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English or mother tongue in Indian education?

Chryselle D’Silva Dias investigates India’s complex medium of instruction policy

In a bid to boost higher education in India, the recently introduced New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 recommends teaching in the mother tongue rather than English.

In an article for the Hindustan Times, Union Minister of Education Ramesh Pokhriyal said, “It is time we focused on the use of the mother tongue or regional language as a medium of instruction in higher education.”

With hundreds of languages being spoken at home and in local communities, the push for education in the mother tongue (instead of English or Hindi) has been ongoing for decades. But add in complex regional identities, the desire to learn English for employment opportunities and liberation from caste-based restrictions, and you have a conundrum that still hasn’t been resolved.

In 1968, the Indian government recommended a three-language education policy, bringing together Hindi, English and a regional language. The 2020 edition of the education policy also promotes the three-language formula for schools, where two must be regional languages and English is not to be considered as one.

This is not without controversy. The southern state of Tamil Nadu still refuses to allow the introduction of Hindi in education or governance, preferring to stick to their decades-old policy of having only Tamil and English as the state’s official languages. Other non-Hindi speaking states have also objected to the new policy.

“The new guidelines for medium of instruction have been met with both 
cautious jubilation and open scepticisme”

Mr Pokhriyal recently tweeted that, from 2021, competitive examinations such as JEE (Joint Entrance Exams) for engineering and other courses will be conducted in regional languages, along with English. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had earlier pointed out that top-scoring countries in the PISA tests use the mother tongue as the medium of instruction.

From 2024, however, the PISA tests will include an optional English assessment which might have a different kind of impact on test scores. India has stayed out of PISA, stating that there was a socio-cultural disconnect between the questions and Indian students, but plans to rejoin in 2021. The World Bank will be supporting the process in the country.

While the government seems to be embracing PISA wholeheartedly, the new guidelines for medium of instruction have been met with both cautious jubilation and open scepticism.

“The reason for such optimism is that India’s language policy has consistently privileged those with proficiency in English (and occasionally those with proficiency in Hindi) over those with mother tongue/regional language proficiency,” says Dr Deepesh Chandrasekharan, a veteran professor of English, and researcher of language policy and teaching in disadvantaged contexts.

Dr Chandrasekharan sees the inclusion of Indian languages in examinations such as JEE as a positive step. “When we do this, students who are academically bright, but not proficient enough in English, can gain admission to the elite institutions in a giant step of democratization,” he says.

The NEP’s guidelines for teaching in the mother tongue are, however, not mandatory. Educational institutions will have the option of teaching in English or the mother tongue. This comes as a relief to institutions with students from different backgrounds who may speak multiple languages at home.

“If the higher education institutions are to continue to teach and promote research exclusively or primarily in English, students from English-deficient backgrounds who may gain admission next year need to be supported with ample scaffolding to improve their English language capabilities,” cautions Dr Chandrasekharan.

“In the absence of this support, the act of including Indian languages will be seen merely as political tokenism, much like the language policy itself, which has been without much impact on the ground. This is owing to the fact that education is mostly a state- related subject and the politics of language governs the decision making more than the stated national policy.”

The Indian government has just announced that the JEE-Main exams (for admission to National Institutes of Technology [NITs] and engineering and architecture courses) will now be held four times a year, as opposed to the current two times. While more students may be able to access the exams each year, the impact of the implementation of the mother tongue policy for the exams remains to be seen.

How many languages are spoken in India?

  • Indian has no national language.
  • Hindi and English are the two official languages.
  • The Indian Constitution also recognises 22 scheduled languages, which are widely used across specific regions of the country.
  • To complicate matters further, India also acknowledges the concept of ‘mother tongue’ to identify local languages and dialects. The census of 2011 identifies 1,369 mother tongues spoken in the country.

Chryselle D’Silva Dias is a freelance writer and journalist currently based in Goa, India.

Images courtesy of SHUTTERSTOCK and Library
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Chryselle D'Silva Dias
Chryselle D'Silva Dias
Chryselle D’Silva Dias is a widely published independent journalist based in India. Visit her website at www.chryselle.net.
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