Dick is the executive director of a busy English language school in the heart of Manhattan with a diverse intake of immigrants to the USA and international students.
The service she offers, welcoming and educating students who may have a very low level of English when they arrive, requires an understanding of the daunting and difficult experience that language learning can be. “There can be so much anguish involved.”
This difficult personal journey was successfully immortalised by the Bollywood hit film, English Vinglish, which was filmed on location in India and at New York Language Center.
For many in India, English Vinglish, a film about an Indian housewife who sets out to learn English, tells a familiar story.
Already embarrassed by her shaky English conversation skills, it is a daunting trip alone to New York to help with a relative’s wedding that pushes Shashi into learning the language. After an excruciating encounter at a coffee shop, she makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to enrol on a four-week English course after seeing an advertisement on the side of a bus.
“”There can be so much anguish involved”
The teachers in the film are actors, but NYLC. the school Shashi attends, is real.
The production company came and “took over” the premises for two weeks after contacting Dick three years ago.
“They created signs for us, they positioned their people, and on the day of the actual shooting they took over our classrooms, made a dressing room and a make-up room,” she said. “We hadn’t read the script but we were told they were going to mention the name of our school and put the sign on a bus, which they did.”
When it came out in India, the film was a hit. It was the comeback film of one of Bollywood’s biggest superstars, Sridevi, and won a number of accolades – as well as the approval of NYLC’s staff and students.
“We were totally taken by how well they portrayed the experience,” Dick said.
In many respects, Shashi’s experience of studying abroad is far from that of the ‘typical’ Indian student.
With English as India’s second national language and so many options to learn in-country, it simply doesn’t make sense to travel abroad; and so in reality, non-immigrant Indian students make up a very small proportion of the ESL market overseas.
However, Shashi’s background and the plight she faces – feeling socially excluded because of her lack of English skills – will be familiar for many of its audience in India.
“There is a segment of the population who feel like they have missed out – people who have moved out of education and now want to learn new skills or improve their skills,” commented Natasha Chopra, Managing Director of The Chopras, one of India’s largest education counselling agencies.
In English Vinglish, the main character’s daughter discourages her from attending a school parent-teacher evening, feeling that she might be ‘shown up’ by her mother’s faltering conversation as she struggles to interact in English with teachers and other parents. The conversation reflects a widespread attitude in India that being unable to speak confidently in English as a parent is an “embarrassment” not only for the individual but to their family, Chopra said.
“A guy called me from Pakistan and said ‘this is basically my mum’s story’”
“It is part of every household,” commented Sanghamitra Ray, NYLC’s Principal Designated School Official. “Just from my point of view I felt that the kids were a little aggressive in the movie – but it’s true that it can happen, where students are ashamed of introducing their parents because of their English.”
Ray, who grew up in India before moving to New York, said that one of the reasons the film was so well received in India was because it struck so close to home for so many in its audience.
“I have received so many calls from India and Pakistan from people who share this experience, and it really made me feel that this is very real,” Ray said. “A guy called me from Pakistan and said ‘this is basically my mum’s story’.”
Although Dick estimates the film’s wide release in India only translated to a dozen or so enrolments to date, she did say that a number of agents have said they were “impressed” with the school after seeing it on-screen.
And she says that they often screen the film to other ESL students at their school. “We felt the experience of the protagonist to be exactly like our students,” Dick relates.
“We felt the experience of the protagonist to be exactly like our students”
As in the film, most of NYLC’s students who take evening and weekend classes are immigrants living locally. Shashi’s classmates include a Mexican nanny, a Pakistani cab driver and a French chef.
“I think that the gamut of professions seen in the classroom was very accurate,” said Dick. “In the classroom, because it’s so multinational and multi-ethnic, each student brings their own experience and we see that all the time.”
For these students, “to have the courage even to enquire about taking a language course – it takes a lot of courage, and that was particularly well portrayed,” she explained. “Students are afraid of being misunderstood or made fun of.”
For some prospective students, this fear can create a seemingly insurmountable barrier to learning, but it is the determination of the protagonist, and that of her classmates, to overcome it that sets the tone for the film.
Because of this, both Chopra and the NYLC staff are confident that it will inspire some who watch it to step up and learn the language.
“For a lot of people who go and spend a lot of time abroad, it could inspire them – people of different age groups who spend time perhaps visiting children who live overseas,” Chopra said.
“That I think it will certainly do, if someone’s conscious about closing that generation gap or communication gap,” she added.
In fact, there have even been reports that the film has inspired young women in areas where access to English teaching is sparse to improve their language skills.
“That our film has influenced a section of the audience to improve its language skills is awesome,” Director R. Balki told India Today in 2012. “English Vinglish is not just about learning English. It’s about the determination that the lack of familiarity will not stop people’s aspirations and dreams from growing.”