English for Rural Development: Providing Proficiency in English to Rural Youth

India is one of the developing countries that has been contributing in large measure to migration of people to foreign countries, particularly the developed West, and Punjab is one of the States that stands ahead of others in this respect. It is estimated that there are about 1.5 million Punjabis in Europe and North America from Punjab’s Doaba region alone. Among these, many are now well-off in business and other professions and have earned a name for themselves in the host country. A large majority of these migrants is from the rural areas. In fact, migration from rural areas of Punjab to West goes on vigorously if the number of candidates from rural areas appearing in International English Language Testing System (IELTS), and in similar other tests of English, is any indication.1 Cambridge IELTS is conducted by the British Council and the IDP Australia for the benefit of those seeking to go abroad. As proficiency in English happens to be an essential requirement for issue of visa, even a student visa, a large number of candidates appear in these tests of English with a view of going abroad.


There are many reasons why people from developing countries seek to migrate to developed countries but for the majority the biggest motivation is economic and social benefit that such a move brings to the individuals and their families. Most of these migrants happen to be young people who have just finished schooling or are pursuing graduation. But amongst them are also a sizeable number of youngsters who are degree holders in the Humanities, Commerce, Sciences and Social Sciences. Some also have technical and vocational qualifications such as pharmacists, bio-technologists, nurses, teachers, tutors, accountants, engineers, I.T. professionals, beauticians, hotel management graduates and dentists. These are people who wish to migrate to improve their future and so they all apply for a student visa ostensibly to get admission to some kind of professional course from a European country as a convenient route to migrate. Back home, quality professional education is beyond their reach and moreover it is difficult to get admission in government institutions and private institutions are very expensive.

Migration sometimes causes hardships to the individuals and their families, yet it also benefits them, their families, community and ancestral village, as is evident from studies done on the contribution of the NRIs to the rural Punjab.2 Migrating to the developed West perhaps had never been easy for the rural youth but it is much more difficult now with increased competition from urban youth in India and in other developing countries and also from the European Union. Moreover, a certain level of proficiency in English language is now required by almost all western countries as a pre-requisite for issuing visa, even a student visa. This is an added obstacle; an average youth from rural India who has had schooling and vocational training through the regional/vernacular medium finds it an uphill task. This lack of communicative English also proves an obstacle in their migration to other cities within India to take up better paid jobs. A large number of coaching institutes have sprung up in all parts of the country, more so Punjab, and coaching for IELTS preparation has become a big industry. But even after months of coaching and training and repeated attempts, the band score of rural youth in English proficiency remains low.

The plight of students from regional medium rural schools in other parts of the country is no different and unfortunately these young men and women happen to be those who cannot afford expensive private English-medium schools. In many states over the past few decades, many projects for teaching of English even with foreign collaborations have been taken up in addition to the efforts of English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad (formerly CIEFL) and various Regional Institutes of English without much perceptible improvement in the teaching of English in our rural areas. This is evident from the band scores obtained by the candidates from these areas. The present system of teaching English in government schools in rural areas holds no ray of hope even in the near future. We must therefore devise new ways of giving our rural youth proficiency in English language if we want to help them benefit themselves and their communities.

We can think of two solutions. One is to devise ways and means to impart English Language Proficiency to adults seeking to migrate abroad for jobs or for further education. This will require training rural youth in skills and strategies to tackle tests of English. This coaching can be in the nature of ‘training’ rather than ‘education’ as the two terms are distinguished by Widdowson (1983). Centres for this kind of coaching having specialised faculty for this purpose need to be set up around cluster of villages outside the regular school system for achieving this objective. These ELT coaching centres must be properly regulated and monitored to maintain quality.

The second solution pertains to effective planning to improve the teaching-learning of English in schools in rural India as a long-term solution. For this purpose the socio-economic background of these learners must be taken into account while planning a syllabus for them. Besides being first generation learners of English, they have poor facilities of learning English inside the class and none at all outside the classroom. Moreover, majority of the rural youth remain predominantly monolingual not only in their formative years but also till secondary school unless they move out of the village to nearby towns and cities where people of other communities also reside. In rural Punjab, for example, most of the learners’ mother tongue is Punjabi which also happens to be the regional language and is used profusely in their community. They speak, read, write and listen to this single language day in and day out – road signs, signboards, radio and television programmes, advertisements, newspapers – in fact Punjabi is the sole linguistic medium that they come in contact with throughout their formative years. They have little experience or exposure to social interaction in real life situations in any other language. Not a single word or phrase from English– except a few words such as tractor, TV, radio, car or cricket for which there are no equivalent words in Punjabi – is used in the target language by people around them unlike those living or studying in towns and cities. Punjabis, particularly the rural Punjabis, feel a deep sense of pride in using their regional language and this virtue of theirs consciously or unconsciously becomes a de-motivating factor in their learning of the target language. Research has also shown that monolingual learners have difficulty in learning a new language and so this has an important bearing on their learning of English language effectively. It is only when we have a clear understanding of these learners and their learning environment, the objectives we want to achieve, and the challenges that hinder the attainment of these objectives that we can devise a suitable curriculum for these learners.

The materials for teaching English produced for students studying in city schools and belonging to a different social environment cannot be suitable for these learners. ‘One solution fits all’ will not serve the purpose. Each state or region perhaps needs to bring out a different set of instructional materials and adopt instructional techniques using their culture and traditions and a judicious use of their own regional language for its learners of English in the countryside. The emphasis must also shift from teaching and testing of content to imparting skills in the target language. One thing is clear that any English language syllabus will have to provide for teaching and learning of speaking and listening skills, in addition to reading and writing skills, which at present are neither taught nor tested in our schools.

Investment in giving English language proficiency to young students in the rural areas of the country can go a long way in empowering them to acquire gainful employment and thus help them bring prosperity not only to themselves and their families but also their community and the village at large as the examples of Kharaudi, Brahampura and other such efforts in villages in Punjab show (Gurmail Singh and Swaran Singh, 2007). We need initiative and will to create an English-speaking ‘talent pool’ to reap socio-economic benefits of giving adequate proficiency in English language. Those young men and women from rural parts who fail to migrate or do not want to migrate can easily participate in the opportunities being thrown up by the emerging economy in urban India and thus develop themselves and their society.


1 Out of the nine test centres that the British Council has in North India, five are located in the Punjab region and more than 85 per cent of the candidates who appear at these centres are from rural areas. In addition, IDP Australia also conducts this test.

2 See Gurmail Singh and Swaran Singh (2007) and Shipra Saxena (2005).


Gurmail Singh and Swaran Singh (2007). Diaspora philanthropy in action : An evaluation of modernization in Punjab villages. JPS 14:2, 225ff.

Saxena, Shipra (2005). Kharoudi village of Panjab : A model of cleanliness. New Delhi: Department of Drinking Water & Sanitation, Ministry of Rural Development, Govt. of India.

Widdowson, H.G. (1983). Learning purpose and language use. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


* Article first published in FORTELL, January, 2014

khurana.sarika1@gmail.com | Sarika Khurana is Assistant Professor at Shivaji College,  University of Delhi.



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