects have been efficiently translated. But now we require teachers to teach each of those subjects in each of the regional languages. Not teachers of regional languages, but doctors who are able to efficiently teach Medicine in those languages. Though at present there is even a great shortage of teachers who can just teach in English. But we assume even that problem is taken care of.

So, the student completes his MBBS efficiently in his native language with extremely good scores. But now he wants to pursue specialization after completing his MBBS. In other words, he now plans to do his Post Graduation.

We assume that the above student qualifies to a PG course of his choice in a reputed institute of the country. But, according to the “Salient features of Post Graduate Medical Education Regulations, 2000” of the Medical Council of India,

[Clause 13.7] Training in Medical Audit, Management, Health Economics, Health Information System, basics of statistics, exposure to human behavior studies, knowledge of pharmaco – economics and introduction to non- linear mathematics shall be imparted to the Post Graduate students.

So, all of which should be in the native language of the student concerned.

[Clause 14.4(a)] Every candidate shall carry out work on an assigned research project under the guidance of a recognized Post Graduate Teacher, the result of which shall be written up and submitted in the form of a Thesis.

Work for writing the Thesis is aimed at contributing to the development of a spirit of enquiry, besides exposing the candidate to the techniques of research, critical analysis, acquaintance with the latest advances in medical science and the manner of identifying and consulting available literature. Thesis shall be submitted at least six months before the theoretical and clinical / practical examination.

Now… as per practical experience from PG students in India, the thesis of a student is based on the research work already done by doctors from all around the world. The PG student has to add further work/research done by him to all the work done on a particular topic around the world. In a nutshell, the thesis of each PG student comprises of at least 90-95% of information from Medical Journals and Research papers from around the world if not more than that.

But… unfortunately, all such Medical Journals and Research papers are available in English and not in Indian regional languages.

So, either the doctors and scientists around the world should learn more languages and translate their works accordingly. Or, the doctors in India try to do that task. But the main emphasis is on the works that have already been published.

A single Medical journal is a periodical that is published every month (if not more frequently) with dozens of new studies in each issue. To try to assess the total number of Medical Journals in the world, one may just be informed that China alone has a little more than Four Thousand Medical Journals of its own. (And each one of them is in English contrary to some beliefs) Isn’t it strange why the Chinese chose to publish their own work in English ?

Which brings us to a point where all the past issues of Journals around the world have to be translated from English in order to be understood by a student who did his MBBS in a regional language. If he doesn’t, he’ll be unable to use the knowledge available and would have to compromise on the quality of his thesis.

And… if he is able to understand the Medical Journals in English, why did he initially need to study MBBS in his native language ???

But even assuming the above Medical student eventually starts his practice, how would he be able to manage patients who come to him with investigations and their reports in English. Or would he ask the patient to go and get them translated to his native language first. Or… would he demand the entire investigating procedures, machines and equipments to be changed (oh, excuse me… be made parallel) to those giving reports in English ?

Medicine is not a field restricted to a region or country. Health is a global issue. Diseases are not restricted to particular regions.
For example, if one doctor completes and important research on ‘swine flu’ in India and another doctors finds some important facts about the same in Brazil, they would want to exchange their information with each other in order to tackle ‘swine flu’ better. But what if the Brazilian doctor refuses to budge from Portugese and his Indian counterpart isn’t ready to compromise on his regional language ??

To prevent such a scenario, a common language of communication is essential to standardize things. Just as we have the S.I. units for mass, volume and time. And though one may not particularly like the fact, but that language happens to be English.

Now some people would put up an argument that countries like Russia, Japan, China, Germany, etc. never depended on English. But they have been producing doctors too. I agree. Yes, they have. But have they resorted to alternative language (even parallel) to English in the Medical field ?

The following links would provide the doubters something to think about.

Russian Medical Journals Online

Japan Medical Association

Saudi Medical Journal

Chinese Medical Journal (It specifically mentions that - 'The Chinese Medical Journal (CMJ) is published semimonthly in English by the Chinese Medical Association')

As the above links show, all these countries have stuck to the use of English in the Medical field. Not because they downgrade their native languages. But because they know the importance of a common medium of communication for the exchange of knowledge.

“Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine” which is considered as the Bible for every Medical graduate and post graduate is available in English throughout the world. From Saudi Arabia to Austria, from Ukraine to Argentina, from South Africa to Australia… everyone follows the same book. No one has ever considered it to be translated to Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Dutch, Latin, etc. And this great reference book has inputs from Medical specialists from all around the world.

Will an expert Indian doctor, having studied Medicine in his native language, be able to exchange his valuable research with the world ? He would first need to depend upon someone who understands his work and then would translate it for the world.

I am not pro-English or anti-regional languages. All I want to emphasize is that language is not and can not be a criterion to attain quality education. But one must keep in mind the ultimate purpose of the education one is pursuing. It is not about discrimination between languages to attain quality higher education, but it is rather about how effective education can be.

One decides and strives to become a good doctor not because he or she wants to promote a certain language or downgrade another, but to reach out to as many people and help them recover from diseases and disorders. If one solely aims to promote a language, he can effectively do that by taking up language studies. But if a doctor is accused of demeaning a particular language, that’s really not his concern. A doctor’s sole aim is the diagnosis of disease and its management.

And as far as Baba Ramdev is concerned, it would be better if he concentrates on the field of his expertise. (if there is any !) Not knowing about the practical facts of a field and commenting on it is rather absurd.

AND… how does Baba Ramdev expect his devotees to benefit from his expertise by having his very own website in complete English ?!?!?! :P

Please see the link below.

And it doesn’t even have options to view the same in any other language ! (something which is common to see in most International websites) Didn’t he think about all those Indian followers of his who haven’t had English education and want to know about him through the WWW ???

P.S. : With thanks for valuable inputs from all my colleagues from Engineering and Medical fields.


  1. well i mus say dis really was a lot of value addition n altho i don kno anythin abt d medical field xcept dat all my frns want to b dentists n dey r really finicky abt how white deir teeth look, dis definitely qualifies fr a wonderful read n xceptionally wel researched! :)

    abt baba's agenda, i wudn b surprised if all his demands hav serious loopholes at d application level.
    its sad dat so few ppl raise deir voice, n even dey r so uneducated or plain indifferent!

    i reallyyyyy liked ur post!

  2. Sadiya :

    Thanks so much for liking the post. :-)

    Yes, a lot of research did go into writing this post. Maybe I could have better done with some research in Medicine itself. :P

    Actually, I had to put forth these points as I was in the middle of a debate with a friend after I had mentioned about the absurdity of Baba's demand regarding language and higher education on my Facebook status.

    I didn't comment about any of his other demands. But something as absurd as this regarding my own field of study had to be dealt with.

    And 'IF' any of the Indian Medical students were actually having a language problem, India has it's own Medical Council to look into these matters and take actions accordingly. The Baba would be the last person to be approached by an Indian Medical student regarding his problems.

    So, isn't it absurd that someone who has neither the credentials, nor the authority to act in certain technical fields jumps onto the stage with preposterous demands ?

    At least the Indian Medical community do not need self proclaimed representatives to take their 'imaginary' problems to the Government which is not even involved directly in handling Medical education. :D

    So, I was just making my point clear. :-)

  3. I think the basic issue is that most people do not seem to understand that education, especially at university level, is beyond imparting-knowledge. It is more about creating-knowledge, sharing-knowledge and upgrading-knowledge. The moment 'sharing' comes into picture, a shared medium/language has to come into the picture - so that the focus is not on the logistics of sharing, but on what is being shared.

    But most people in our society cant think beyond "teacher says, I remember, I reproduce". As long as they continue to think that, such absurd demands will appear to be within limits of sanity to them.

    1. theconjecturegirl :

      Exactly ! When it is about sharing knowledge, a shared language is essential. What people don't understand is that by using a common language, no one is promoting one language and/or degrading the other.

      And I was actually thinking of writing a complete post on "teacher says, I remember, I reproduce". In fact, I was just thinking about it today how we just study to pass exams. No more, no less. Application of knowledge isn't the priority in India. People just want to listen/read, remember/cram and reproduce in the exams. And for that very purpose, they seem to need their own language. Sharing of knowledge is not an option for them.



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