The new National Education Policy lays emphasis on imparting teaching in mother tongue in primary classes. But when the language-base of Odisha’s adivasi communities is as diverse as 21 spoken languages further divided into 74 dialects, the task appears to be quite onerous.
However, Odisha’s decade-long experiment in multi-lingual education may come in handy to take up the challenge.
The ST and SC Development Department of the State government has already started working on project called ‘Samhati’ to address the language issues faced by tribal students in early grades or elementary classes. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute (SCSTRTI) along with the Academy of Tribal Language and Culture (ATLC), Bhubaneswar are implementing the project.
The department manages 1,732 residential educational institutions across the State. More than 4.5 lakh tribal and Scheduled Caste students from primary to secondary level with free lodging, 85 boarding facilities are managed by the department. Now under, Samhati, the department plans to cover approximately 2.5 lakh students in 1,450 primary schools in the State.
In addition, the School and Mass Education department also manages about 1,500 schools in 17 tribal dominated districts where students are taught in tribal languages. As many as 3,328 teachers and 222 language teachers are in place to impart teaching in tribal languages.
Of the 21 languages, Santhali — the only language which has been included in eighth schedule of Constitution — is taught in its own ol chiki script while rest of tribal languages have Odia scripts.
According to the Odisha School Education Programme Authority (OSEPA), more than 302 textbooks and 2,500 supplementary reading materials including story books and pictures charts in 21 tribal languages have been developed.
Although it is easy to prescribe mother tongue as medium of instruction up to Class V, it is very difficult to implement.
Odisha is home to 62 different tribal communities including 13 particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs), making it the State with the most diverse indigenous communities in the country.
“Since the ST and SC department runs residential schools, it enrolls students from all tribal communities in every school. These students are multi-lingual group unlike mono-lingual groups in regular schools. So it is not practically possible to recruit teachers for each tribal language in a single school,” said a researcher.
To address this critical issue, the Odisha government can ask teachers to achieve additional tribal language proficiency during their training period itself, said researchers.
Now, under Samhati, it has been decided that all teachers of primary level would be provided functional knowledge of tribal languages and way of communicating with tribal students. In the first phase, 1,000 teachers would be asked to obtain these language skills.
“The mother-tongue based education is a welcome step. A tribal student sees the world through his own language. The most important aspect of the mother-tongue based education is that it helps save endangered tribal language. If language is saved, the culture will be preserved automatically,” said Paramananda Patel, a tribal language researcher.
Mr. Patel said except three to four tribal languages in Odisha, all other tribal dialects could be termed as threatened. Some of tribal languages have less than 100 speakers left, he pointed out.
The SCSTRTI Director A.B. Ota said, “We have already prepared bilingual dictionaries in 21 languages and distributed them. Trilingual proficiency module which will help a person learn tribal languages has also been prepared.”
Experts have emphasised that before tribal languages are used as medium of instruction in primary schools, these languages need to be standardised.
For example, Saora language is spoken in four different regions with little variation. The Saora needs to be stanadardised for textbook preparation. Researchers opined that dialectical surveys should be carried out to finalise the language for textbook preparation.
Now, efforts are being made to develop textbooks in tribal languages in sync with the syllabus of State boards, government textbook norms and National Education Policy.
The SCSTRTI has proposed to set up an integrated language laboratory for carrying out research and address practical issues that may come up in implementing mother tongue-based education.