Education
As a government college professor, I have seen generations of bright learners lose out on opportunities only because of their linguistic weaknesses.
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In his recent announcement to introduce English-medium classes from Class 1 onwards in government schools, the Chief Minister of Karnataka has opened doors of opportunities for a large section of children in the state.

The language policy in the state was adopted in 1994, mandating the use of mother tongue as the medium of instruction in primary classes. This is the first time since then that an attempt has been made to revise it. Parents and right-thinking educationists see it as one of the most positive and progressive changes in school education. Children in government schools who mostly come from poor socio-economic backgrounds and are mostly first-generation learners will now get similar opportunities that come easily to children from private English-medium schools.

Not surprisingly, this initiative has not gone down well with Kannada activists; they have strongly opposed it. The latter’s resistance stems from an ill-founded notion that it will compromise the cultural ethos of the state. How can any culture be so fragile that it gets diluted by learning one extra language? Culture is an evolving, ever changing, dynamic, utilitarian force that helps society keep pace with changing times.

Advantages of a second language

The 24 years of “mother tongue” formula used in schools has not done much in terms of improving comprehension levels or academic performances, if pass percentage in schools is any indication. What it has certainly done is hamper their ability to learn any language well. In my experience as a professor in a government college in the state for decades, I found Kannada spoken by a majority of students, including the native speakers who came from Kannada-medium schools, to be a queer mix of English and Kannada. They are neither adept in Kannada nor in English.

Learning English in early school will at least put them at an advantageous position in higher education and in the employment market. It defies reason as to why anybody in the right frame of mind should oppose a move that will elevate the livelihood prospects of a large section of poor children.

During my tenure as officer in-charge for skill development and placement in all the 356 government colleges in Karnataka and also as consultant for the newly formed skill development department in Karnataka, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a multitude of company recruiters for decades.

Organizing many job fairs and placement drives in different parts of the state gave me a clear understanding of the employable qualities in candidates. Apart from the requisite qualification, skill and attitude, emphasis is laid on the applicant’s linguistic abilities, especially in English. Knowledge in one or more regional languages is seen as an added merit. It had saddened me time and again to witness many qualified and capable young aspirants being rejected in job interviews only because they could not speak, read or write English well enough.

Politics of language

Several states across the country have been guilty of a political ploy that played havoc with the lives of generations of children. In the name of upholding the culture of the land and promoting usage of mother tongue, government school children have been denied the kind of education they needed and aspired for the most. By virtue of government policy, children in primary classes were forced to learn only in their ‘mother tongue’ at the cost of learning English. The struggles of these children to match up to the more privileged ones begins right from there.

In 1983, the Left Front government in West Bengal banned the teaching of English till Class 6 for varied political intentions, which was masked as cultural pride and student welfare. It raked up misplaced chauvinism among the lower- and middle-class Bengalis much to their regret in the later years. It has had a disastrous effect on several batches of school children throughout the state in terms of their job prospects, especially outside Bengal. Many brilliant students, by virtue of their academic records, found themselves in reputed institutions, but it was very unfortunate that their confidence levels dipped due to their inability to speak fluent English. The same inability came in the way of them getting deserving job offers, losing out to less meritorious persons with better English knowledge. English became the primary defining point.

Language chauvinism in modern India perhaps has its roots in the anti-Hindi agitation of the 1960s in Tamil Nadu. It is etched in people’s minds as the bloodiest fight for retaining language identity of a people. It soon fanned the linguistic sentiments of people from other non-Hindi speaking states. What began as an opposition to imposing Hindi gradually saw the exclusion of English as well. Education, especially school education, is the softest target for any government. Thus, succumbing to pressure from culture chauvinists and also to score political mileage, several state governments rolled out lopsided policies. Introducing mother tongue as a medium of instruction in schools was certainly one of them.

English as an aspiration

The undeniable hegemony of the English language cannot be wished away. It must be accepted however grudgingly that a significant advantage of the once-colonized India has been its access to the English language. It is not providence that has given a competitive edge to India in the global market against several developing countries. English is the language of commerce, of science and technology, of employment and hence of development. With the advent of social media, English has gained renewed importance.

Learning English is aspirational for a vast majority of people in the country who have been systematically kept away from it by vile political scheming. While the masses suffered under such mindless policies, helplessly losing out on a crucial competitive edge, the leaders, chauvinists and the elites brazenly continued to get their children enrolled in English-medium schools. Their blatant discriminatory attitude is similar to the Brahminical tyranny that denied people of lower socio-economic strata access to knowledge of Sanskrit, the erstwhile language of the elite.

It is a great tragedy for Indians that even after 70 years of sovereignty, our national identity is determined by a certain mindset we portray. We are yet to come to terms with living in a free country where democratic principles granted by the Constitution of the land reign large. How else can one explain the trespassing of personal spaces of citizens and growing mayhem unleashed by the self- proclaimed guardians of culture?

In the recent past, right from what we eat, what we wear, how we celebrate, whom we marry to what languages our children need to learn in schools are being dictated by these culture extremists. Anybody who deviates from their diktat becomes the target of mob frenzy, lynching, arson and loot. The intolerant bigots who perpetrate these crimes roam freely, fearlessly, emboldened by lack of punitive actions against them, with tacit support of the state and Central governments. The apathy and the appeasement politics played both by politicians only add to the public outrage.

The language policy of the various state governments has only catered to the advantage of business-inclined private English medium schools that have mushroomed all over. Over the last five years, private schools have gained 170 lakh students despite the exorbitant fee structure and government schools that offer free education have lost 130 lakh students across 20 Indian states.

Despite hardships the poor prefer the English-medium schools. Anasuya, who barely made both ends meet, staked every little thing she had to enroll her child in an expensive English-medium school. Uniform, books, bus pass, building donations further drained her. Her only solace she poignantly explained when asked, “She will get a good job and people will address my daughter as ‘Madam’ like you”.

Language as an emotion

With emphasis on imparting employability, skilling-training government bodies like National Skill Development Corporation and Skill Development Departments of several Indian states have been set up with huge budgetary allocations. Interestingly, a large part of their training curricula, that are outsourced to private organisations for a considerable per candidate cost, comprise spoken English coaching. Wonder who is responsible for this unnecessary drain on the exchequer’s money.

However, it must be said that although English learning is crucial, there is no denying that learning mother tongue is just as important. It is a language of feelings and emotions. The mother tongue is a naturally and easily learnt language at home, taught lovingly in the cozy environs of the family. Language is germane to cognitive development, like thinking, perceiving, recalling, and decision-making. Learning multiple languages not only broadens these capabilities, but enhances a child’s intellectual, social and psychological environment, opening a wider world of knowledge.

It is time that policy makers, language chauvinists and culture sentinels understand the science behind language acquisition. Ample research evidence suggests that prior to the onset of puberty, that is, before the ages of 9-12 years, a critical learning period exists when children are capable of learning and mastering multiple languages with equal ease. Any language learnt post puberty or as an adult may not have the same kind of dexterity. Observing a migrant family clearly demonstrates this phenomenon. Although parents may live in a new place longer than their children, they can never match the fluency or ease with which the children speak the language of that region.

Primary school children are in their pre-puberty stage, when they can hone their multilingual capabilities. Given an opportunity, they are capable of learning mother tongue alongside English with equal élan. Limiting children to learn one language, either mother tongue or English is a great disservice to children’s natural lingual gift. Living in a shrinking globalized world, linguistic pluralism or multilingual ability is what stands to benefit children most.

In this milieu, the progressive step taken by Karnataka is to be emulated by others. This will herald social engineering in the true sense of the term. Every child in our country has a right to education, especially for meaningful education that brings promise of a better and happier future. Elected governments have a commitment towards it.  

Views expressed are author's own.

Dr Manika Ghosh is the Director, Eudaimonic Centre, Bengaluru. She headed the first skill development initiative in government colleges and has been a senior consultant to the Skill Development, Entrepreneurship and Livelihood Department, GOK, and United Nations Development Programme.