A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Learning of English: There is a Hole in the Bucket

Chhaya Sawhney


This article examines and highlights the reflections of 44 second year students of Bachelor of Elementary Education program about their relationship with English. It focuses on their journeys of English at home and at school, its impact and why they continue to be reluctant speakers of the language despite so many years of exposure to the language. It also locates the discussion in the larger socio-political context of our country and why it is imperative that our education system rethinks curriculum to equip learners with mastery over languages, English in particular. It also emphasises the potential of multilingualism as a tool and resource in language classrooms.

Keywords: multilingualism, curriculum, Bachelor of Elementary Education, language classrooms.


I hum the song, “There is a hole in my bucket, dear Liza[1]” as I sit down to write this article. I am reminded of my post-graduation days, way back in the late 1980s, when Professor K.V. Subbarao (from the Department of Linguistics) would sing this song by Harry Belafonte at all our department functions. It is almost as if I see my students playing the role of Henry in the song, making an emotional plea to dear Liza to help fix the bucket so that it stops leaking. My students, in their four-year journey of the Bachelor of Elementary Education (B.El.Ed) Teacher Training Programme, seem to be most concerned and troubled about their “leaky buckets”—their lack of proficiency in the English language.

Over the last 20 years, classroom discussions while teaching the “Language Acquisition” paper in the second year, have invariably centred around my students sharing their experiences of learning languages, especially English. I have always sensed their pain as they narrate their personal stories and share anecdotes from their school life about the teaching and learning of English. Most of these students aspire to be fluent speakers of English despite their constant struggle with it. I have often asked myself, “Why are they so keen to become proficient in it?”; “Why do they lack confidence and call themselves reluctant speakers?”; “Why have years of learning English at school failed them?”. In order to better understand the reasons for their discomfort and dismay with the language, I asked 44 of them to reflect on their relationship with English, its role in their lives, and the challenges and concerns faced by them with regard to English. In this article, I will attempt to examine and highlight some extracts of their reflections from their assignments. In the first section of the article, I will focus on their journeys with English both at home and in school. Next, I will discuss how they perceive their relationship with English and its impact on them. Then, in the final section, I will locate this discussion in the larger socio-political context of our country and include some suggestions from them.

The Teaching and Learning of English

A quick look at the schooling background of these students shows that a majority of them attended public schools across Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana and Jammu & Kashmir, that had a “convent”, “public”, or “international” tag attached to the name. English was the medium of instruction in these schools and it was also studied as a subject from class I onwards. A handful of them had done their schooling from government schools—Sarvodaya schools or rural schools run by the state boards on the outskirts of Delhi. The curriculum was transacted in Hindi in these schools, though the medium of instruction was English. Only two students out of the 44 attended Hindi medium schools, where English was a subject, and its exposure was in any case “limited” and it was only in that class.

Classroom teaching in all these schools followed the bottom-up-approach—from letters to words, and words to sentences, gradually moving from “simple” to “complex” through the primary classes 1-5. Learning English in school meant memorising word-meanings, practicing sentence structures and later memorising the rules of grammar. Reading meant decoding words and repeating after the teacher. Writing meant good cursive handwriting, copying from the blackboard, and memorizing to reproduce short essays on topics such as “My School”, “My Mother”, “My Favorite Animal”. Teachers provided ready-made answers to comprehension questions in a structured way that had to be copied from the blackboard. Only a few students remember writing answers in their own words.

Although the thrust was primarily on developing mechanical skills in reading and writing, most schools expected their students to speak in English. There was an underlying assumption that speaking would follow from reading and writing (or should I say, copying) of English. Schools imposed fines or teachers gave black stars if a student was found talking in any other language besides English. Students remember paying huge amounts of fine when caught speaking in Hindi. Not only that, these students were humiliated and mocked, if they were unable to talk in English. A few of them figured out that if they kept quiet, they would escape the sharp eye of the teachers inside the classroom. A student lamented, “There was just no pleasure in learning English in the class.” Another wrote, “How could our schools expect us to learn and talk in English when there was hardly any activity that engaged us with the language in a meaningful or purposeful way?”  Speaking the language was confined to stock sentences, such as, “May I go to the toilet?” or “May I come in?”, or to reciting English poems with accompanying actions. The situation in government schools within and outside Delhi was similar, if not worse. Exposure to English was restricted to textbooks and teachers.

The home environment in most cases, was also not English-speaking, even though parents expected their children to learn and speak in English. They bought them cursive writing books, alphabet books, and books to learn names of colours, fruits and vegetables, all of which they hoped would support English “speaking”. Later, in the middle school years, they invested in dictionaries and grammar practice books so that their children could learn by self-practice. Only three students had opportunities to read stories and picture books at home. Another parent demanded that his daughter read sections of the Hindustan Times to build her vocabulary. As my students moved to college, they became a little independent. Equipped with smart phones and the internet, they began to watch Hollywood movies, English TV serials, youtube videos and read novels that their friends recommended—an exposure that they had never experienced before.

Relationship with English and its Impact

Most of my students, as is evident, are from backgrounds that did not support English language learning at home or in school.

Here are some reflections from their written assignment:

“My relationship with English gives me a heartache. I see myself as a poor girl who dreams of a young prince but fears that he will never come for her because she is so poor and imperfect. I dream of speaking English fluently one day but fear that I am so poor in the language that I am dreaming for the impossible.” 

“My relationship with English can be best described as deeply fearful. My school teacher scolded me endlessly for not being to speak in English. My class mates laughed at me as I struggled to answer a question in English. Over the last few years, English has become my enemy. It is such a forced relationship. I have no one in my surrounding that I can practice it with.”

“Since my English was poor, my teachers never paid attention to me. They only worked with the ones who knew the language. Why did they do that? They brought down my confidence.”

“I have realized that I am part of a social construct that decides what is important. I have to make my relationship better with English. While I am not so bad at writing in the language, I am not able to speak it with confidence. I often stand in front of the mirror and talk to myself to become fluent.”

“I can describe it as a comfortable one. I am trying to make a stronger bond with it. After all, it is a global language and it will empower me to connect with people, books, science and technology. I am constantly trying to nurture it because it will help me to write well on social media, and get a good job in the future.”

While these reflections are self-explanatory, most of them express strong emotions of fear, restlessness and helplessness. One can infer that lack of command over English has been extremely damaging to the students’ self-esteem and confidence. Even though they are proficient in 2-3 Indian languages, their aspiration to be proficient in English and their belief that it is that one language that they cannot do without has to be understood from the larger perspective of the status and role of English in our social context. Advani (2004) writes, “The classroom realities of the learning of English thus reflect multifarious pressures…. English in the classroom reflects all the configurations of class power in which it enables urban, westernized students and disempowers all others” (p. 110).

Despite the frustration, humiliation and anxiety that many children experience all through their school years and beyond, English continues to be desirable for personal and professional growth, personality development, upward social mobility and prestige in social circles. The English medium schools in our country have flourished because of this reason and have consolidated their hold on the premise of a “deeply exploitative, and elitist notion of useful knowledge” (Advani 2009). It is, therefore, not surprising that my students were also under the magic spell of English. They saw it as “the language” that cannot be ignored as it was likely to open up a plethora of opportunities for them.

The Status and Role of English

In 1950, the constitution of India designated English as the associate official language thus establishing its use for all official purposes of the Union. Despite opposition to this, the constituent assembly extended its use for another 15 years until in 1963, the official languages act provided for its use for an indefinite period of time.

National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005 described English as “a global language in a multilingual country” (p. 38). It recognized English as a symbol of the people’s aspirations for quality in education and participation in national and international life. The visible impact of its presence was in its demand in the initial stages of schooling. Given this context, the NCF 2005 defined the goals for a second language curriculum as “attainment of a basic proficiency, such as is acquired in natural language learning, and the development of language into an instrument for abstract thought and knowledge acquisition through (for example) literacy” (p. 39). This role envisaged an across-the-curriculum approach, particularly in primary education, that would break down the barriers between English and other subjects, and English and other Indian languages.

The reality of our classrooms has unfortunately been quite different from what was envisaged. A vast majority of students in our country do not attain basic proficiency in the language, much less English becoming an instrument for their abstract thought and knowledge acquisition. Perceptions about English being the language of power have certainly not formed overnight. Agnihotri (2010) states,

The political economy of English in India is quite a different matter…. It is on the one hand the language of opportunity, social status and upward social mobility and on the other hand, in glove with the processes that consistently enlarge the distance between the elite and the marginalised (p. 7).

In addition, many people accord greater importance to English than to Indian languages. This is quite evident from the baggage of myths that my students carry with them with regard to their own or other regional languages, popularly referred to as bolis (dialects). These myths are so deeply rooted, that they call their own languages impure, lacking literature and grammar, and therefore not worthy of getting any importance in the classrooms. In comparison, English is seen as a powerful and prestigious language. These myths have been nurtured and promoted by the people in power to create class hierarchies and boundaries for their own benefit. That these differences between language and dialects have their roots in politics and are not linguistic differences is understood much later, by the end of first year.

Suggestions from Students

Studying courses in Linguistics and the Pedagogy of Language in the B.El.Ed program helped my students form a theoretical understanding about the nature, structure and pedagogy of literacy in a socio-cultural context. Reflecting deeply on their relationship with English gave them an opportunity to go back in time to their school days, and think objectively about their English curriculum, its transaction, the role of their parents and teachers and examinations. It also helped them to situate their classroom and outside experiences of learning English in a context and establish linkages between theory and practice.

One voice that clearly emerged from their reflections was that our education system must rethink the curriculum to equip children to develop mastery over languages, English in particular. This should include emphasis not just on developing reading and writing skills, but also on speaking skills. They believed that this can only be achieved if the teaching and learning of English is planned better to create an acquisition rich environment. This implies that certain measures need to be inbuilt in the curriculum so that the focus shifts from using just the textbook to using other interesting resources as well. One example could be including children’s literature from around the world that they could read/listen to and respond to. 

The teaching and learning of English will need to move away from mechanics of language or the form of language to its substance. Spending months and years on memorizing and writing meaningless alphabets in isolation, or learning to read words by decoding, or learning the rules of grammar in later years without understanding their usage, could be replaced by exposure to more engaging opportunities, where children could participate and express themselves freely. Classroom transactions will therefore need to become more enabling so that students feel a “transformative and liberating power of education” that Paulo Freire (2000) spoke about. For this to become a reality, we need to pay more attention to our language teachers, as they are central to our education system. Regular training in pedagogy in general and content pedagogy in particular can empower teachers to create a classroom environment for real communicative use of language.

Jim Cummins (2001) wrote,

Individual educators are never powerless, although they frequently work in conditions that are oppressive for both them and their students. While they operate under many constraints with respect to curriculum and working conditions, educators do have choices in the way they structure classroom interactions and in the messages about identity they communicate to their students. Educators are capable of determining for themselves the social and educational goals they want to achieve with their students because they are responsible for the role definitions they adopt in relation to culturally diverse students and communities. Even in the context of English-only instruction, educators have options in the orientation they adopt to students’ languages and cultures, in the forms of parent and community participation they encourage, and in the ways they implement pedagogy and assessment (p. 653).

If we agree with Cummins, we would also agree that our teachers, instead of making their classes absolutely English-centric, could explore using multilingualism as a classroom resource.

In fact, this suggestion was recommended by many students in their reflections. They seemed to have developed  a belief in multilingualism as a resource in linguistically diverse classrooms after studying “Nature of Language” in the first year of the program. As they looked more closely at their own languages in the first year, they discovered patterns that they had never paid attention to earlier. It was interesting for them to learn, for example, that in most Indian languages, the question word begins with “-k” or that the answers to questions fall right beneath the question word. They realized that while Indian languages were similar because of their word order characteristic, they were quite different from English. Discovering and learning about other Indian languages besides their own and contrasting them with English in this new-found way, they understood the potential of multilingualism as a powerful tool and resource in a language classroom.


If as potential teachers, these students truly adopt this multilingual pedagogical approach, it could help create contexts of empowerment for both teachers and the students that Cummins spoke about. This approach could potentially also facilitate positive perceptions about self-identity, as the space for and the role of regional languages gets redefined in classrooms, appropriating some segments of power from English  (Agnihotri and Khanna 1997).

Textbooks too need to incorporate interesting themes and use language that children can relate to. They need to have exercises that are not just content based and therefore close-ended. We need to include tasks and activities that are open-ended so that there is no one right or wrong answer. This would help children think critically, especially as they see their responses being valued. Further, we also need to have resources that look beyond textbooks, exams that look beyond memorized answers and exposure that looks beyond classrooms. Schools need to nurture a facilitative environment so that students have a voice in the construction of their knowledge.

Those students who defined their relationship with English as “comfortable” felt that exposure is the key to building a positive self-image. They recommended reading as much as—newspapers, magazines, fiction novels, various types of blogs; watching movies, documentaries, videos; writing journals or random thoughts freely in a diary without worrying too much about correct grammar usage; listening to songs; speaking to family members, friends, strangers without worrying about their opinion. These small measures helped them build self-confidence and have a positive self-image. Some of them have begun to read English novels by Indian writers, some are reading food and travel blogs, some have got addicted to watching wildlife documentaries on TV, etc. As their exposure increases in many different ways, they feel empowered and confident, and are able to use the English language in many real life situations. We certainly need to work on creating such contexts of empowerment at multiple levels so that the buckets that leak while learning English get fixed in the process.


Advani, S. (2004). Pedagogy and politics: The case of English textbooks. In Anne-Vaugier Chatterjee (Ed.), Education and democracy in India. Delhi: Manohar Publishers. (pp. 101-112)

Advani, S. (2009). Schooling the national imagination: Education, English and the modern. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Agnihotri, R. K. (2010).  Multilinguality and the teaching of English in India. EFL Journal, 1. Hyderabad: The English and Foreign Languages University. (pp. 1-13)

 Agnihotri, R. K. & Khanna, A. L. (1997). Research in Applied Linguistics: Vol 3. Problematizing English in India. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Cummins, J. (2001). Empowering minority students: A framework for introduction. Harvard Educational Review, 71(4), 649-675.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

National Council of Educational Research and Training. (2005). National Curriculum Framework. New Delhi: National Council of Education Research and Training.

Chhaya Sawhney teaches two papers in Linguistics — “Nature of Language” and “Language Acquisition” — in the Department of Elementary Education at Gargi College. Her interest areas include language education and using multilingualism as a resource.



[1] A song that describes a deadlock situation in which Liza tells Henry to fix a leaky bucket and he keeps seeking a solution from her for the constant crisis he faces.