The news of the Nobel for economics being given to Abhijit Banerjee was announced, just as I was
driving out of the 10 year celebration for the Pearson PTE, their test of English language that enables students to prove ability and fluency to Universities across the world, as they apply to study different subjects. Abhijit Bannerjee, too, must have done a similar test, I thought, in passing. His enormous achievements in economics were fostered not just by his great training at South Point, Presidency and JNU – all fantastic institutions with English as their medium of training, but also by the little steps that enabled him to pursue his PhD in the United States.
The Nobel Prize – or equivalent for Economics was given to three people, for their work in fostering evidence based decision making and policy. Two of them happened to be married to each other, an Indian, and a French person. They met in America. The Indian, Abhijit Banerjee, grew up in Calcutta, his first language is Bengali. You can still tell that from his accent. Esther Duflo, one of the other recipients, who happens to be his wife, speaks with a very French accent. Both of them have worked together for years – the language of their life’s work has been English.
While the world talks about their various achievements, I take a minute to wonder about their journeys, and whether they would have been able to create the movement they did without English. The Prize was given for the technique the evolved, called Randomised Control Trial (RCT), which is a way of testing a solution to see if it works, and is experimental. Over the years, they have been able to test solutions for poverty, education and more across the world, starting with Kenya, including India and 81 other countries. All of their work has been precise, careful, unambiguous and demanding – and all of it has required a high standard of English to reach and communicate to that level of rigour.
It used to trouble me that obviously bright people such as these winners must prove their abilities in something as simple as English in order to study together in the leading universities of the world. Why do we even need a Pearson PTE? Ask those who struggle with the language to strive harder to prove that they can reach this standard, why ask those who are so obviously endowed with these abilities already, I wondered. Not just wondered, I outraged.
But then, as I watched the first press conference, and then the subsequent interviews given by them, and worse – the awful commentaries that totally misunderstood the work that had received the award – I slowly came around to accepting that maybe the Universities in the English speaking parts of the world have it right. It is easy to think we all speak the same language, but since English itself has spread so wide, and is a live language that continues to evolve, I found that I could concede that there might be a need for such a standardised test. Expertise in one area does not always mean an ability to work together in English – and a standardised test just ensures speedy work at the speed of expertise.
I did not have to like it, but I could accept it. Especially since most of them take so long to turn around that it becomes another chore with added anxiety. I remember a niece having to run around spending anxious weeks waiting for her test results when she applied for her study visa – and it felt unnecessary. Here, thankfully, technology and decent education companies come to the rescue. I have a special affection for Pearson, since I worked for them, freelancing in London a decade ago. Knowing the rigour that goes into the back end, the trust that is important to them, and the keenness to serve large numbers, I was actually quite impressed when they told me that the turnaround time for the PTE is just down to 2 days – I think officially they promise it within 4-5 days, but globally they have been able to even deliver it within 1.2days. This with internal checks and balances built it to ensure that their test remains reliable and valid, and thus accepted by the best Universities in the world. I could deal with that, and I am sure, greats like the highly awarded Economist would have appreciated this reasonably painless Test of English, had it been available in his time.
As for me, as an educator, I’m hoping to deepen collaborations, and soon will be scheduling a time with this firm to discuss assessments-this is something they’ve figured out well, and something that needs better quality investments in the Indian education circuits – but that is a conversation for another time.