A language ladder for an education roadblock

Every great change starts with a revolutionary step. The recent decision of 14 engineering colleges across eight States to offer courses in regional languages in select branches from the new academic year marks a historic moment in the academic landscape of the country on which rests the future of succeeding generations.

Showing the way

On a parallel note, the decision of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), to permit B. Tech programmes in 11 native languages in tune with the New Education Policy (NEP), is a momentous one. This monumental move opens the door to a whole world of opportunities — to students of B.Tech courses, in Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Gujarati, Malayalam, Bengali, Assamese, Punjabi and Odia.


The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in his address marking the first anniversary of the National Education Policy (NEP), hailed the move and pointed out that the NEP’s emphasis on the mother tongue as the medium of instruction will instil confidence in students from poor, rural and tribal backgrounds. Importantly, he added that even in elementary education, the mother tongue is being promoted and referred to one of the key drivers in this regard — the Vidya Pravesh programme launched on the occasion.

These remarkable steps should be welcomed and scaled up over the next few years to ensure that the dreams of millions of students seeking to pursue professional courses in their mother tongue are realised.

Interestingly, in a survey conducted by the AICTE in February this year, of over 83,000 students, nearly 44% students voted in favour of studying engineering in their mother tongue, underscoring a critical need in technical education.

Also read | Two colleges apply to AICTE to offer engineering programmes in Tamil

The progressive and visionary NEP 2020 champions education in one’s mother tongue right from the primary school level — improving the learning outcomes of the child and the development of his/her cognitive faculties hinge upon this.

Multiple studies have proved that children who learn in their mother tongue in their early, formative years perform better than those taught in an alien language. UNESCO and other organisations have been laying emphasis on the fact that learning in the mother tongue is germane to building self-esteem and self-identity, as also the overall development of the child. Unfortunately, some educators and parents still accord unquestioned primacy to English, and resultantly, the child’s mother tongue ends up as their ‘second/third language’ in schools.

There are bubbles now

It would be pertinent to recall the words of the great Indian physicist and Nobel Laureate, Sir C.V. Raman, who, demonstrating exemplary vision, observed, “We must teach science in our mother tongue. Otherwise science will become a highbrow activity. It will not be an activity in which all people can participate...” While our educational system has seen phenomenal growth to the extent that it offers courses of international repute in engineering, medicine, law and the humanities, we have, paradoxically, excluded our own people from accessing it. Over the years, we have ended up building academic roadblocks, impeding the progress of the vast majority of our students and remained content with creating a small bubble of English-medium universities and colleges, while our own languages languish when it comes to technical and professional courses.


Global practices

A cursory look at the global best practices in the medium of instruction at the level of higher education should inform us more on where we stand. Among the G20, most countries have state-of-the-art universities, with teaching being imparted in the dominant language of their people.

Take the Asian nations among them, for instance. In South Korea, nearly 70% of the universities teach in Korean, even as they aspire to play a role on the international stage. In a unique move, with the increasing craze for learning English among parents, the South Korean government, in 2018, banned the teaching of English prior to third grade in schools, since it appeared to slow pupils’ proficiency in Korean.

Similarly, in Japan, a majority of university programmes are taught in Japanese; in China too, universities use Mandarin as the medium of instruction. In Europe, France and Germany offer us great insights into how nations protect their languages. France went to the extent of having a strict ‘French-only’ policy as the medium of instruction in schools. In Germany, while the language of instruction in schools is predominantly German, even in tertiary education, more than 80% of all masters’ programmes are taught in German.


Canada showcases a sound approach to education, revealing a picture of a country with linguistic diversity. While English is the dominant medium of instruction in most provinces, in Quebec, a province with a majority French-speaking population, French is the medium of instruction in primary and secondary education in many schools, as also a number of universities.

In this global context, it is ironic that India has an overwhelming majority of professional courses being taught in English. In science, engineering, medicine and law, the situation is even bleaker, with native language courses being practically non-existent. Fortunately, we are now beginning to find our voice in our own languages.

Also read | Karnataka to offer professional courses in Kannada

How do we improve this grim situation? The NEP outlines the road map, demonstrating to us the means to protect our languages while improving the access and quality of our education. We must begin with imparting primary education (at least until Class 5) in the student’s mother tongue, gradually scaling it up. For professional courses, while the initiative of the 14 engineering colleges is commendable, we need more such efforts all across the country. Private universities must join hands and offer a few bilingual courses to begin with.

One of the biggest bottlenecks for more students to take up higher education in the native languages is the lack of high-quality textbooks, especially in technical courses, and this needs to be addressed urgently.

Build on these initiatives

In the digital age, technology can be suitably leveraged to increase accessibility of these Indian language courses to students in remote areas. Content in the digital learning ecosystem, still a nascent domain in our country, is greatly skewed towards English which excludes the vast majority of our children, and this has to be corrected.

A welcome development in this regard is the collaboration between the AICTE and IIT Madras to translate SWAYAM’s courses in eight regional languages such as Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali, Marathi, Malayalam and Gujarati. This will be a major boost for engineering students and help them transition more smoothly to an English-dominated curriculum in later years. We need more such tech-led initiatives to really democratise higher education.

Also read | Venkaiah Naidu for imparting modern education in traditional format

Not exclusivist

Laying the stress on instruction in the mother tongue is not exclusivist in nature — as I often say, one should learn as many languages as possible, but what is required is a strong foundation in the mother tongue. In other words, what I am advocating is not a ‘Mother tongue versus English’, but a ‘Mother tongue plus English’ approach. In today’s increasingly interconnected world, proficiency in different languages opens new vistas to a wider world.

Together, we must work to remove the sense of inferiority some of us display when it comes to speaking in our own languages. In the end, we must remember that if we neglect a language, not only do we lose a priceless body of knowledge but also risk depriving future generations of their cultural roots and precious social and linguistic heritage.

I hope more institutions will be encouraged and inspired in the coming years to offer courses in regional languages. India is a land of immeasurable talent. We must unlock the full potential of our youth, without letting their seeming inability to speak a foreign language impede their progress. It is against this backdrop that the decision of the 14 engineering colleges across eight States to offer courses in regional languages needs to be seen and appreciated.

M. Venkaiah Naidu is the Vice President of India

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 10:28:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-language-ladder-for-an-education-roadblock/article35732588.ece

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