Every evening when R Veena attends her English language classes she leaves her mobile phone behind at home. Learn English, a language training centre in Delhi’s Uttam Nagar, also specifies that she along with the 27 other students enrolled with them, spend atleast one day a week writing letters, notes and messages by hand. “When I first joined I didn’t even know how to address a letter or how to write full sentences. I used to wonder why so many companies had turned down my job applications or not bothered to respond at all. Now I know,” says Veena, a graduate of history from the Indira Gandhi National Open University, who sent out her first CV with the words ‘hie’, ‘thnx’ and ‘tc’. “I know English and I thought that was enough to secure a job. I never realised that I also have to know proper English.”
A recent study called The Changing Mobile Landscape by mobile phone major Ericsson’s consumer lab shows that on average, Indians spend 25 per cent of their day typing on their phones and then consequently check their smartphones over a hundred times a day. “Our lifestyles are such that we are writing shorter and more informal messages with every passing day. On top of this, most school curriculums do not stress on the importance of writing and speaking correct context-appropriate English. How many of us know the difference between signing off with ‘yours faithfully’ and ‘yours sincerely’ and ‘regards’? And worse, how many of us even realise how important it is to know? Most people assume that a good degree and being able to understand English is enough,” explains Sarika Bhola, who teaches at Learn English. “I have seen 26-year-olds attending our classes because they were fired for writing ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ repeatedly on official emails to important clients. Language is a habit. The more we text and type on our phones, the harder it becomes to remember what correct language is,” she adds. At Learn English, batches are kept small and discipline and voracious reading are key to the curriculum. “We stress on reading of all kinds except gossip magazines. And in class, one hour a day, there is a strict no-phone policy. We don’t want the students to forget all that they’ve learned,” jokes Bhola.
According to Job Smart, a programme for supplementary Business English for college students in Andhra Pradesh, only 28 per cent of the country’s 100 million annual graduates are able to find employment at multinationals and larger corporates and all thanks to one determining skill—English. Another study conducted last month by the employability credentialing firm Aspiring Minds has revealed that 97 per cent of 600,000 engineering graduates cannot speak correct English. “In a global firm, a basic grasp of the language is of course required,” says Rajiv Burman, the human resource director for Microsoft IT India. A survey conducted by MBA.com of nearly 600 employers last year showed that of the five key skills that they look for when hiring, English skills topped the list followed by teamwork, technical, leadership and managerial skills. Almost all ranked communication skills twice as important as managerial skills.
But companies aren’t only interested in how you speak English at the office, in public meetings or in front of clients, but also how you conduct yourself on internet forums. “When we are placing people from humanities subjects, it isn’t such a big problem. But for science and technical courses, most students just laugh it off if we tell them that how they write and conduct themselves online is now also monitored by companies, especially the larger global firms. The reasoning is simple: if you are going to tweet a photo of your work desk and caption it ‘Cray Cray’ at work, then you are reflecting and representing the company. In the same way if you add a client as a ‘friend’ on Facebook and then start messaging [words like] ‘okieee’ or ‘ah mah gawd’, you can be held accountable. It sounds ridiculous when you say it, but trust me, such cases come up more often than necessary,” explains Rakesh Sekhon, a human resource staffer from Mumbai. “If you can be hauled up for inappropriate behaviour offline, then why not for inappropriate language online, and let’s be clear that inappropriate isn’t always curse words. Informal English or amalgamated words in English and Hindi are also considered equally inappropriate in the professional arena. Social norms exist, like it or not, and so do professional norms,” adds Sekhon.
But convincing aspiring students and their equally hopeful parents on the importance of good language etiquette isn’t always an easy task. “More than the students, the family take offence. If I tell them that their child doesn’t have the appropriate language skills and should take an additional certification or training in it, they take it as a personal offence—like I am insulting their class and upbringing. They refuse to understand that proper language skills have got nothing whatsoever to do with class. You can be living in Mumbai’s poshest colony and still not know the difference between writing ‘cool’ and ‘noted, thanks’ in an official memo. You can speak the language, yes, but can you really speak the language,” continues Sekhon, adding that students from Tier II and Tier III towns often come with a better grasp of correct language usage. “The sad part is that most of them do not have access to quality English training, but those who do, place so much more emphasis and stress on perfecting their skills. For them it’s a huge matter of pride and social status to just be able to speak the language. Plus their exposure to internet, SMS and WhatsApp language is less.”
For Manish Sabharwal, co-founder and chairman of Team Lease, language by itself is not the only criteria for finding suitable employment, behaviour and analytical skills are equally crucial. “Companies place emphasis on presentation, analytical, managerial and time management skills. Professional respect and success is earned through a combination of all these,” he says.
For many who want to brush up on their professionalism, a management degree has long been the answer. But even MBA graduates are now finding it hard to land their dream job and the state of the job market has little to do with it. According to the National Employability Report of MBA Graduates by Aspiring Minds, the employability of management graduates in functional roles remains as little as 10 per cent with English and finance being the two hardest skill sets for MBA graduates to master. “Look, if you go to one of the top Indian Institutes of Management or an Indian Business School, chances are you’ll not be invisible to top employers. But what about the other hundreds of business colleges and their graduates? These students pass out with an MBA and know everything about business management in theory but next to nothing in practice,” says Atul Soni, a human resource professional from Gurgaon. “Essential skill sets like giving job interviews, writing business letters, corresponding with external clients, delegating tasks within the work force, writing out memos, making professional presentations— are all too often overlooked in management curriculums. Most graduates don’t even know how to write a proper CV, very often sending in an attached selfie and including four pages of irrelevant skill sets,” says Soni. “Knowing basic writing and behavioural skills are as important as knowing business theorems and market trends. It’s important to realise that when you send a job application, it’s not just your marks that HR looks at,” he adds.
But why is proper English language so important? According to Angela Ffrench, the director of operations in South and South East Asia for the Cambridge English Language Assessment, a professional grasp of English is more than just knowing another language, it is a huge confidence booster and an eagerly coveted social ticket. “There are 335 million users of English around the world. It is the most widely used language for business and academics. Of course, it plays a huge role in determining your acceptance in society and at work,” she explains. Ffrench has been involved with the execution of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) in India for the last few years. The test has 64 centres in India and is conducted thrice a year in partnership with IDP Education and British Council India. “There is a huge demand for English language training not just amongst individual students but also among companies and educational institutions. We run a training programme for teachers from Chennai Corporation along with Tech Mahindra Foundation. These teachers leave the programme with a completely altered outlook and personality. Simply by perfecting their knowledge and usage of correct English, they automatically feel more self-assured, self-reliant and confident at work,” says Ffrench.
For many aspiring professionals, finding the right English training class has now become as important as finding the right college or degree course to pursue. Siya Malhotra is one of the many outstation students enrolled for English language training at the British Council India, travelling all the way from Amritsar to Chandigarh to attend the course. But she isn’t complaining about the distance. She’s just thankful that she doesn’t have to go all the way to Delhi to attend training like her cousins before her. “There are so many English training classes today. But what they teach you is how to read and write basic English. Some of them also teach you how to speak English in different types of foreign accents. Very few will teach you the proper context in which to use which word and which sentence,” she says. “Most of these language classes are really a waste of time for people like us, who already know English and just want to brush up on our usage and our confidence. Almost all of my cousins have attended training with the British Council. Earlier there was no centre in Punjab, so they went all the way to Delhi. It’s just a teaching centre that we have come to trust. They focus on improving your overall English skills and not just ABCD,” she says. Indeed, it was demand and potential that led to the establishment of the centre in Chandigarh. According to Rob Lynes, the director for British Council India, “What distinguishes our classes is the reliability, validity and efficiency of training that we provide. There is a growing demand for English language skills today. Knowing correct English is a value addition for both academic and employment purposes.”