The Language of Learning

The Language of Learning

How will India's landmark reforms to education be impacted by debates around language?

Article by Michael Mander

Education in India is on the cusp of enormous reform, after the National Education Policy was approved by the Union Cabinet in July 2020. 

Among sweeping reforms proposed, the policy will allow foreign universities to open campuses in India, plans to merge colleges to form larger Higher Education Institutions, as well as a shift to a more multidisciplinary undergraduate education

The NEP has mostly had a warm reception, but one area that has caused some controversy has been policies on language and education. An early draft of the policy contained a proposal to make Hindi mandatory in schools – a proposal which was quickly dropped. 

There are over 100 languages spoken in India. While a thin majority of the population speaks Hindi, there is no agreed ‘lingua franca’. The ruling party of India, the BJP, has frequently advocated for a Hindi-first approach, but attempts to rally this policy have been met with anger from the south of India where Hindi is not as widely spoken. 

The final draft of the NEP was clear on language: children should be taught in their mother tongue (usually their local language) until Grade 5 (age 10) – but preferably until Grade 8 (age 14). But the Chairperson of the policy’s drafting panel was clear: “no language is being imposed” and schools and families will still be able to choose what language they teach and are taught in. 

The NEP also advocates for a greater number of universities that teach in local languages.

The debate around a national language in India has a long history. And it’s incredibly complicated: language is a signifier of cultural and personal identity, the use of English has roots in the atrocities of colonialism, and the data on multilingualism in education has mixed findings

The great debate

Professor Shobha Satyanath is the Head of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Delhi. As many of the debates around language in India re-emerge, she has just begun teaching a new course on ‘Multilingualism and language policy in India’. Professor Satyanath spoke to Global Perspectives about the language of learning in India and the political and linguistic ramifications of the National Education Policy 2020.

“There are two lobbies in the debate,” explained Professor Satyanath. “On the one hand, we find those that are pro-mother tongue. They could be asking for state official languages to be introduced as the medium of instruction, or literally introduce the student’s mother-tongue as the medium of instruction which would be very difficult to implement due to the large number of languages.

“Those that support this view look to the fact that early education in the mother tongue is good for overall cognitive growth, conceptual development and critical thinking. 

“Then, there are those that are pro-English. They point to the fact that choices for language education are limited as you go up in education, and that English has more advantages as far as international businesses and opportunities are concerned.” 

Writing in Bloomberg, the columnist Mihir Sharma echoed this point. “For today’s young Indians — and, indeed, for their parents — the ability to communicate in English is seen as the key to attaining a set of globalized skills that transcend the circumstances of one’s birth.” 

But this view is not universally accepted. “This simple-minded link between job opportunities, economic success and the English language has an increasing number of urban working class and lower middle-class parents investing their hard-earned money in private English-medium schooling— often of uncertain quality,” writes the journalist Anjali Mody in Quartz India

She goes on: “across the world, and in India, there is a consensus among educators, educationists and linguists that children learn most effectively in their mother tongues.”

Research from UNESCO shows numerous benefits of mother-tongue education, particularly from an early age: children are more likely to succeed when they are taught in their native language. 

Language and attainment

But Professor Satyanath points to other factors that are far more relevant than language in determining student success. “The research has shown that, far more than language, it is the local socioeconomic factors that have a greater role to play as far as education achievement is concerned in certain parts of India.

“So these debates actually hardly matter. They come up once in a while, but they actually hardly matter because the ground realities are quite different.”

At a university level, most instruction happens in English. “But that doesn’t mean that outside the classroom Hindi cannot come in, or if somebody wants to ask a question in Hindi that is not tolerated,” explained Professor Satyanath. “While classrooms are still dominated by English, it’s okay to switch after the lecture is over or in between.

india flag

“Though online content in Indian languages is growing, teaching in local languages requires translatability across languages, transferring knowledge from one language into many other languages. But technology could make changes there.” 

National language as a threat

There are concerns from some that the promotion of a national language will endanger local languages. 220 languages have gone ‘extinct’ in the last 50 years. A significant number are classed as endangered.

“There have been a lot of noises about the threat to Indian languages because of English, but that really hasn’t happened,” said Professor Satyanath. “In fact, we have seen a boom in local languages across numerous sectors: entertainment, travel, hospitality. If you take any industry, the market share of the Indian languages has actually gone up several folds.

“The whole idea of a multilingual set-up is that diversity is not held together by a single language as is the case with many Western European nations. 

“To give you an example, I send my students to fast-food joints to survey the languages being used. Now, what they find is that the server will take your order first in English. The customer places their order in English – but this is where the role of English ends. The server will then scream out the order in Hindi, or in a local language. The guests will settle down at their table and leave English behind, and switch over to the local languages. 

“It’s easy to make people believe that they are losing their languages. You can sell a story by telling it in a very compelling manner. But really, languages are not being lost in India – and they are definitely not being pushed out by English or Hindi.” 

Above all, experts agree this debate is widely overhyped. 

In reality, there is no binary choice. The best outcome, it is widely agreed, is to promote multilingualism in schools and universities, align the language with instruction with the language spoken at home, and teach in – what Dr Rukmini Banerji, CEO of the Pratham Education Foundation calls – “the playground language,” the language that children use to communicate with each other. 

As Professor Satyanath concluded: “The media is interested in stories that are juicy, and they tend to speak to people with a strong view rather than the experts. That gives the impression that there is controversy and only controversy going on. But, at the end of the day, these debates are often just noises that are inconsequential. The language policy in India has always been in favour of multilingualism.”

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