The English advantage
Can you understand what I’m saying?” asks Rajendra Chouhan, pausing a bit amid his long, but fascinating tale told in crisp, fluent English.
The 30 year-old visually impaired part-time Marathi teacher from Osmanabad district in southern Maharashtra had been speaking about his experience giving the Level 4 Trinity College Graded Examinations in Spoken English (GESE).
Seven other visually impaired students from rural Maharashtra joined Chouhan to give this exam on October 2. They became the first such group to attempt the exam, which is organised biannually by Orient Blackswan. “They were exceptionally good,” exclaims Khubi Writer, examiner for the Trinity College exams. “Six of them were awarded Grade A and two got Grade B.”
Chouhan teaches junior college students in Badlapur and enjoys writing poems in Marathi. Although he is well-educated — he holds an MA and B Ed degree in Marathi medium— he says learning English is the only way to get ahead in life.
“In the past, I have often felt greatly disadvantaged because I didn’t speak correct English. People would ask me something and I would give them a completely irrelevant answer. It was quite embarrassing,” says Chouhan.
Apart from teaching, he gives lectures on personality development in Marathi and Hindi and is keen to begin lecturing in English, too. He also hopes to write poems in English someday.
Last December, when Snehankit Helpline for the Blind, an organisation that aids visually impaired students, set up English speaking classes at Akruti Centre in Andheri (east) with Dr Minal Paranjpe, a teacher attached to the Trinity College of London, Chouhan jumped at the opportunity.
Parimala Bhatt, chairperson of Snehankit, says she was keen to organise English classes for a long time. Visually impaired students, believes Bhatt, lack the opportunities to learn English. “Schools for the visually impaired in the city are vernacular medium schools. So when the students graduate and join college, they find it very difficult to cope,” says Bhatt.
According to Bhatt, funding and organising English learning classes was a great way to rid these students of the added disadvantage. “We couldn’t find the right teacher. Finally, last December, we got hold of Dr Paranjpe and we began the classes,” explains Bhatt.
Twenty one year-old Habiba Sheikh, an SYBA student at Ruparel College at Matunga, says she has benefitted from the classes. “I jumped from a Marathi-medium school to an English-medium college.
Since Class 11, I have had to get a reader to translate and explain every lecture for me. I attended classes for the heck of it, and got very bored because I couldn’t understand anything,” rues Sheikh. “Luckily, now I can understand lectures. I want to study further — do my MA and M Ed,” she continues. Sheikh is studying Philosophy, History and Political Science and hopes to become a Philosophy professor.
“Last year, I faced an embarassing situation while travelling by BEST bus to Vashi. I asked a man for directions and he began talking to me in English. I felt terrible about not being able to respond,” narrates 21 year-old Jyoti Ramdas Sule, who was schooled in Malegoan. “Now I am confident about speaking English,” she says happily. The Trinity College certificate will also make it easier to get jobs in private firms in the future, she believes.
The next step
For these enthusiastic learners, giving this exam is only the first step. “This is nothing great. I need to achieve so much more. I want to be able to read fluently and understand literature,” says Sule, who is pursuing a BA degree in Indian Classical Music from SNDT.
Sule enjoyed her classes with Paranjpe and “never missed a single class.” It is Paranjpe she described when asked to speak about her favourite teacher during the Trinity College vocal exam. “I hope that Minal ma’am continues to teach us and train us for the higher levels,” adds Sule.
Chouhan, who echoes Sule’s opinion, looks at Paranjpe as a role model. “This was the first time she has worked with the visually impaired, yet she did a wonderful job,” says Chouhan, adding that he has penned a poem on Paranjpe too.
For Snehankit Helpline, the initiative doesn’t end at these students. “I plan to introduce English classes from Class 2 or 3 in the schools for the blind as well,” reveals Bhatt, who is also visually impaired and manages three organisations for the blind (Victoria Memorial School for the Blind, Tardeo, Kamla Mehta School, Dadar, and Kaka Patil Hostel).