India debates medium of instruction for kids in school

Children walking to attend a class of pre-recorded lessons after schools were closed following the coronavirus outbreak, in Dandwal village in the western state of Maharashtra, India, on July 23, 2020.
Children walking to attend a class of pre-recorded lessons after schools were closed following the coronavirus outbreak, in Dandwal village in the western state of Maharashtra, India, on July 23, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - As India overhauls its education policy after more than three decades, heated debates have erupted over the language in which students will be taught in their early years of schooling.

The National Education Policy (NEP) of 2020, which was approved last month, recommends that "wherever possible," children should be taught in the mother tongue or local/regional language until at least Grade 5 and preferably till Grade 8 in elementary school.

The language choice is based on several studies that said children learn better when taught in the mother tongue or the language in which they think, said educationist Leena Chandran Wadia, who worked on the draft policy.

"If a child is thinking in a language (regional or local)... they are more creative (when taught in that language). If they have fluency, they develop better and will be able to learn science or other subjects in that language. What this policy has done is to say that states should be open to allowing government schools to teach in multiple languages. There is no compulsion to study a certain language," said Ms Wadia, senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai.

"Because of the focus on education in English, what is happening today is that students are not developing foundational literacy and numerical skills. And then they are piled on with more material in English and as a result kids (mainly from government schools and poorer backgrounds) were starting to drop out," she said.

But the proposed language change has triggered intense debates, dividing the country between those who support English language education and those who believe Indian languages are being neglected.

In India, English-medium education is seen to be aspirational, popularly sought after by most parents, including the poorest.

But English critics call the focus on English a colonial hangover and maintain that it is a disadvantage for children from smaller villages and smaller cities, where quality of English language teaching is poor and language fluency is a challenge.

Nationalists go as far as to call English the language of the liberal elite, used to discriminate against those who are not fluent in English.

Among those who support Indian languages is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist social outfit which is the ideological backbone of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Those in favour of English said the language has given Indian children an edge in an era of globalisation, citing the Chinese emphasis on teaching English, and believe the thrust on Indian languages mirrors a rise in nationalistic tendencies.


"English is the international lingua franca. India is unity in diversity. We have so many languages. Unofficially we have hundreds of languages. English language unites us," said Dr Boora Narsaiah Goud, a former MP from the southern state of Telengana.

"If children are exposed to English at a later stage, there will be discontinuity. We can't go by the feeling of patriotism in education."

India is a country of hundreds of languages and dialects divided along linguistic lines.

The Indian Constitution recognises 22 major languages, including Hindi - a popular medium of instruction in northern and central India.

Still, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, there is also political opposition to the NEP recommendation that three languages, instead of two, should be taught in early years.

Two of the three languages have to be Indian, triggering concern that this will result in more widespread teaching of Hindi in Tamil Nadu, where Hindi is considered a northern Indian language, and dilute the importance of Tamil.

"Tamil Nadu will never allow the (federal government's ) three-language policy. The state will continue with its dual language policy (of Tamil and English)," said Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami.


But the language debate is seen to be detracting from the real challenge facing the Indian education system: the quality of teachers.

The NEP proposed many changes beyond language, including pushing a more application-based education by introducing vocational streams with internships from Grade 6 to doing away with the rigid separation between science and humanities.

"In principle, this (NEP language policy) is a good move. However, in practice, there are very few well-enough trained teachers that can carry out the task. This has to do with the general neglect of the teaching profession in India," said Professor Sanjay Srivastava, a sociologist at the Institute of Economic Growth.

"The first task should be better teacher training and conditions of work."