The NEP was right in suggesting that first five years of learning should be in mother tongue. Then the child can be shifted to English medium
English as a medium of instruction has become a political issue in Telugu States. To choose between mother tongue and English as a medium of instruction is a pan-India predicament and debate on this subject has been going on for decades albeit in an unorganized manner. Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) presided over a Cabinet meeting on January 17, 2022 that decided to go for English medium right from first class and simultaneously continue with Telugu medium for students who opt for it. It is against the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) that the Narendra Modi Government finalised. BJP leaders in Telangana have naturally taken objection to the State Government’s decision.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy (JMR) wanted to have English medium in all Government schools from the day he took over as chief minister. He said people asked him, when he met them in large numbers during his historic walkathon in 2017-18, for English medium. No doubt, it is a popular demand. Should the Governments go by what people ask for or what is good for the people? Soon after assuming power, JMR had shown keen interest in developing Government schools by giving them facelift and providing sufficient infrastructure. At first, he did not provide for Telugu medium at all. After a hue and cry from the advocates of mother tongue as medium of instruction, he said he would have Telugu medium at some schools. The policy ran into difficulties, legal problems and the Government wishes to implement the new policy from next academic year.
“According to the human rights declaration by the United Nations, education is a right of every child. What kind of education should the children get depends on their parents, who are the ultimate decision-makers. Parents are particular that their children should study in English medium from the beginning of schooling,” said Prof. Limbadri, Chairman of Telangana Higher Education Council. He said the Government is set to improve facilities in Government schools under the pilot programme “Mana Ooru - Mana Badi” (Our village - Our school). In a way, KCR is following JMR’s policy with due diligence. Telangana will not do away with Telugu medium altogether. It will allow it to have a natural death.
Two decades ago, 80 per cent of the students used to go to Government schools and 20 percent to private schools. By 2005, the percentage of students studying in Government schools came down to 70 percent. Now it is less than 45 percent. Telangana is leading in providing English medium education for SCs, STs, OBCs and Minorities through residential schools, model schools and gurukul schools. Without making it public, the Government allowed teachers to switch over to English medium wherever there was a popular demand. A number of Government schools were closed due to lack of English medium.
There are three kinds of schools in AP and TS. Majority of the schools are run by Government, followed by private schools and then corporate schools. The teachers in Government schools are better qualified and better paid than those in private schools. But even the poor and low caste parents spend on their children for English medium education in private schools. They pay five times to the amount they would have spent if their children went to Government schools. If the Government schools introduce English medium, the poor will be spared of the burden.
Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad has long been saying that English has been the greatest liberator of Dalits form caste hierarchy. Decades of English deprivation has deepened the inequalities. One intellectual said the mother tongue fanatics are keeping India poor and backward. If we did not have English medium schools, we would not have Padma Bhushans like Satya Nadella and Sunder Pitchai heading prestigious multinational corporations such as Microsoft and Google.
Switching over to English medium overnight, however, is not going to be easy. Bilingual teaching material has to be prepared. There will be considerable investment in the beginning. Teachers have to be trained. What India spends on education is a pittance compared to the US and other developed countries. It has to be increased many folds.
NEP says “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.” There is a solid scientific consensus that teaching a child in her own language is the best pedagogical method.
Like India, Nigeria is a multi-lingual country with a history of British colonialism and English language dominating their education system. Pioneering Nigerian educationist Aliu Fafunwa launched a project in 1970 in which experimental groups of students were taught in their own native Yoruba language for their first six years. They did far better in studies than those who were taught in English. Nancy Modiano in Mexico experimented on the same lines in1973 and came up with similar result. Children who were taught in their native language early on and later transitioned to Spanish outperformed children taught only in Spanish from Grade 1. No such comparative studies were undertaken in India, much less in AP and Telangana.
Article 350A of the constitution stated that every State and local authority should endeavour to provide ‘adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups.’ The Kothari Commission on education and national development (1964-66) suggested that in tribal areas, for the first two years of school, the medium of instruction and books should be in the local tribal languages. The regional languages should be taught separately and should become medium of instruction by third year. Odisha Government had started implementing this policy in 2007. Right to Education Act, 2009, also insists on teaching kids in their mother tongue. But successive governments have been tinkering with education. Far from encouraging private school to drop English, the union Government does not use mother tongue in its own network of elite KendriyaVidyalay schools.
English is a language of science, technology, computer, internet, journalism, website and so on. 80 percent of the information fed into the computers is in English. The fact of the matter is English or Spanish or any other language can be learnt better on the foundation laid by mother tongue. A small kid spends only three or four hours in a day at the school. The rest of the child’s time is in a non-English environment. If we force her to learn English directly then it will amount to rote learning. The NEP was right in suggesting that first five years of learning should be in mother tongue. Then the child can be shifted to English medium. English as a language has to be taught right from first class. Till Grade 5, the language of instruction would be mother tongue. Then, from Grade 6 onwards mother tongue would become a subject and the medium of instruction would be English. The transition would then be seamless.
If the Union Government can make it compulsory for all the primary schools run by Government or private sector to teach only in mother tongue till Grade 5, there will be a level playing field. Otherwise, there will be no takers for mother tongue as medium of instruction.
(The writer is a senior journalist and Editor, primepost, a news website based out of Hyderabad. The views expressed are personal.)