Experts say that the NEP’s recommendation of local language as the medium of instruction does not accommodate the language complexities of the country.

NEP 2020's suggestion on change in medium of instruction Image for representation/PTI
news Education Saturday, August 01, 2020 - 12:13

The recommendations on medium of instruction in the new National Education Policy (NEP) have stirred up recurring debates on the merits of learning in one’s mother tongue versus in English in the formative years. The NEP, which was approved by the Union Cabinet on Wednesday, has recommended that “wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language.”

While the policy is only a guiding document, and with education being part of the Concurrent List in the Constitution, state governments have the freedom to choose which aspects of the policy to adopt and in what ways. However, the NEP, which has been updated for the first time in 34 years, is bound to influence future education policy decisions in India, and the ambiguities in the policy have raised several questions on how its implementation may play out in the present context of the Indian school system. 

Experts note that in principle, the approach to learning in one’s mother tongue has been recommended since the ‘60s itself, as part of the Kothari Commission’s recommendations. While it may be scientifically proven as the best approach for cognitive development, the manner in which it is implemented can have “political, cultural and educational and ultimately economic implications for people in the country,” says renowned scholar, linguist and activist GN Devy.   

Several concerns have been raised over the policy, like the challenges in learning English among first-generation learners, and the options available for students migrating between states with different local languages. 

Addressing inequalities 

The NEP does not mandate that the medium of instruction be switched to the local language. K Nageshwar, journalist and political analyst, says that while the recommendation is not new, it has to be implemented uniformly in government and private schools to have its intended impact.

“It all depends on whether the government has the political will to ensure its implementation in private schools. Otherwise private schools will continue to offer English medium, and government schools will have to offer Telugu medium because they will have no option but to implement government policy. As a result, there will be an exodus of students from government to private schools,” he says, adding that such selective implementation in government schools will only further marginalize the government schools. 

Nagaraju Gundemeda, who teaches at the Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad, and whose research areas include Sociology of Education, echoes  this thought, and says that students from the middle and elite classes will enjoy the benefits of English medium and continue to have an edge over students in government schools. 

He also notes that the government is silent on regulating the privatisation of education, without which the gap in learning in English and the resulting access to opportunities will only widen. 

Sthabir Khora, Associate Professor at the School of Education, TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) Mumbai, also says that in practice, the more that learning in English is delayed, the more it could be difficult for children to catch up. 

Language complexities

The NEP also notes that efforts will be made to ensure that “any gaps that exist between the language spoken by the child and the medium of teaching are bridged.” It also states that teachers will be encouraged to use a bilingual approach, “including bilingual teaching-learning materials,” with those students whose home language may be different from the medium of instruction. 

It also states that Central and state governments are to “invest in large numbers of language teachers in all regional languages around the country, and, in particular, for all languages mentioned in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India.” While there are 22 scheduled languages at present, there are hundreds of non-scheduled languages, including tribal languages and languages of nomadic communities, as GN Devy notes. 

“A policy dealing with the language issue in the country always runs the risk of never being completely satisfactory,” he says, however, noting that even then, there are serious gaps in the NEP. 

As Sthabir Khora notes, in many instances, “the state language which is used as the medium of instruction is alien for tribal children. If the dominant state language itself is an alien language to so many people, then they might as well directly start with English, since learning the dominant state language may not be as beneficial as learning English,” he says. 

GN Devy says that some relaxation is therefore necessary for children who speak non-scheduled languages, and would have to learn the state language apart from English and possibly Hindi. “The smaller the number of speakers of a particular language, the higher the language load will be, and the challenges will multiply. These are students who already do not have adequate access to education, and this approach can make that access even more difficult,” he says. 

GN Devy also notes that transition from mother tongue to the local language of the state, as well as transition to English, will take time and could be overwhelming for children. He says that with the three-language formula, the learning load for children in non-Hindi speaking states becomes much higher, when compared to Hindi-speaking states like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar etc. 

“This is a basic structural flaw in the three-language formula that is sought to be implemented.  While the intention in theory is perfect, in reality, we require gradients in the policy even at national level, and the policy needs to be sensitive to this complexity.” he says. 

Promotion of Sanskrit and unforeseeable changes

Another concern that GN Devy raises in the language policy is that of promoting Sanskrit. According to the NEP, Sanskrit will be offered “at all levels of school and higher education as an important, enriching option for students, including as an option in the three-language formula.”

“Children are going to plunge for it,” GN Devy says, as it is perceived as a language in which it is easier to score higher marks. “Because it is not a spoken language, we do not have contemporary texts in Sanskrit for study, all that one studies is grammar and conjugations, translations etc. Because of this generosity in reward in examinations, the number  of students who study Sanskrit will multiply,” he notes.  

He warns that the policy could thus result in an “ideologically biased picture”, and could lead to language census data in the future that could affect the funding policy for education. “It could inflate the speakers of Sanskrit language, while the number of Urdu speakers could be disproportionately lower in comparison, for instance,” he says. 

Policy vs implementation  

With education being on the Concurrent List of the Constitution, ultimately, states are free to choose which aspects of the NEP to accept or refuse. The Jagan Mohan Reddy-led government in Andhra Pradesh -- which has been intent on making English medium compulsory in all state government schools -- has already announced that it remains committed to its plans in spite of the NEP’s recommendations. 

"We have taken the opinion of parents and 95% were in favour of the government decision, which was taken after careful consideration and consultations with the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training)," Andhra Education Minister Adimulapu Suresh states.

Experts say that without additional measures to improve the quality of teaching, the medium of instruction could be irrelevant. 

Sthabir Khora notes that many so-called English medium schools are not effective in teaching the language, as the teachers may not be proficient in English. “Effectively, English medium is already limited to elite schools, where the students’ background at home also matches the environment in the school.”

Speaking about the quality of education, K Nageshwar says, “The  problem is in our current system, children are not getting a proper education in either English or Telugu, they are getting the worst of both. Instead of fighting over language, the fight should be on the quality of teaching.”

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