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date: 23 July 2024

The Teaching of English in Indiafree

The Teaching of English in Indiafree

  • Usree BhattacharyaUsree BhattacharyaDepartment of Education, University of Georgia


In India, the teaching of English, a British colonial import and imposition, occurs within an ideologically contested, socioeconomically stratified, and politically charged terrain. Several centuries after its first arrival on Indian shores, English remains a minority, elite language, accessible mostly to urban dwellers and those in the middle and upper classes. Therefore, its present-day circulation helps reproduce and sustain colonial language hierarchies. Significantly, ideologies about English span a wide spectrum, from the language being cast as an illness, to its being seen as a necessary evil for progress, to its being heralded as a vital instrument for uplifting the poor and marginalized. Furthermore, the idea of an indigenized “Indian English” holds sway in the scholarly imagination, even as it is unclear what shape its porous boundaries take within the national consciousness. In perpetual dialog with other Indian languages, English is constantly negotiating a role in India’s rich multilingual networks. Crucially, it functions as the most powerful medium of instruction in the country, firmly regulating access to socioeconomic mobility and higher education. English instruction in India was established to serve colonial interests, and the traces of this past remain in contemporary pedagogical practices. Further, English instruction faces a variety of challenges in India today, including infrastructure constraints, complexities of multilingual pedagogy, rigid grammar translation pedagogy and rote-learning practices, teaching to the test, widespread use of inappropriate and culturally insensitive textbooks, and inadequate investment in teacher training. English controls access to power, prestige, and privilege in modern India; these factors, among others, play a determining role in perpetuating educational inequality across classes. Shining a light on the context in which English instruction occurs in India is thus both an educational and a social justice imperative.


  • Curriculum and Pedagogy
  • Globalization, Economics, and Education
  • Languages and Literacies


In India, the teaching of English, a British colonial import and imposition, occurs within an ideologically contested, socioeconomically stratified, and politically charged terrain. Several centuries after its first arrival on Indian shores, English remains a minority, elite language, accessible mostly to urban dwellers and those in the middle and upper classes. Therefore, its present-day circulation helps reproduce and sustain colonial language hierarchies. Significantly, ideologies about English span a wide spectrum, from the language’s being cast as an illness, to its being seen as a necessary evil for progress, to its being heralded as a vital instrument for uplifting the poor and marginalized. Furthermore, the idea of an indigenized “Indian English” holds sway in the scholarly imagination, even as it is unclear what shape its porous boundaries take within the national consciousness. In perpetual dialog with other Indian languages, English is constantly negotiating a role in India’s rich multilingual networks. Crucially, it functions as the most powerful medium of instruction in the country, firmly regulating access to socioeconomic mobility and higher education. English instruction in India was established to serve colonial interests, and the traces of this past remain in contemporary pedagogical practices. Further, it faces a variety of challenges in India today, including infrastructure constraints, complexities of multilingual pedagogy, rigid grammar translation pedagogy and rote-learning practices, teaching to the test, widespread use of inappropriate and culturally insensitive textbooks, and inadequate investment in teacher training. English controls access to power, prestige, and privilege in modern India; these factors, among others, play a determining role in perpetuating educational inequality across classes. Shining a light on the context in which English teaching occurs in India is thus both an educational and a social justice imperative.

A Colonial Inheritance

In the Indian context, the English language is arguably “one of the most visible and tangible indicators of the influence of British colonialism” (Parameswaran, 1997, p. 22) that spanned several centuries. Its colonial contours remain prominent in the popular imagination: for example, Vice President of India Venkaiah Naidu labeled English “a disease left behind by the British” (Dhume, 2018, p. 1). English first entered Indian shores through trade, “transplanted” (Mukherjee, 2020, p. 167) by the British East India Company in the early 17th century. Yet, the East India Company did not wish to invest in developing general educational infrastructure or spreading English education in India (Evans, 2002). In fact, Christian missionaries provided the initial impetus in the spread of English. Driven by rising evangelical fervor, they established a variety of schools, starting in the early 18th century. At the time, regional elites developed a growing demand for English as a result of the association of English with power dynamics in India (see Frykenberg, 1988). Over time, British colonizers offered greater encouragement to missionary education in India, because missionary education was specifically geared toward preventing Indians from developing a sense of their own rights (or the lack thereof) within colonial rule and to create collaborators who could convert other Indians to the British cause” (Jayendran et al., 2021, p. 32; see also Evans, 2002). Importantly, the year 1800 marked the start of English teaching in formal, institutionalized settings in India in the then British capital, Calcutta (Mehrotra, 2000).

Annamalai (2005) outlined how, for the colonizers, the calculus of educating colonial subjects primarily entailed financial and political consideration because education had to be in service of furthering British colonial interests. Within this formulation, three strategies were popular. The Orientalist position, for one, supported continuing with conventional educational systems, mediated in Sanskrit and Persian, with the addition of European works to the curricula. It was believed that this would assimilate existing elites into the colonial power structure and lead to the least turmoil by maintaining the previous social order. Another position was the Anglicist position, which supported English education for a select few, who were then expected to use vernacular languages to disseminate European knowledge and ideologies. The push for this position came strongly from the evangelical movement (Evans, 2002). Ultimately, these two positions were fashioned as the struggle between tradition and modernity: Evans (2002) framed the difference thus, contrasting the “Anglicist vision of a moribund culture transformed by modern science and the Orientalist vision of an ancient culture revived by its traditional learned classes” (p. 266). The third position had the least traction: it held that the government should invest in public schools, which would then use instruction in the vernacular medium to propagate European knowledge.

These debates came to a head and culminated in the enactment of the Anglicist position as official policy after Thomas Babington Macaulay’s notorious “Minute on Indian Education” of 1835, “which advocated the creation of a class of anglicized Indians who would serve as cultural intermediaries between the British and their Indian subjects” (Evans, 2002, p. 260). The most influential policies undergirding the teaching of English in India are widely attributed to the Minute. Importantly, Macauley is notorious for showing open scorn for Indian literature and local knowledge, noting: “I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” (Phillips, 1977, p. 1405). While Macaulay has been widely held to be the dominant policymaker with reference to the spread of English education in India (see Phillipson, 1992), Evans (2002) has convincingly argued that his importance has, in fact, been exaggerated. Ultimately, there were many other complex factors that gave shape to specific English educational policies in India.

Debates about the implication of English within the colonial circumstance have been deeply anchored to questions about Indians’ subjectivity in the British empire. Some scholars and policymakers have argued that the colonial roots of English are irrelevant in contemporary India. Veettil (2013) reiterated these sentiments, claiming that “English is no more viewed as a colonial imposition” (p. 14). An influential policy document, the NCERT “Position Paper on the Teaching of English” (2006) also adopted a similar position, asserting that English’s “colonial origins [are] now forgotten or irrelevant” (p. 1). Vaish (2005) went further, arguing that the language performs, in fact, as “an agent of decolonization” (p. 187) in contemporary India, specifically as an instrument for uplifting the urban poor. Scholars on the other side of the debate have been convinced that there is no unyoking of English from its colonial roots. As Niranjana (1990) put it, the English language in India “is inextricable from the process of subjection/subjectification under colonialism” (p. 773). This was reiterated by Mishra (2000), who stated that the “tainted and suspect origins [of English] lie in the ideologies of colonialism” (p. 388). In fact, this is deeply embedded within the English teaching context: scholars have previously powerfully demonstrated how instructional methods, assessment practices, and the canon for English teaching have been shaped by the British colonial project (see Kumaravadivelu, 2003). More recently, Bhattacharya’s (2017) work elucidated how the colonial encounter in fact continues to frame, inform, and regulate ideologies about the English language in India, particularly as voiced on the margins. Ultimately, the story of English and its relationship to the colonial past is thus anything but straightforward, and even in its denial, it remains attached to its roots.

The Circulation of English

There is little consensus on how many Indians “speak” or “know” English. A key problem is gauging what constitutes “speaking” or “knowing” English. These are fluid categories that are difficult to define across such a varied population; moreover, calculations are affected by the types of English that are recognized as legitimate. Estimates, therefore, differ quite a bit. According to the National Knowledge Commission (2000), 1% of Indians used English as a second language. Crystal (2003), however, estimated the same at 20%. Hohenthal (2003) claimed, meanwhile, that the total number of English speakers was 4% of the total population. For Mishra (2000), however, the number was 5%. According to Mohanty (2006), less than 2% of Indians “knew” English, while Baral (2006) stated that English was used in the daily lives of a mere 4% of the population. Furthermore, Sonalde and Vanneman (2005) asserted that 4% of Indians could speak English with a high degree of fluency, and that 16% could speak a little bit. Mukherjee (2020), meanwhile, suggested that English “is used competently and regularly by c. 35 to 50 million Indians today” (p. 167), suggesting yet another small fraction. However, Timalsina (2021) claimed there were 129 million English speakers in India, similar to Dhume’s (2018) estimate of 125 million English speakers drawn from a British Council report. Ultimately, with India’s population nearing 1.4 billion, there appears to be clear consensus that the language remains a minority one within the rich multilingual tapestry of the country. But a minority language in India, even when associated with a small percentage of the population, is still associated with a sizable population overall: if the higher range estimates are accepted, there are more English speakers in India than anywhere other than the United States (Dhume, 2018).

Bedi (2020) charted several reasons why English has managed to play such a dominating role in the Indian context, even as it remains a minority language. For one, it has been the language of power in India since colonial times. For hundreds of years, English has served as the principal language of political administration, the judiciary, and commerce. Additionally, it has served as a useful instrument for unification: it is able to bring together speakers of different native languages under one umbrella. This is particularly convenient considering the resistance to Hindi (the other hegemonic language) in certain parts of the country. Furthermore, in terms of geographic spread, English is spoken across more regions than any other language. Its wider reach makes it effective in bridging differences. Moreover, since the neoliberalization of the early 1990s, English literacy has been closely linked to popular discourses on development and globalization in India. Its global importance as the preeminent language of international communication and commerce has thus made English extremely desirable. Additionally, higher education in India is conducted almost exclusively in English; therefore, it serves as the key gatekeeper to educational opportunities (Christ & Makarani, 2009).

In a land of deep socioeconomic divides, these perceptions and realities fuel the popularity of English. It is perceived to be a critical driver of socioeconomic mobility; without access to the language, economic and educational opportunities are significantly limited. Particularly for communities on the margins, access to English is seen as critical (Bhattacharya, 2013; Chakraborty & Bakshi, 2016). The consecration of a temple to the “Goddess of English” by the Dalit community (previously referred to as the “untouchables”) in 2010 is a compelling example of this (Pandey, 2011). Historically, the Dalit community has been a brutally oppressed as a result of deep-seated caste politics, with literacy serving as a crucial site of struggle. Literacy had been denied to the Dalit for centuries. The consecration of the temple to the Goddess of English symbolized access not only to privileged literacy forms but also to a better future. As Mishra (2000) noted, however, in India, English functions as a “double-edged sword . . . possessing the potential for a liberatory future while at present creating and abetting the production and reproduction of a hierarchical world” (p. 384). Thus, while powerful language ideologies uphold English as a critical way out of rigid cycles of poverty, the language helps institute and maintain socioeconomic structures of inequality (Bhattacharya & Mohanty, 2021).

“Indian English”

While English has long had local flavor in India, it has historically been constructed as a foreign language, because of how it arrived. However, in recent decades, there has been a growing assertion that it has been successfully indigenized. Mishra and Mishra (2016) asserted that English is “an Indian language” (p. 399), and Agnihotri (2008) argued that in contemporary India, English functions as “an integral part of the language ecology” (p. 4). Moreover, Bedi (2020) called it “the de facto national language of India” (p. 6). For Raja Rao (1978), the language was already deeply interwoven into the fabric of Indian society: “As long as we are Indians . . . we shall have the English language with us and amongst us, and not as guest or friend, but as one of our own, of our caste, our creed, our sect and of our tradition” (p. 421). Pandey and Jha (2021), meanwhile, focused on its important functional status in India, calling it “an institutionalised second language” (p. 13).

Further, the notion of a singular “Indian English,” a language ideological abstraction, has been hotly contested over the years. Sharma (2013) perhaps most closely captured its complexity in her definition: she described Indian English as “a superordinate term that encompasses a range of predominantly L2 varieties of English” (p. 523). Some scholars have invoked the idea of “Indian Englishes” to better capture the language’s variance and internal heterogeneity, to mixed response (Sailaja, 2009; Sridhar, 2020). Distinctions regarding the use of English in India have been drawn in terms of linguistic and regional affiliations as well as socioeconomic status (see Agnihotri, 2010; Kachru, 1965; Sailaja, 2009). According to Sridhar (2020), however, the variety of Indian English spoken is most crucially shaped by a speaker’s mother tongue and any additional (local) languages known. In fact, the latter directly impacts a range of linguistic aspects, including “pronunciation and accent, as well as lexical choice and grammatical characteristics, and stylistic features” (Sridhar, 2020, p. 253). Annamalai (2004) referred to this as the process of nativization of English. Regardless of the linguistic differences, variance across Indian English forms is relatively limited.

Overall, the overarching idea of Indian English prevails in scholarship (Pandey, 2015; Sridhar, 2020). It is one of the most widely spoken types of English and is thought to be “the oldest nonnative variety” in the world (Sridhar, 2020, p. 243). Historically constructed as a deviance from a standard form (i.e., British English), Indian English is slowly coming to be recognized as a vibrant, legitimate variety, “integrated into the multilingual fabric of India” (Sridhar, 2020, p. 272). In terms of English teaching, two issues are of critical importance. First, Indian English is still often considered an illegitimate variety for instructional purposes; the “prestige” varieties of British and American English are often seen as the true standards. This stance crafts yet another hierarchy within educational language politics. Second, there isn’t sufficient clarity regarding the intricate workings of this language variety for instructional purposes (Sridhar, 2020). Research on these two issues is slowly emerging, but there remains a great deal of fuzziness regarding appropriate practices in English instruction.

English in Multilingual India

India is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world; Upadhyay and Hasnain (2017) cited a popular Hindi saying that, in India, “at every four miles language changes and at every eight miles changes the taste of water” (p. 115). Furthermore, as in the estimates of English speakers, there is wide variance. By one count, India is home to 780 languages belonging to many different language families (Devy, 2014); by another count, the country has 1,652 languages (Census of India, 1961). Regardless of the actual numbers, English in India is perpetually in dialog with its linguistic neighbors.

In terms of official languages, that status was accorded to Hindi in 1950, with English being labeled as an associate official language. At the time, the expectation was that the country would transition to the use of Hindi predominantly as a national language, with English being discontinued. However, anti-Hindi resistance and the popularity of English resulted in the cementing, rather than the phasing out, of the dominant role of English. Today, English has a preeminent role in the workings of the government, the judiciary, commerce, and education, among others.

Importantly, the Indian Constitution has recognized 22 languages as “scheduled languages.” While Hindi is counted in the scheduled languages, English is not. Constitutional and other policy support has been a vital aspect of shaping a pecking order in and around languages (Mohanty, 2010). Scholars have argued that differential language policies have, in effect, created a “hierarchical and pyramidal power structure” (Mohanty, 2019, p. 329). This has been labeled a double divide (Mohanty et al., 2010; Ramanathan, 2005), a term referring both to hierarchies created by differential resources accorded to languages across the English–vernacular divide and to hierarchies among vernacular–other (minority) languages (Mohanty et al., 2010).

The divides have caused political and social turmoil in the linguistic landscape, and they have been “variously resisted, contested, and negotiated in the society through individual and collective identity strategies” (Mohanty et al., 2010, p. 215) within and outside of educational spaces. Thus, the teaching of English in India occurs in the context of multilingualism, whether by design or default (Bhatia, 2021; Taylor & Mohanty, 2021). In this context, the three-language formula, approved by the government in 1968, has been the most influential language policy document navigating this complexity since India’s independence from British colonial rule. It has been central in framing language-in-education policies, impacting language policy and planning at the local, regional, and national levels. As LaDousa and Davis (2018) explained, the policy unfolds along a “north–south axis,” as a result of which “students from Indo-Aryan language regions would receive exposure to Dravadian languages and students from Dravadian language regions would receive exposure to Indi-Aryan languages” (p. 4). Despite the formula’s dominance from a policy perspective, its implementation has been inconsistent (NCERT, 2006) and mired in contentious regional language politics. Ideologies about the stature and importance of different languages, as well as economic considerations, have guided the selection of languages by various stakeholders in the three-language formula (Khubchandani, 1978). Further, the hegemony of the two most powerful languages, Hindi and English, in national language policy discourses has served to exacerbate local tensions as a result of a complex matrix of regional language politics (Bhattacharya, 2013; Mohanty, 2019). While in principle it facilitates choice-making, the three-language policy has imposed serious constraints on language education. In fact, Annamalai (2005) decried “its rigidity, built on its premise of unidirectional vertical integration” (p. 29), leading to policy abandonment by language minorities across India. Inadequate and inappropriate institutional support in teacher training for policy implementation has also received pointed criticism. Last but not least, the policy has been criticized for its confusing language calculus, which, according to Mohanty (2019), has led to the dominance of English in schooling. Ultimately, as Mohanty (2006) stated: the policy has been “more abused and less used” (p. 279), even as it has significantly transformed the language-education setting of India.

English-Medium Instruction

The supremacy of English in Indian language politics has strongly contributed to the popularity of (mostly private) English-medium schooling, i.e., education through English (Mohanty et al., 2010). English functions as medium of instruction across schools in more states than any other language now, and more than 40% of total schoolchildren are enrolled in English-medium schools (Mohanty, 2019). Relatedly, over the years there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of vernacular languages used for instruction (Bhattacharya & Mohanty, 2021; Mohanty, 2019). In fact, protests have erupted against the government-led imposition of a regional language instructional medium in certain states (Bhattacharya & Mohanty, 2021; Borooah & Sabharwal, 2021). Parents, in particular, have driven the demand for English-medium schooling. Ramanathan (2005) described the widespread “craze for English” (p. 49), while Raj and Prakash (2020) described “parents clamouring for getting their kids admitted into English-medium schools” (p. 32). Lower-income parents, as Nambissan (2016) has suggested, see “linkages . . . between the knowledge of English, middle-class jobs, social distinction, and elite status” (p. 86). However, as research has shown convincingly, not all English-medium schools in India are created equal (Annamalai, 2005; Bhattacharya, 2013; Mohanty, 2019); access to an English-medium school does not necessarily lead to acquisition of English and its attendant privileges. Mohanty et al. (2010) referred to this as the “myth of English-medium superiority” (p. 214).

A key problem is that the widespread demand for English-medium schooling has led to the proliferation of unregulated or semiregulated private educational institutions, specifically targeting poorer sections of Indian society (Annamalai, 2005; Jhingran, 2009; Srivastava, 2013). Mohanty et al. (2010) claimed that such educational institutions offered “cosmetic Anglicization” (p. 216): that is, English instruction in name but not in practice (see Bhattacharya, 2013).

Agnihotri (2008) has powerfully argued that the major socioeconomic divides in India have been driven by a hierarchically structured educational system and inequitable access to English instruction. Unfortunately, poverty-stricken families are often the worst affected by this. Poorer parents, who typically have lower formal literacy and/or knowledge of English, will stretch themselves financially to enroll their children in the unregulated private institutions, unaware of the surface-level English instruction taking place (Bhattacharya, 2013). The variety of English learned at such institutions, as Annamalai (2005) recognized, is not “critical, creative and applicable to the problems of real life and the needs of the society” (p. 26). Schools of this type have also been criticized for leading to the acquisition of “bookish” English and poor development of communication skills. Other factors that also contribute to low-quality language instruction in formal educational settings for poorer sections of society include chronic teacher absenteeism and infrastructural issues (Nedungadi et al., 2018), widespread poverty (Tilak, 2018), child labor (UNESCO, 2015), high dropout rates (Marphatia et al., 2019), gender disparity (Sahni, 2017), graft (Kingdon, 2007), and inconsistent application of educational policy (Grant, 2012), among other issues.

Wealthier students, meanwhile, often have exposure to English in their everyday lives, are typically taught by teachers with better training and resources, and have better access to after-school support (Mohanty, 2006). Their English learning typically entails greater nurturing of communication skills and creative expression, factors that contribute to superior academic achievement (Gilbertson, 2016; Nussbaum, 2006). As a result, Sheorey (2006) referred to English in India as a “divider rather than a unifier . . . [since] advantages and the ‘power’ inherent in English literacy are enjoyed primarily by the middle and upper classes” (p. 18). Therefore, the majority of the population faces a double bind: they are either restricted in their access to English or the language skills they acquire do not meet the demands of the job market (Mohanty, 2006). In fact, Mohanty (2019) asserted that English-medium instruction “and the role of English in public and private schools have led to a new caste and subcaste system in India, differentiated on the basis of quality of English proficiency” (p. 197). The fact that students experience markedly different learning opportunities across socioeconomic divides is a critical educational equity issue. As Mohanty (2006) asked poignantly, “Whom do English-medium schools teach and whom do they cheat?” (p. 273). The socioeconomic divide continues to sharpen as a result of uneven language access and instruction, thus impacting both student achievement and retention over the long term.

English Instructional Context

Multigrade Context

Multigrade pedagogy entails “the teaching of students of different ages, grades and abilities in the same group” (Little, 1995, p. 1). All classroom contexts evidence differences along these lines to some degree; but in India, the multigrade classroom, where children from different classes are placed in the same physical room, functions as the national norm. This makes the teaching situation significantly complicated, because in ethnically and linguistically diverse classrooms in India, teachers must simultaneously manage “multi-age children across . . . [multiple] grades, as well as children from different family backgrounds, castes, cultures, languages, [and] ideologies, even within the same village” (Diwan, 2015, p. 194). The impact of multigrade teaching is felt most at the primary (elementary) level, where more than three quarters of schools have three or fewer instructors despite burgeoning class sizes (CREATE, 2011; Sangai, 2019).

Bhattacharya’s (2013) work offered insight into how multigrade pedagogy affects the teaching of English. In the multigrade classrooms in her work, classroom management became a crucial pedagogical consideration for language instruction. The situation led teachers to assign extensive quiet work (i.e., copying and silently memorizing) as a way of managing large groups of children across different classes. This practice resulted in minimal time for interactive learning and in the deliberate sidelining of communicative activities. Aslam (2006) highlighted similar findings in the Indian English instruction context, noting how multigrade classrooms diffused teachers’ attention, reduced practice of communicative activities, and resulted in heavy reliance on lecturing. Such modifications in service of multigrade pedagogy can be a demoralizing force for both instructors and students (Aslam, 2006; Bhattacharya, 2013). While there is a great deal of criticism of the multigrade model, some scholars have found that it can be useful despite its disadvantages. For example, Sangai (2019) offered some powerful insight into how the multigrade teaching challenge can be converted into an opportunity for vertical and peer learning, among others. Bhardwaj (2014) argued along similar lines, that multigrade pedagogy is critical for accomplishing universal education in India, and found that it has a variety of advantages, including helping keep girls in school and making schooling possible in underresourced areas. Scholars on both sides of the debate concur, importantly, that multigrade pedagogy is likely to remain a key feature of Indian schooling in the years to come. And while scholars agree that the most effective way to combat some of its disadvantages is through appropriate teacher training, there has been limited progress in that area currently.

Multilingual Practices

The typical English classroom in India manifests translingual communications. Vernacular languages are widely used in English instruction and are woven into everyday conversation (Mohanty et al., 2010). Policy documents often speak to the importance of embracing this complex reality. The “Position Paper on English Teaching” (NCERT, 2006) noted: “Linguistic purism, whether of English or the Indian languages, must yield to a tolerance of code-switching and code-mixing if necessary” (p. 12). Bhatia’s (2020) study, similarly, highlighted the importance of “literacy acquisition of Hinglish and other mixed systems, conceptually grounded in additive multilingualism, complex interactional practices of Indian multilingualism, and classroom management talk” (p. 30) for holistic and meaningful English instruction. Relatedly, Amritavalli (2013) offered:

English is taught by Indians to Indians so that we may interact with one another and with the world. The acknowledgment that English is a global language in a multilingual country has the (second) methodological consequence that we need not insulate it from our other languages in the classroom (as the audio-lingual era did), any more than in our everyday lives. It has been an abiding national vision that the teaching of English creates multilinguals to enrich all our languages.

Likewise, Agnihotri (2008) stressed “that the actual heterogeneity rather than the assumed homogeneity of the classroom should inform the project of education” (p. 1). Despite this push to embrace Indian multilingualism in the classroom, however, there are problems in implementation. Mohanty et al. (2010) pointed out that teachers carry the heaviest burden of figuring out how to navigate the disjuncture “between state-prescribed teaching objectives with respect to languages and what they experience and confront in the classrooms” (p. 228). Despite the multilingual underpinnings of nationwide language policies, they are often monoglossic in nature (Rajasekaran & Kumar, 2020). Further, as Anderson and Lightfoot (2018) have proposed, teachers are not necessarily invested in incorporating translingual competence into their pedagogy. Anderson and Lightfoot suggested that this is influenced by a range of factors, such as a preference for the target-language-only approach, distrust of translanguaging in schooling contexts, and traditional ideologies related to educational goals. In their work, they also advised that Indian English teachers embrace hybridity and adapt to the multilingual circumstances in which the language circulates. Agnihotri’s (2010) call that we proceed with “an approach that is rooted in multilinguality and that keeps the multiplicity of languages and cultural practices available among children at the centre of classroom transaction” (p. 10) is a powerful way forward, if the pedagogical practicalities can be sorted out satisfactorily.

Grammar-Translation Method

The grammar-translation method remains the dominant language pedagogical approach in most Indian classrooms, particularly in government-run schools (Mohanty, 2020). The method emphasizes explicit grammar instruction as well as (bidirectional) translation practices. At its worst, as Pennycook (2008) put it, it entails “deadening practices of bad pedagogy where translation is a punitive exercise, a means to fill an hour of classroom time, a means of showing superior teacher knowledge, or a chance to reduce languages to mere equivalents of each other” (p. 36). Elizabeth (2010) listed other disadvantages of the method, including that speaking and pronunciation practice is minimized, there is overemphasis on reading skills, the process of translation works through linguistic and cultural approximations (thus curtailing direct access to meaning), the learning process is passive, and, ultimately, that “this method does not help the students to learn the language” (p. 54). Additionally, Grover (2014) raised other concerns, such as that it is “not the natural way of learning language” and that it curtails “free expression of thought in English” for Indian learners (p. 2). Moreover, according to Grover (2014), the method stifles creativity and “has proved a stumbling block in learning English language in a real sense” (p. 3). Bhattacharya (2013) also found that the approach was a hindrance in the English language classroom. In the classrooms she investigated, she found that during lessons the teachers translated words, phrases, and sentences into the local language (Hindi), but the process itself was unsystematic and unpredictable. During the translations, it was not clear to the students which syntactic or lexical items were being added or removed. This affected students’ ability to decode individual English words, in addition to affecting their ability to comprehend texts independently. Thus, teachers directly controlled meaning, while students’ access to it was mediated through translation activities. This adversely affected students’ English acquisition and development of communication skills (see also Ramanathan, 1999). In a related study, Bhattacharya (2016) found that unsystematic translation practices limited students’ ability to participate in the classroom, leading to the dis-citizenship of learners.

Elizabeth (2010) offered a different perspective, outlining some advantages of the use of this method in English teaching in Indian classrooms. One advantage is that it relieves some measure of the teaching burden in large classrooms. Second, it gives quicker access to meaning, facilitating approximate understandings while students develop language proficiency. Third, it allows for quick comprehension checks in a familiar language, making it easier for teachers to understand if students are following. Finally, the method fosters student learning through cross-linguistic comparison, building bridges across languages and cultures.

Ultimately, in India, “English is always a language in translation, a language of translingual use” (Pennycook, 2008, p. 34), and its teaching will, of necessity, be shaped by this reality. What needs addressing urgently is how to tap into its possibilities while providing direct access to ownership of the English language for learners.

Rote Learning

Rote learning entails repetition techniques to acquire new knowledge, giving primacy to recall rather than deep understanding (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2010). Rote-learning practices have been criticized for leading to passive, unanalytic learning styles (Subramaniam, 2008). The memorization of formulaic chunks of information functions as the primary learning goal in the process, leaving “no room for exploration and critical thinking” (Pande & Relia, 2020, p. 40). While rote learning has been used over millennia in India for religious and language instruction, its formal instructional shape in the early 21st century has been traced to colonial times. According to scholars, this teaching approach was adopted in formal schooling to socialize Indians into subservient British subjectivity (Balaram, 2005; Sheshagiri, 2010).

Rote learning has been widely criticized in Indian language educational scholarship, because it is seen as limiting access to both English and content (Annamalai, 2005; Bhattacharya, 2013; Mohanty, 2019; Pandey & Jha, 2021). The dominance of rote instruction in English pedagogy is a crucial problem, honing the operation of memory but not sufficiently fostering communicative ability, creativity, and critical thinking (Bhattacharya, 2013; Mohanty, 2006; Nussbaum, 2006). One key issue to keep in mind is that linguistic minorities and students of lower socioeconomic status typically have greater exposure to rote methods; therefore, English rote-learning practices continue to reproduce educational inequalities along socioeconomic and linguistic lines (Annamalai, 2005; Bhattacharya, 2022; Gilbertson, 2016; Mohanty, 2019). For upwardly mobile students, meanwhile, schooling is much more likely to engender learning, creativity, and deeper understanding (Gilbertson, 2016). This naturally constructs a deep divide in terms of educational access and success across socioeconomic lines. Moreover, the powerful ideologies undergirding these practices reveal why they continue to dominate classroom instruction. It is important to extend the nascent literature on this topic (Bhattacharya, 2022; Bhattacharya & Mohanty, 2021). Also, it is widely noted that teachers rely on rote-learning methods largely because that is how they themselves learned the language. This remains a largely neglected area in teacher training and will need to be tackled before any major reforms can be instituted.

Teaching to the Test

Testing is a central concern in English language instruction in India. In fact, Ramanathan (2008) claimed that in India, an exam-driven focus “defines the curriculum and classroom activities” (p. 124) related to English instruction. Both instructors and students place a great deal of weight on test performance, leading to its prioritization in the instructional sequence (Aslam, 2006; Elizabeth, 2010). Much of the time, the emphasis is on acquiring memorizable chunks of information, rather than deep learning (Bhattacharya, 2022; Bhattacharya et al., 2007). In addition to the devotion of a great deal of instructional time to examination preparation, learning objectives are subordinated to teaching to the test (Aslam, 2006). Crucially, the focus on testing and assessment leads to poor investment in oral proficiency in English, since that is rarely tested in the Indian educational setting (Aslam, 2006; Elizabeth, 2010). Yet another issue is that, in some contexts, concern about student performance on tests leads teachers to provide answers to the students. Bhattacharya (2013) captured how learners never generated any answers in the English classrooms she observed; teachers provided the answers, usually drawing on guidebooks (teacher’s copies). Teachers would also often inform students what questions would appear on the tests; as a result, students would narrowly focus on what was anticipated and not engage with study materials beyond that. They would memorize answers and aim to reproduce them as faithfully as possible within test conditions. What was tested during examinations, then, was recall and memory, rather than language proficiency, as students focused on memorizing rather than understanding. In this manner, the practice socialized children further into modes of passive learning, where responding to questions was the domain of teachers. These aspects suggest that the overemphasis on testing must be urgently addressed at all levels, in discussion with key stakeholders. Another area of consideration is the lack of interest in diagnostic and formative assessment (Ramanathan, 2008, 2016). Further, teacher training in assessment remains a matter of general neglect, requiring a “sea change” in perspective (Ramanathan, 2016, p. 123). While some positive changes are underway in relation to English testing, related reforms are moving slowly in the country (Ramanathan, 2016). This issue needs more urgent consideration than it has received so far. Finally, how differential testing practices and outcomes result in the maintenance of socioeconomic divides must also be immediately and carefully evaluated.


Textbooks play a crucial role in English instruction, functioning often as “the primary carriers of school knowledge” (Chen, 2002, p. 40). The situation has only marginally improved since Vaish (2005) noted that “students are still burdened by texts with a middle-class, urban, upper-caste bias” (p. 198). Bhattacharya (2019) also found that English textbooks were grossly misaligned with the everyday realities experienced by marginalized schoolchildren in India. Furthermore, the language used in textbooks is often information-driven, not geared toward knowledge building (Vaish, 2005). Criticizing the inadequacy and inappropriateness of textbooks used for English instruction, Aslam (2006) noted that the books were mostly written by first-language English speakers and were “linguistically difficult and culturally alien” (p. 22) for Indian learners. The medium of instruction also raised some challenges with regard to textbooks. For example, Bhattacharya (2013) examined classrooms in which the textbooks were written in English but instruction was in Hindi. This created a major disconnect, and, due to confusing instructional translation practices, students found textbooks to be largely impenetrable, leading to greater reliance on rote learning. Furthermore, newer communicative approaches in the English textbooks were ignored because teachers had no or inadequate training in the method, which is a common problem in India. Another issue is that teachers are not often given the opportunity to write textbooks (Elizabeth, 2010); therefore, the gulf between classroom realities and the instructional principles in textbooks is quite wide. In recent decades, there has been a push to better attend to textbooks as a wider educational problem (Elizabeth, 2010), and there remain critical areas for improvement, such as prescriptive approaches to language, disconnect from students’ sociocultural backgrounds, and little understanding or appreciation of multilingual pedagogy, among others (Bhattacharya, 2013; Rajasekaran & Kumar, 2020).

Teacher Education

Many of the core English instructional issues outlined in this article are a result of poor investment in teacher training. Teachers are not adequately prepared to teach multigrade classrooms (Bhattacharya, 2013; Diwan, 2015), and they are not taught how to manage rich multilingual environments in a systematic manner (Bhattacharya, 2013; Menon et al., 2014). Ideally, teacher training would address the socioeconomic imperative for English as well as nurture education in vernacular languages, but this is far from the current reality (Menon et al., 2014). In addition, Aslam (2006) noted a variety of other issues. Reading and writing are prioritized in English teacher training, to the neglect of other skill areas. It was also noted that there is only minimal professional development for in-service instructors; teachers have to take the initiative and learn on their own if they want to advance their learning. Further, teacher training does not effectively strengthen teachers’ foundations in English, leading to reliance on rote pedagogies and grammar-translation approaches (Aslam, 2006; Bhattacharya, 2013). Moreover, inadequate policy support and planning exacerbate existing issues. Menon et al. (2014) suggested that, in addition to investing in it more deeply—from a financial and policy perspective—teacher training for language teachers in India must empower instructors “to become active agents in meaning-making through a shared engagement in critical enquiry” (p. 61). A wide-ranging, comprehensive, and in-depth re-evaluation of existing teacher preparation programs must be undertaken urgently, and reforms must be considered, especially if English instruction in India is to be successful and just across socioeconomic divides.

Future Directions

The teaching of English in India is, one the one hand, “inextricably entangled with the politics of the Empire” (Krishnaswamy & Krishnaswamy, 2006, p. v), and, on the other hand, woven into the complex tapestry of national neoliberal development discourses. Thus, English is taught at the intersection of ideological, sociocultural, economic, and political tensions. Its status as a language of privilege and prestige accords it a special place in the linguistic landscape of India, even as, or precisely because, it remains at the heart of elite production in Indian society. Access to the English language, ultimately, maintains and sharpens socioeconomic inequalities across different divides. Therefore, questions about who teaches it, why, in what ways, and to whom, are critical, not only from a language educational perspective but also from a social justice lens.

India has possibly the world’s largest English instructional context; however, research in this area remains woefully underdeveloped. There is insufficient local, rigorous, peer-reviewed research in India focusing on English teaching. One issue is that language education scholars often lack adequate methodological and theoretical training. This is exacerbated by restricted access to wide-ranging library resources. Another key issue is that the understanding of English instructional principles is often guided by imported and outdated frames of reference; local conceptualizations of language are thus often refracted through foreign theoretical and methodological lenses. In addition, scholars continue to understand existing English instructional methods through imported frames of reference (see Jayendran et al., 2021); change is needed so that language teaching in India can be unpacked and conceptualized in locally meaningful ways, particularly in ways that acknowledge the colonial history of the methods. There is a pressing need for more robust and diverse language educational scholarship that privileges the uniquely Indian voice in the literature. This will require not only a great deal of investment in developing research skills among language education scholars, but also a fundamental change in the understanding of mindful citation and discursive practices. Even as local knowledge develops around this issue, it is important to question whose voices are centered in the scholarly discourse and why.

Another issue is the still limited longitudinal qualitative inquiry in Indian scholarship on English teaching. Without this, it is challenging to understand the nuances surrounding the complexities of the context and/or to get a sense of transformation over time. Furthermore, the ideological underpinnings of instructional and learning practices need greater attention, to better capture how language beliefs, values, and attitudes shape English teaching in India (Bhattacharya, 2017; Bhattacharya & Mohanty, 2021). The double divides, which act as metaphors for linguistic hierarchies in India, also merit further analysis. It is crucial, additionally, to continue research into the language border crossings that occur constantly in English classrooms, particularly in relation to how they are articulated or regulated in language policy and planning. Critical areas to explore remain how aspects like class, gender, disability, and caste impact teaching and learning of English, and to explore issues of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 2017) in them. The post-colonial implication of English pedagogy, moreover, deserves continuing scrutiny. A useful next step would be to foster international scholarly dialog with other South Asian countries on the topic, to develop a more comprehensive picture of how English instruction is situated within regional politics and history. Discussions about this must also be contextualized within the Right to Education Act (2009), to see how the political reach of universal education impacts on-the-ground instruction in English (see Bhattacharya & Jiang, 2018). Currently, English functions as a key gatekeeper and divider in India; with greater scholarly attention to this topic, it is likely the landscape could be transformed into a less unequal one. Perhaps it could become a space of possibility and hope for a better future. For that, English teaching will have to be less about selling a dream and more about addressing what it has perpetuated for centuries: oppression and inequality.

Further Reading

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  • Mohanty, A. K. (2010). Languages, inequality and marginalization: Implications of the double divide in Indian multilingualism. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 205, 131–154.
  • Mohanty, A. K. (2019). Language policy in education in India. In A. Kirkpatrick & A. J. Liddicoat (Eds.), The Routledge international handbook of language education policy in Asia (pp. 329–340). Routledge.
  • Ramanathan, H. (2016). English education policy in India. In R. Kirkpatrick (Ed.), English language education policy in Asia (pp. 113–126). Springer.


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