The Politics of Language and India’s Draft National Education Policy, 2019
Language has always been an important part of Indian politics. Most of the regional states were formed on the basis of language, several new states might emerge because of language, identity politics surrounding language is often the favorite tool of our leaders to cash in on their vote banks, and the fear of domination of one language over another is a recurring political theme. That being the case, it is imperative that we pay a closer look at the language policy of any national government. The recently drafted National Education Policy (NEP), with its separate chapter named ‘Education in the local language/mother tongue; multilingualism and the power of language’ within the section ‘Curriculum and Pedagogy in Schools’ provides us a great opportunity to do the same for our current one. By regulating what children learn today, governments try to effectively control what adults think tomorrow.
As the name of the chapter suggests, there seems to be a rejuvenated focus towards the mother tongues of Indians, or the local Indian languages. The document elaborates how learning in the mother tongue has scientifically proven cognitive and pedagogical benefits and how instruction in the mother tongue ensures that large sections of children, who often don’t understand the medium of instruction, don’t fall behind. The document states ‘When possible, the medium of instruction – at least until Grade 5 but preferably till at least Grade 8 – will be the home language/mother tongue/local language.’ But a violation of principle occurs in the document itself, when it states ‘Teachers will be encouraged to use a bilingual approach, including bilingual teaching-learning materials, with those students whose home language may be different from the medium of instruction to ensure smoother transition from the home language to the medium of instruction.’ What it essentially means is that the linguistic minorities in states would often be denied the advocated cognitive and pedagogical benefits of being taught in the mother tongue, or the surety of not falling behind in their early schooldays. The more obvious problem, however, is the availability of enough quality textbooks in the local languages (we must remember that this plan is supposed to be followed by all schools- public or private), especially because the NEP says each school/school complex (another one of NEP’s grand and problematic ideas) would have the choice of selecting one textbook out of many, meaning that it is visualizing numerous quality textbooks available in each of the local languages. Though the NEP contains some vague plans regarding large scale translation of texts to be carried out by various agencies, serious doubts remain about its feasibility. There are more than 25 ‘mother tongues’ in India, many of which are unwritten, moreover, there are hundreds of dialects to be considered, which vary widely. In a country as diverse as India, how many mother tongues can the government take care of?
The chapter also wants all of Indians to become effectively multilingual at some point of time. It states ‘all students from pre-school and Grade 1 onwards will be exposed to three or more languages, with the aim of developing speaking proficiency and interaction, and the ability to recognize scripts and read basic text, in all three languages by Grade 3. In terms of writing, students will begin writing primarily in the medium of instruction until Grade 3, after which writing with additional scripts will also be introduced gradually.’ The document says that children have the ability to learn multiple languages when they are young, and that ability should be effectively exploited. The problem however, is the fact that proficiency in a language is a skill that is forgettable under circumstances like lack of practice, which raises doubts about the kind of proficiency that will be achieved by students in the languages which aren’t regular modes of instruction. The three-language formula is widespread in schools even now, but only very few would claim that it has led to widespread multilingualism. The document says that students will be provided with adequate choice with regard to the languages they want to learn, but where would each school/school complex get more than 25 different language teachers, and how much choice would be ultimately available remains valid questions. An interesting point to note is the fact that the drafters were well aware of the possible backlash from southern states, who would have many reasons to fear that circumstances would lead to the spread of Hindi education in the South. As a measure of safety, the document says, ‘However, it (the three-language formula) must be better implemented in certain States, particularly Hindi speaking States; for purposes of national integration, schools in Hindi speaking areas should also offer and teach Indian languages from other parts of India.’
But the clearest of all, is the NEP’s anti-English sentiments. It states ‘there has been an unfortunate trend in schools and society towards English as a medium of instruction and as a medium of conversation’, despite the expressive and scientific nature of Indian languages, and the feeling of ‘apnaapan’ associated with it. The document goes on to complain about the usage of English in India when other technologically advanced countries use their own mother tongues. It diagnoses the reason behind this as the fact that the economic elite of India has adopted English as their language, and it uses the language as an effective barrier against the masses to deny them the entry to their class. Since only about 15% of the Indian population speaks English and English has not become the international language as was expected in 1960s, the documents sees no point in continuing the practice. The argument that the English language has created an elitist class in India which isn’t inclusive enough, is acceptable, but it is difficult to understand why the drafters want to shun the language as a whole in order to break the class structure. Aren’t there other ways to stop the unjust discrimination? Can’t market forces be allowed to make English more prevalent among the masses as it is doing now instead? If ownership of property is what creates unwanted class differences, should we go for redistributing property among the people, or teach renunciation and mendicancy to all? It has to be accepted that the prevalence of English in India is an advantage. It allows us to communicate with 93 different countries (English is not exactly international but still very popular) which have English as their primary or secondary official language. It makes possible for the considerable percentage of the population who know English to be consumers of their media, ensuring a massive exchange of ideas and information. And surely these ideas and information percolates at least to some extent to the larger non-English speaking sections of the population too. Most of the world’s knowledge exists in English, firstly because most of information is created in countries which are English speaking and secondly because knowledge created in other languages often gets translated into English (the English-speaking countries being major consumers). Even the NEP implicitly or explicitly accepts on several occasions that the language of English is important, especially in the technical and scientific fields. Languages are essentially ideas and it is hard to understand how even after 250 years of living with it, and us creating our own versions of that idea, it has still remained something alien and foreign. The knowledge of English in India has created a pipeline for the country through which massive amounts of information flows into it, information which would cost much more if it had to be translated. Instead of abandoning this helpful pipeline, what we can do instead is ensure that it distributes the information more equitably.
We at Caucus believe that while promoting local Indian languages is important and essential, the benefits of English must be recognized. The NEP requires much more critical analysis before it is implemented and it has to be ensured that political ideologies do not affect the benefits of a vibrant education system.