Should the mother tongue or English be the medium of instruction?

English should be taught effectively not as the medium, but as a second language

September 09, 2022 02:19 am | Updated September 20, 2022 10:15 am IST

Students in class in Erode in Tamil Nadu. File

Students in class in Erode in Tamil Nadu. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Over the years, there has been a raging debate over the need for children to have their mother tongue as the medium of instruction in schools. While educationists have emphasised the importance of learning in the mother tongue to enhance a child’s learning and overcome glaring inequities, there has been an equally steady demand for English-medium schools in several States. In a discussion moderated by  S. Poorvaja, V. Vasanthi Devi, an educationist and former Vice-Chancellor of the Manonmaniam Sundaranar University in Tamil Nadu, and Anita Rampal, Professor and former Dean, Faculty of Education, Delhi University, explain why and how the language policy can be reoriented. Edited excerpts:

Podcast | You can to this discussion in full here

Q / The National Education Policy (NEP), 2020 says the home language, mother tongue, local language, or regional language wherever possible should be the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8. What are your thoughts on this?

A / Vasanthi Devi: The only component of the NEP I approve of is this meek suggestion that the mother tongue of the child should be the medium of learning. I call it meek because there seems to be no will to enforce it. This is in the context of the NEP’s overall philosophy of the privatisation of education and marketisation with no regulatory control to the state. I think there is an almost-complete consensus among educationists, linguistic experts and psychologists that the mother tongue, or the language of the region where the child lives, is the only appropriate language of learning for the child. A child can be taught any number of languages, particularly later in life, but the medium of learning should be the mother tongue. A number of classrooms today are stalked by the curse of incomprehension. There are a growing number of schools, mostly private, that teach in English. Government schools too in States like Tamil Nadu, unable to bear the pressure from parents and to stop students from migrating to private schools, are switching to English medium.

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A / Anita Rampal: I have been saying for a long time that we don’t have a language policy. We take ad hoc decisions. The three-language formula also doesn’t look too much at the pedagogical aspects. It’s important to have a well understood, pedagogically considered language policy.

A / I agree with what Prof. Vasanthi said about the NEP. I also find it problematic and cannot endorse most of its thrust. But I want to specify that the regional language itself can be problematic. The mother tongue, home language or the first language educationally means the language which the child is using to connect to the world, to people, to nature, to the environment, and to make sense of everything that’s going on. This is the language which helps the child to build, grow and develop in every way. Children may learn to speak if they are immersed in a certain environment, or they are communicating with friends. But reading and writing are different from learning to speak, understand, listen, or think in, and the first language they learn to read and write in is critical. These aspects of child development are important to understand pedagogically.

A / If we have to talk of learning to read and write, the first language should be the language of the home, the language in which the child is communicating and interacting with the world around her. A lot of research across the world indicates this. As Prof. Vasanthi said, it’s the language of learning, not the medium of instruction. We don’t want any classroom to be based on instruction, which is a very didactic, authoritative term; it should instead be interactive, and a transaction.

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A / In many places in our country, there are bilingual and multilingual classrooms. In Jharkhand, the state might say Hindi is the language, but 50%-60% of children don’t speak the language. We must look at the first language or the languages which children bring to the classroom, their first languages, and that is how we design, develop an interaction. The pedagogy is very different for the first language as compared to the second language. Our system, however, treats language as a subject. This is a tragedy. We have to understand that teachers will also use different pedagogies when they are dealing with a second language or a third language, when we come to English. But this is often a political decision. And all our States are taking these decisions, violating what should be the right of a child.

Q / Prof. Vasanthi, you mentioned Tamil Nadu specifically and the switch that is happening to English-medium schools. Could you elaborate on this?

A / Vasanthi Devi: I will talk about not only Tamil Nadu, but English becoming the medium of learning all over the country. Tamil Nadu was one of the earliest States to start English-medium learning in a very big way. English-medium education is a profound tragedy in Indian education today. Millions are languishing because of their inability to learn in English — not English as a language but as a medium through which they acquire any knowledge of any subject. English is their dream and their despair. And these are children who belong to the vast majority of the Indian population except those at the very top of the class and caste social pyramid. It is only for those who are at the top that English has become almost a home language.

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A / Why is this happening? India has constructed an education system that is among the most exclusionary in the world. The impulse behind this is excluding the vast majority from all opportunities except the lowest and the least-paying jobs. Every component of education, curriculum, testing and certifying methods, each and every rule of the game is crafted for fulfilling this class purpose.

A / I’m not saying that 80% of the Indian population must be denied access to a global language that will open up opportunities. I’m only opposing English as the medium. But as a second language, English must be taught effectively, and that is the way the entire non-English speaking world is also learning it today. And that is the way it was taught in India till the 1980s and 1990s.

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A / Anita Rampal: There are political forces, especially Dalit groups, who insist that English has been the language of liberation for them. They look at it like that because of the denial and the deprivation of Dalits in the education system, and that’s important to acknowledge. The pedagogical aspect of a child learning a second language is much better if the proficiency and confidence in the first language is established in the first four-five years. The first language is the language that you speak and think in, and if you learn to read and write and understand the world through that language, that is what gives you the proficiency and confidence to be able to read and write a second language which can be the state language, and a third language which should be English. Our focus should be on children’s learning. But we need a lot of public opinion to be shaped and negotiated with.

A / Vasanthi Devi: As Anita said, public opinion is important. If you ask a poor mother from a distant village, she will want English as the medium. How did this opinion build up? This is the clue to why there is such a craze for English as the medium of learning among those who can never succeed in English as the medium. This is a reason why the Tamil Nadu government has introduced English as the medium of learning in many government schools. In our society, whatever has benefited the upper class and castes is taken as the path through which they also advance. A powerful process of manipulation of the mind, of public opinion has been working.

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A / Anita Rampal: In Kerala, they acknowledged that the kind of classicised Malayalam that was being used in classrooms was not every child’s Malayalam, and the language in the north is different from that of southern Kerala. So, they changed the language curriculum, making it more inclusive for all children. This happened with Hindi when we were working in Madhya Pradesh too. It was a very Sanskritised Hindi. What happens with English is also what happens with a given State language where it sometimes excludes a large majority of children. This exclusion happens in any language we use because of how it comes off the upper class and castes.

Q / Prof. Rampal, in what way can we create an enabling environment in classrooms where students come from diverse backgrounds?

A / Anita Rampal: We don’t use the word dialects, they are all languages for us, because there is a positioning and a politics of language. Firstly, multilingualism gives equal status to all languages and there’s enough work, history and research on this. Second, children come from different backgrounds, and in some cases, they are first-generation learners with not much support at home. The multilingual approach thus, is much more flexible, closer to the child, and inclusive. It is democratic, and it accepts that the teacher is not coming from a place of authority and is only correcting spellings and pronunciations. In fact, when we look at children learning English in other countries, their spelling is never corrected, they are initially encouraged to intuitively think out their own spellings. The teachers say to the children there is something strange about our language. They put the onus on the language, not on the child. This way, the child is told that it is not something that has been imposed on you. There are norms, and we don’t have to go about it in a structuralist way. We don’t insist on grammar coming first, and expression later, and these are the ways and pedagogies which can be used in our classes.

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Q / What do you think about how learning outcomes are measured in India?

A / Anita Rampal: The words ‘learning outcomes’ are a denial of children’s rights, because the NEP too says that it will not focus on inputs and only on outcomes. That is not an inclusive way of looking at learning because you’re measuring only what the child is giving you and not how the child has learned or what kind of environment the child was provided to learn in. There are better ways in which you’re not forcing them into standardised methods of assessing, but you’re encouraging them to construct their thinking and express themselves.

Q / When students who study their mother tongue come to college, how do you see their ability to learn other languages and their cognitive abilities?

A / Anita Rampal: When a student, for instance, learns in Hindi and then transitions into English, the way they express themselves is different from a child who may be from an elite English-medium school. In class 7, children who had studied their mother tongue Hindi and had just started learning English for the last two years wrote much better English and had very good Hindi too. When we say good, it is that their ideas were rich, nuanced and original. When students from Hindi medium schools come to the University (Department of Education), it is our responsibility to get them good material so that they don’t bank on terrible coaching guides. When they had gained confidence, I observed that they wrote beautifully, with much better observations and analyses than even some of my English-medium students who had studied only in English right from the beginning. Even at the university level, we can see the difference in their thoughts and expressions. Hindi medium students must be given special support and communication sessions where they can gain confidence in English.

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A / Vasanthi Devi: The transition for students who have come into English-medium institutions after high school can be done well if English is taught as a second language effectively, maybe from class 6. Teaching a language as a second language is different from teaching in that language as a medium. So, our teachers will have to go through a very different process of teacher education. A considerable amount of investment will need to be done for this. It is a myth that this transition into English-medium learning in higher education will be hard for students, as it is being done well the world over, and was even done by people of my generation.

A / This myth must be broken that our education system is class and caste neutral. A powerful political movement will have to take place to make the language of learning a choice that is made democratically.

A / V. Vasanthi Devi is an educationist and former Vice-Chancellor of the Manonmaniam Sundaranar University in Tamil Nadu; Anita Rampal is Professor and former Dean, Faculty of Education, Delhi University

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