Should you send your kid to study abroad in the US after 12th std?

Last year, I asked this question on my Facebook page:

After 12th, should you send your kid to study abroad (US, UK, France) or should you have them do undergraduate studies in India and consider studies abroad only for post graduate studies? Assume that finances are not a major problem. Assume that the kid will go to a “good” or at least “above-average” college abroad. What do you think?

This question sparked off a great discussion where lots of people chimed in with their opinions and experiences. You should read the whole page, but for the lazy, I have captured some of the most interesting perspectives here.

Starting with my own opinion:

There is no question in my mind that most good/above-average colleges in developed countries will impart better education than good colleges in India. However, there is too much of a culture shock, too much freedom, too many distractions abroad, and a significant probability of the kid not being able to negotiate them all safely.

There is a small fraction of kids who are very mature, and very “sorted” in life at the age of 17, and know exactly what they want out of their education and their life – they should be allowed to (encouraged to?) go abroad after 12th. All others should wait until graduation.

Update: After reading the comments of a bunch of my friends, my own views have now changed, and I’m generally of the opinion that if you can afford it, and your kid can get into a decent school in the US, then going to the US is worth it.

Dhairya Dand disagreed with me:

without a wink – abroad.

  1. Since when did not being sorted out at 17 become a bad thing?
  2. A cultural shake up is precisely what a 17 year old needs to form his world views, why wait till 22?
  3. Grad life at 22-24 is focused, she/he has already committed to an area without being fully exposed to all the options one could have had in undergrad.

Rahul Gangwal pointed out:

i must say one thing here … once you are alone irrespective of age – the person does goes wild initially but matures 100 times more quickly than if he was at home

And Vaibhav Domkundwar came out strongly in favor of the US education system:

Based on my experience of landing at UC Berkeley right after my bachelors in India + interviewing/hiring 100s of freshers in Pune over last 10 yrs, I’d say kids are better off doing undergrad in the US and perhaps high school too. A lot depends on “how you learn” IMO. The undergrad kids, “on average”, at Berkeley were far superior in academic as well as non-academic than the international students from China and India.

Most importantly, I feel the perspective that you get in a (good) US university is far richer & wider than what you can in India, even now. Lastly, based on my experience in India over the last year, it feels like the change in the education system broadly is still short of what it needs to be.

Ankesh Kothari came up with a slightly altered suggestion:

sending your kid abroad as early as possible is a good idea. If you think he is not mature enough, then don’t send him to a 4 year college – send him for a semester long study abroad program. But the more different and varied experiences they get early on in life, the quicker they will find their center. The more hustling they have to do, the more confidence they will be later on in life.

And Ravindra Jaju pointed out that maybe as parents we worry too much about our kids getting “spoilt”:

If you want to focus on good education and holistic development, send them abroad. Kali might find them in this yug, but that’s already shaped by their initial 17 years at home. If you’d still like to keep a close watch on other aspects, keep them in India. Kali might still find them, though.

Sameer Nene was less diplomatic. He pointed out that maybe they need to get “spoilt”:

If possible, the kid should get to explore the culture on his/her own. This is important from a development standpoint – how to judge what right is or wrong or okay to do etc etc. You don’t want them to look at the world through your prism – they’ve already done that until they leave home.

Dhananjay Nene points out an interesting in-between possibility:

There are other intermediate choices as well eg. FLAME or Ashoka

This is absolutely right. These are Liberal Arts programmes, which give you almost as much flexibility as US colleges in choosing your field of study and what else you learn during your degree, focus on getting high quality faculty, and have modeled their teaching and evaluation systems around those in the US. You don’t get all the benefits of being in the US (e.g. exposure to a different culture, work ethic, students from all over the world, etc.), but still, for many students (parents), they provide a choice that is not as expensive as, and not as scary as going to the US.

In addition, Pune also has SSLA which might not be in the same league as FLAME and Ashoka, but is still pretty good in my opinion, and worth checking out if you can’t afford or get into the others.

There were a couple of interesting tangents that also got discussed:

Neeran Karnik asked:

how different is it from a small-town or rural kid going to one of the IITs in a big city?

This is actually sort of true. I do know relatives in villages who wouldn’t send their kid to Bombay for the same reasons that we might not send our kid to the US.

And Vijay Bodele wondered:

If Indian kids are not able to mature at 17, who’s fault it is?

This is an extremely interesting question, with lots of interesting possible answers. Maybe we’ll leave that for a future blog post.

Also, my friend Kathryn Chomsky from Spain jumped into the discussion to point out:

My 12 year old son just came back from a year abroad in Wisconsin (living with my parents and going to school). He absolutely loved it and has matured in many ways. Apart from improving his English, I think he is now truly bicultural and has so much more self-confindence and autonomy. In Spain classes tend to be overly theoretical and exams focus on memorizing loads of material. In the states he particpated in chess, Lego Mindstorm competitions, sports and learned how to do research and give formal presentations in class. We think it’s been a positive experience all around.

So, it appears that it’s not just Indians who have these issues.

So anyway, read the full post and all the comments, I’m sure you’ll find it worth your time.

What is so ‘scientific’ about Sanskrit? #SeriousQuestion

@zeusisdead posted this query on twitter, and that finally prompted me collate all the material I could find on this topic; because this topic has bothered me for a long time.

“Sanskrit is the ideal language for computer science” is a view that is so widespread in India, that my mother, who is 70, and knows little about Sanskrit, and even less about computer science, passionately believes this, and I can’t convince her otherwise. Indians are in love with the concept that things invented in India 2000 years ago are still better than the best that the western world can throw at us today.

A broader question is the one that ZeusIsDead asked: what is so ‘scientific’ about Sanskrit?

As far as I can tell, there are two interesting aspects to Sanskrit:

  • Sanskrit is the first language to have a formal grammar defined; and there is evidence that Pāṇini’s work in this area influenced modern linguists like de Saussure and Chomsky. (And oh, Devanagari is awesome)
  • One guy in NASA in the 80s tried to push Sanskrit as an ideal language for Artificial Intelligence applications; he was neither able to convince the AI community of this, nor was he able to make much headway in this himself. This approach is largely dead, but Indian media and the ancient-Indians-were-the-best crowd did not get the memo.

In short: Pāṇini’s Grammar for Sanskrit was a phenomenal work that probably influenced modern linguists, but it is not particularly useful in Computer Science.

Influence of Sanskrit on Modern Linguistics

From the Wikipedia page on Pāṇini:

Pāṇini’s work became known in 19th-century Europe, where it influenced modern linguistics initially through Franz Bopp, who mainly looked at Pāṇini. Subsequently, a wider body of work influenced Sanskrit scholars such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield, and Roman Jakobson. Frits Staal (1930-2012) discussed the impact of Indian ideas on language in Europe. After outlining the various aspects of the contact, Staal notes that the idea of formal rules in language – proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure in 1894 and developed by Noam Chomsky in 1957 – has origins in the European exposure to the formal rules of Pāṇinian grammar

How exactly did this influence modern linguists?

In particular, de Saussure, who lectured on Sanskrit for three decades, may have been influenced by Pāṇini and Bhartrihari; his idea of the unity of signifier-signified in the sign somewhat resembles the notion of Sphoṭa. More importantly, the very idea that formal rules can be applied to areas outside of logic or mathematics may itself have been catalyzed by Europe’s contact with the work of Sanskrit grammarians

Here, an important connection to computer science also can be seen:

Pāṇini’s grammar is the world’s first formal system, developed well before the 19th century innovations of Gottlob Frege and the subsequent development of mathematical logic. In designing his grammar, Pāṇini used the method of “auxiliary symbols”, in which new affixes are designated to mark syntactic categories and the control of grammatical derivations. This technique, rediscovered by the logician Emil Post, became a standard method in the design of computer programming languages. Sanskritists now accept that Pāṇini’s linguistic apparatus is well-described as an “applied” Post system. Considerable evidence shows ancient mastery of context-sensitive grammars, and a general ability to solve many complex problems. Frits Staal has written that “Pāṇini is the Indian Euclid.”

Sanskrit as an ideal language for AI applications

In 1985, Rick Briggs wrote a paper for the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence titled Knowledge Representation in Sanskrit and Artificial Intelligence. At that time, AI researchers were focused on trying to construct artificial languages that could be used in AI so that computers would not have to deal with the ambiguities of real languages. Briggs argued that instead of constructing artificial languages, we could simply use a highly structured language like Sanskrit.

Here is what he wrote in the abstract:

In the past twenty years, much time, effort, and money has been expended on designing an unambiguous representation of natural languages to make them accessible to computer processing. These efforts have centered around creating schemata designed to parallel logical relations with relations expressed by the syntax and semantics of natural languages, which are clearly cumbersome and ambiguous in their function as vehicles for the transmission of logical data. Understandably, there is a widespread belief that natural languages are unsuitable for the transmission of many ideas that artificial languages can render with great precision and mathematical rigor.

But this dichotomy, which has served as a premise underlying much work in the areas of linguistics and artificial intelligence, is a false one. There is at least one language, Sanskrit, which for the duration of almost 1,000 years was a living spoken language with a considerable literature of its own. Besides works of literary value, there was a long philosophical and grammatical tradition that has continued to exist with undiminished vigor until the present century. Among the accomplishments of the grammarians can be reckoned a method for paraphrasing Sanskrit in a manner that is identical not only in essence but in form with current work in Artificial Intelligence. This article demonstrates that a natural language can serve as an artificial language also, and that much work in AI has been reinventing a wheel millenia old.

The fact that someone from NASA (NASA!!!!) wrote this, and he claimed that Sanskrit is better than the efforts of modern researchers, gave the ancient-India-was-awesome crowd, and Indian media a collective orgasm. The web is full of people claiming that Sanskrit is the ideal language for computers, and if you follow the trail of references, all roads lead to this one paper by Briggs. (It is important to note that NASA itself has no official position on this; also, random rumors on the web about some “Mission Sanskrit” by NASA are hoaxes.)

Unfortunately for Briggs and for Sanskrit, this effort never did pan out. Looking at modern AI and natural language processing research, one is hard pressed to find any papers that reference Sanskrit in anything other than simple translation of Sanskrit or other Indian languages.

Vague Ramblings from the Internet

There’s this speech by Justice Markandey Katju titled “Sanskrit as a Language of Science. It rambles on for pages, but makes only two semi-relevant points:

  • [Sanskrit] enabled scientific ideas to be expressed with great precision, logic and elegance.
    • This is just proof by assertion. There is no real support provided for this statement.
    • Also, this is in direct contradiction to another article by a Sanskrit lover which claims that one of the great attributes of Sanskrit is that the same sentence can have two or more completely different meanings. (Scroll down on that page to “Sanskrit is a Context based Language”, and the next section.)
  • The alphabet of Sanskrit is arranged in a very logical and scientific manner.
    • This is certainly true. I’ve blogged about it here.
    • While this fact is pretty cool, it has no relation to the use of Sanskrit as a Language of Science

The rest of the article rambles on about ancient Indian philosophy, and the achievements of our ancestors in the fields of Science and Maths and Astronomy and Medicine and Engineering – all of this, while being interesting and impressive, does not really throw any light on the topic being discussed.

Overall, the internet is full of articles like this and this which go on for pages describing the various interesting features of Sanskrit. And people somehow list this as proof that Sanskrit is the ideal language for Science. A careful reading of the articles usually shows that there is no connection between the various cool features of Sanskrit and its suitability for Science.

Many people also point out that European languages are derived from Sanskrit. That is slightly inaccurate. Linguists have hypothesised the existence of a language called Proto Indo European which is the common ancestor of Sanskrit and most European languages. In any case, that has nothing to do with Sanskrit’s suitability for Science.

The best comment I got was this:

Vedas are in Sanskrit and Vedas are eternal. Hence, Sanskrit is the oldest language.

Sadly, that is the level of 90% of the discourse on this topic on the internet.

Follow-up Reading

Antariksh Bothale, who studies Computational Linguistics at the University of Washington, Seattle has this interesting answer to the question “Is Sanskrit over-rated as a language in India”. Lots of good nuggets of information.

Also, if you don’t know how awesome the Devanagari script is, check this out


In short, one guy thought Sanskrit might be a good language for AI applications, but that turned out to be a dead end. Sorry.

But, Pāṇini rocked!

Note: I am not an expert in this field, and this is just information I’ve collected from the internet. So if anyone is able to uncover any additional information, or even information that contradicts what I’ve said, please leave comments below. I’d love to be mistaken on this point.

Update: There are lots of comments below – some agreeing with me, and some disagreeing. None of the disagreeing comments have caused me to change my mind – so I’m sticking with my opinions above. Read on below if you want to see the alternative viewpoints.

How India defeated Polio

A blog on the New York Times has an interesting article on how India eradicated polio which makes for interesting reading.

The method in which India went about getting 95% coverage for the polio vaccine is impressive, and can serve as a blueprint for other campaigns and other countries.

Multiple agencies – governmental and non-governmental – worked together, with well defined distinct roles to make this happen:

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative began in 1988 as a huge partnership among Unicef, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Rotary International. Each organization took on a different job and this continues today as the focus broadens from just polio to all routine immunizations. Unicef handles communications, makes posters and banners, and ensures that the “word” spreads about the campaign, even if it’s through old-school techniques like hauling loudspeakers on a rickshaw through the city center.

The W.H.O. is the data machine, responsible for tracking the virus, collecting stool samples of possible cases and studying the data for any gaps. Rotary International has a Delhi-based team, the National PolioPlus Office, with regional and city-level tentacles to execute polio vaccinations four times a year during National Immunization Days (more days for high-risk areas). Globally, Rotary has been the cheerleader of the campaign, raising funds and keeping the issue in the spotlight.

And it needed a lot of very low level, very localized effort to ensure that nobody got missed:

Health workers, usually women, stand at the booths for eight hours to ensure that every child in the neighborhood is vaccinated. The vaccinated children are marked on the nail of their pinky with black ink. The following day, the health workers search for missed children by going door-to-door, carrying the vaccine in an icebox.

Just having people going around running the vaccination booths is not good enough. The system does not work unless there is measurement that completes the feedback loop, identifies gaps, and fixes them.

The government had elaborate machinery to do this:

Dr. Vishwakarma’s job is tiring, illustrating the depth and breadth of the polio surveillance effort. Based in Agra, he travels daily across Western Uttar Pradesh; he monitors 12 districts of the state, which cover a distance of about 125 miles from Delhi to Agra. His days begin at 5 a.m. and he retires at 10 p.m., after endless cups of tea with local officials, shadowing health workers, combing through stacks of data and overseeing surveillance efforts at regional offices.

“I cannot miss any details,” he says. “That’s where the solution lies. That’s why I’m constantly on the move.”

Overall, missing a single person would result in the whole campaign being set back by years:

The philosophy for the polio campaign was, Dr. Bahl says, “Who have we missed? Why have we missed them? Why did they not take the vaccine? And we constantly looked at the data to help us.”

In a country the size of India, just getting the message across to everybody, without it getting twisted in the process, was a big job with unique challenges. Here is one example:

Communication — Unicef’s job — is the last key pillar of the polio campaign. It goes beyond just fliers, banners and announcements. Previously, when Muslim communities refused the vaccine — on the grounds that the vaccine was designed to make their children sterile — communication became critical. “At the local level, we had to work with the ulema [Muslim clerics], to correct this message,” said Dr. Bahl. By collaborating with local leaders, Unicef found a new venue to preach the message of good health: the mosque. And it was the health workers who took that message further, by carrying letters, written and signed by local Muslim clerics, urging families to have their children inoculated.

Where do we go from here? India is getting ready to use this success and go after the next big challenge – routine child immunizations.

India’s routine immunization rates — for measles, rubella hepatitis B, TB and the like — were last recorded in 2009 at 61 percent nationally. India accounts for a third of the world’s measles deaths. Public health is dismal, and India’s per-capita spending on health care is among the lowest in the world. Yet with polio, India achieved 95 percent coverage.
The success of India’s polio effort has turned it into a blueprint for large-scale health campaigns. Now India is using what it did with polio to boost rates of routine vaccinations.

Read the full article