Strategies to implement multilingual education in India

Despite the importance given to multilingual education, it is not easy to implement. Here are a few strategies that may help

Published - March 10, 2024 09:59 am IST

Multilingualism is not merely an educational endeavour; it is a commitment to inclusivity and diversity. 

Multilingualism is not merely an educational endeavour; it is a commitment to inclusivity and diversity.  | Photo Credit: Freepik

India, with its rich cultural diversity, has 22 Scheduled Languages and 19,500 other active languages, each with its own unique cultural value. This multilingual culture is central to India’s education system and resonates in classrooms where students navigate learning and studying, often in two different languages. Embracing multilingualism in education fosters inclusivity, offering profound learning experiences for all.

Scholar David Graddol expands the essence of multilingualism beyond language learning. He sees it as a cognitive asset, empowering individuals to thrive in a globally interconnected world and highlights its role in enhancing cognitive flexibility, creativity, and problem-solving, emphasising how multilingualism cultivates critical skills. Research consistently illustrates its cognitive benefits, showing that proficient multilinguals have better memory, attention, multitasking abilities, and skills such as critical thinking and decision-making.

Due to its perceived economic value, the demand for English language is expanding in India. Future of English: Global Perspectives, a recent research publication, stresses that while English will continue to be a global lingua franca; in India, the focus will rightly be on local languages as a medium of instruction, especially at primary level, and English will be taught as a subject. The introduction of English, taught as a subject alongside the child’s mother tongue, can enable children to learn and grasp the language better.

This is also reflected in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, which acknowledges the importance of local languages and their role in providing a more holistic and effective learning experience, especially in the early years. The NEP has placed multilingualism at the heart of its vision for inclusive education by advocating for a multilingual curriculum that incorporates mother tongue instruction, English, and other foreign languages.

This is a direct response to the growing recognition of the importance of language in education. Language is not merely a means of communication; it is a tool for thought and a lens through which we perceive and understand the world around us. By promoting multilingualism, the NEP seeks to empower students to develop a deeper understanding of diverse cultures, foster a stronger appreciation of their linguistic heritage, and acquire the skills necessary to thrive in an increasingly globalised world.

While its benefits are profound, the implementation of a multilingual approach in Indian classrooms is not without its challenges. The sheer diversity of languages spoken across the country, coupled with the varying levels of proficiency among students, poses a significant hurdle. Furthermore, balancing the use of languages in classrooms and ensuring standardisation of teaching across linguistic variations present challenges that demand innovative solutions. To effectively implement a multilingual approach in Indian classrooms, several strategies can be adopted:

Research: There is little evidence in terms of longitudinal research available that can inform robust strategies to implement multilingual practices in a highly multilingual country like India. There is a significant opportunity for sector experts, educators, linguists to collaborate with government and policymakers to enable such research. This can also contribute to the development of effective policies that support multilingual education initiatives.

Teaching material: The creation of quality resources such as textbooks, supplementary material and digital resources tailored to the specific linguistic needs is crucial to support effective instruction.

Teacher training: Training programmes — whether pre- or in-service — should emphasise multilingual pedagogy and equip teachers with the necessary skills such as developing proficiency in multiple languages including English, understanding the principles of multilingual instruction, and employing effective teaching strategies.

Assessment: Developing standardised assessment tools that evaluate students’ proficiency across multiple languages to ensure fairness and equity is important.

Community engagement: Involving parents and the wider community in supporting multilingual education initiatives can foster a supportive learning environment and promote linguistic diversity.

Embracing multilingualism is not merely an educational endeavour; it is a commitment to inclusivity and diversity. By empowering students with the linguistic tools to navigate their multilingual world, India’s education system can foster a generation of individuals who are not only academically proficient but also culturally enriched and globally competent.

The writer is Head of English Programmes India, British Council.

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