Global ambitions in search of language tools

Aspiration for English education seems out of sync with the politics of linguistic identity

Published - December 14, 2014 01:25 am IST - Bengaluru

When the aspiration is global, can education for achieving it be enforced in a language that is local?

Caught at the centre of this question is a battle between private school managements in Karnataka and the State government.

The debate is over the State’s 1994 language policy, which says the medium of instruction in primary schools (Classes 1 to 5) should be in the mother tongue or regional language. Under the policy, permissions were denied for English-medium primary schools. Private school managements, of course, challenged the policy in the court.

After a two-decade legal tussle, the policy was quashed by the Supreme Court on May 6, 2014. Following this, the Karnataka High Court ordered the State to consider applications of schools to operate with English as the medium of instruction. But the State has refused to relent and instead decided to file a curative petition before the Supreme Court.

On the ground, however, imposition of the policy has only made schools registered as Kannada medium illegally use English as the medium of instruction. Of the 1,800 schools registered with the Karnataka Unaided School Managements’ Association, “not a single one actually uses Kannada as the medium of instruction,” says its lawyer, K.V. Dhananjay.

It seems to be a classic case of aspiration for an English education being completely out of sync with the politics over asserting the regional language in a State whose capital city, Bengaluru, has a strong global connect. This aspiration is, in fact, no longer limited to just Bengaluru but has percolated to smaller towns as well.

Does that mean the language policy has failed to achieve its purpose? In many ways, at the individual level, the choice is a language that can cater to economic and social aspiration, but at the mass level, the issue turns into “linguistic pride.” Ultimately, the government cannot promise jobs to the people and even politicians who bat for the language policy send their children to English-medium schools, says Vikram Sampath, writer and Executive Director of the Indira Gandhi National Centre of the Arts, Southern Regional Centre.

However, a substantial section of the intelligentsia and leading Kannada writers have strongly backed the need for having the mother tongue or the regional language as the medium of instruction. Their argument is that in the middle of such a large demand for English, this is the only way Kannada or any regional language can survive. Jnanpith Award-winner Chandrashekar Kambar, for instance, initiated an online campaign for a national policy on the medium of education “to protect and promote all mother tongues of India.” He argued for a national policy on education that made “a judicious use of mother tongue-based bilingualism.”

What has puzzled many is why the battle is so virulent in Karnataka. Most Indian States have seen a push for the regional language, but the battle over enforcing the mother tongue in primary schools has not lasted so long.

“There is a consistent fear about the shrinking population of Kannada speakers in Bengaluru city” and that has caused great “insecurity about the language,” says Professor Sandeep Shastri, political analyst and Pro Vice-Chancellor of Jain University. Census data say the Kannada-speaking population in the State’s capital has fallen far below the halfway mark and stood at 32 per cent. This had heightened fears,” Professor Shastri says.

While States such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have political parties that are declared custodians of the language, the main forces in Karnataka are the two national parties. “This means that they will have to appear sincere on the issue and any compromise could have political repercussions,” he says.

Ironically, the increasing population of those from around the country in Bengaluru is exactly the basis for the counter-argument to the language policy. One question raised is can there be one mother tongue in a city of such diverse languages.

While educationists and linguists strongly believe that a child learns best in its mother tongue in the early ages, “the purpose is defeated if it is a guised imposition of the regional language,” Mr. Sampath says.

One of the practical solutions that can “protect” Kannada while not enforcing it as the medium of instruction could be introducing it as a compulsory subject. This is the new thinking in the government as well following a series of legal defeats. But conceding this may require enormous political will. A policy that can balance needs that are political, linguistic and educational, and in the end, benefit both the child and the language is not easy to arrive at.

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