• The Question of Language in Education

    Ayesha Kidwai / Economic and Political Weekly

    October 21, 2016

    The Report of the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy displays neither rigour nor vision. Its introduction of a provision for instruction in the mother tongue up to Class 5 is to be welcomed, but its complete neglect of these languages in higher education will ensure that this cannot be implemented.



    It is only to be expected from a document that proposes a New Policy on Education (NPE) for the country that it would build a convincing case for its own raison d’etre. Chapter 3 of the Report of the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy (Subramanian committee report), chaired by T S R Subramanian attempts to do precisely this. The laudable goals and objectives of older NPEs (1986 and 1992), we are told, have not succeeded because of the absence of a “clear workable road map” with “clear operational guidance.” Over the past three decades, “heavy politicization at every level” and “increasing corruption” have led to “extremely poor educational conditions at the ground level,” despite significant increases in the gross enrolment ratio and improvements in overall infrastructure (MHRD 2016: 33). The Subramanian committee report defines as its own focus, a concern for “quality in every element of the entire system” which has “hitherto effectively been relegated to the background,” given the stress that earlier policies laid on equity and access. While the latter goals should not be compromised, the report declares that “it has now become an imperative necessity to lay major emphasis on improvement of quality across the board” (MHRD 2016: 35, 36).

    It is of course an open question as to whether significant milestones have been reached in terms of both equity and access, or, indeed, and the issue of quality can be easily spliced from these two issues. In a reality in which disadvantaged sections do not have an equal opportunity to access school and higher education, the very definition of quality is bound to be based on partial experience. For example, one may construe quality in language education to be the achievement of written language fluency in Hindi by Class 2, but, since this is based on an assumption that every child who attends school in Hindi-speaking areas is necessarily a Hindi speaker at her home, this benchmark cannot (or rather should not) be maintained without amendment when (socially/economically) disadvantaged non-Hindi-speaking children gain access to the school system.

    However, even if we were to put aside these more nuanced objections, and evaluate the report from the metrics gleaned from its own critique of earlier education policies, that is, a clear workable road map with unambiguous operational guidance dedicated to the improvement of quality, it falls woefully short in every respect.

    Seductions of ICT

    A case in point is the plug for the use of Information and Communication Techno­logy (ICT) in improving quality, a proposal that is quite obviously linked to the Government of India’s Digital India programme. That the time for this novel move has come, we are informed, is due to its successful use on an experimental basis in “many high-end schools, particularly in urban areas” and the fact that “a number of private companies have emerged to create digital material for use in the classroom” (MHRD 2016: 46). Taken together with the fact (but with no evidence actually cited) that “thousands of computers have been installed in upper primary and secondary/higher secondary schools under various programmes of Central and State Governments” (MHRD 2016: 43), the report declares that “ICT can no longer be treated as a school subject; it has to become a way of learning process” (MHRD 2016: 44). No questions of equity and access are addressed in this connection, even though the report itself also notes that “less than 10% schools have computers and reliable source of electri­city” (MHRD 2016: 61). And, the only assurance that we have that ICT has the promise of delivering quality is the report of the Shiv Nadar Foundation’s Shiksha project, whose claimed efficacy the committee has not even verified.

    Even as the document is visibly overcome with excitement at the far-reaching changes that will be occasioned when digital education has become the norm—teachers shall become facilitators in “self-learning” by students (an extremely reductive understanding of what the role of a schoolteacher is), textbooks will be eliminated (thereby depriving students of the skills of reading), the gaps in learning of weaker students shall be more easily ameliorated—the only policy-level initiative that has been put in place is the creation of a “designated national agency [that] should be encouraged to conduct experiments in regard to potential use of ICT in the field of education, and also monitor various initiatives being taken all over the country” (MHRD 2016: 50). No clear guidelines on how teacher-training curricula are to be altered, no discussion of how the vast majority of learners who cannot afford to have computers are to access them, or of how the generation of content is to be done, managed, and disseminated. Beyond a naive faith in the internet having removed “all barriers to learning,” the report has nothing more to offer.

    This sketchy approach to questions that should be explored in depth and with reflection is something of the norm in the report, even when it makes worthwhile recommendations. One such proposal relates to a change in the language policy at the level of school education by giving primacy to mother tongue education (MHRD 2016: 95–99), and a more flexible interpretation of the Three Language Formula.

    Mother Tongue and Three Language Formula

    Making a reference to the modern understanding that children are born with an innate language policy, the Subramanian committee report rightly points out that children “internalise the complex rules of one or more languages even before they start their schooling” (MHRD 2016: 97). This resource must be tapped into in primary education, “as repeated studies have indicated that basic concepts of language and arithmetic are best learnt in one’s mother tongue” (MHRD 2016: 97). Accordingly, it proposes that the medium of instruction be the mother tongue or regional language up to class 5 as a mandatory provision. Languages like Hindi (whose promotion the Constitution mandates) and/or English (proficiency of which is an “aspirational goal” for most parents) should be introduced as subjects “right from Class 1” (MHRD 2016: 98).

    Given this proposal for the mother tongue, which would be welcomed by many, one would expect that the report would elaborate on the road map to achieve this goal, especially as the document itself notes that the 2001 census has listed a total of 1,721 mother tongues (122 major languages and 1,599 “other” languages). If education in all subjects is to be provided up to Class 5 for these languages, from where is the instructional material in these languages to come? Many of these languages do not even have a script, and there is virtually no instructional material in any of them. Even the internet, in whose bounty the report has immense faith, is unlikely to index their existence.

    Moreover, in a multilingual country like India, there can be many mother tongues in the classroom. Take the example of Jharkhand, where it is quite possible that the class has Sadri, Kurux, Kharia, and Mundari speakers. Which mother tongue should be picked in such an instance? And, if these languages have no presence in higher education (the report is completely silent on this aspect), how will teachers be trained, material produced, and issues of pedagogy formulated and evaluated? By not envisaging mechanisms with clear goals enabling choice of language of instruction and the generation, standardisation, and training of teachers in instructional material, the report is guilty of having the same unworkability for which it has critiqued earlier NPEs.

    Further, despite the apparent radical shift in language policy, the introduction of the disjunctive option to mother tongue, “or regional language,” shall most likely not entail a significant change at all, as the states will most rationally choose the language that has the most coverage. This will effectively bring us back to the current situation where children of linguistic minorities that do not use the regional languages in their homes are disadvantaged by the school education system. Linguists and educationists have long argued that this situation can only be addressed by adopting a multilingual education model that is actively supported by a global change in language policy, in which, as Minati Panda (2012) puts it, the socially constructed hierarchy of languages and their role in education is questioned. As long as “exit” remains the central metaphor, she argues, by which children’s mother tongues are allowed to enter into the classroom only after the point of their exit has been decided (as in this policy, which declares it to be at Class 5), school education shall continue to advantage speakers of the more powerful languages. What is needed is a policy of “no exit” for any language, and a role in education right up to the highest level for each language that enters the classroom at the primary level.

    The report’s suggestions for a relaxation of the Three Language Formula aim to regularise the multifarious breaches committed by schools and boards in the implementation of the formula as originally stated. The report suggests that these decisions of how exactly to implement the formula should be left to the states, as long as they “ensure that the mother tongue or the regional language forms the basis of primary education up to Class V” (MHRD 2016: 99). While such federalism is to be welcomed, one wonders as to why the magic figure of three languages in the school system should then be adhered to at all, as, in fact, the report opens up scenarios in which no modern Indian language other than English and the mother tongue would be taught at all. This radical proposal is most probably unintended, as the report seems to be quite unaware of the ramification that Hindi, in particular, need not be taught at all.

    An unfortunate feature of policy-level pronouncements is the emphasis given to Sanskrit education to the exclusion of other classical languages (that is, five others besides Sanskrit: Tamil, Odia, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam). According to the report, the study of Sanskrit requires special emphasis, because of its alleged “unique contribution to the cultural unity of the country” and its “special importance” to the “growth and development of Indian languages” (MHRD 2016: 98). This sloganeering is worrying in itself in a policy document, but when taken together with the suggestion that Sanskrit should be “introduced as an independent subject at a suitable point of the primary or the upper primary stage” (MHRD 2016: 98), it is the ominous portent of an unworkable but ideologically motivated agenda.

    Sanskrit, we are told, should not be “treated as a ‘classical’ language but as a living phenomenon which is still relevant to the general life needs of the people of India” (MHRD 2016: 99), and new ways of teaching the language must be developed. But, if Sanskrit’s worth is as a living language of a small community—by the 2001 Census, it has 14,135 speakers, mostly located in Uttar Pradesh, northern Telangana, southern Rajasthan, Nagpur and Haridwar—and not as a classical language, then the special status being accorded to it is highly anti-democratic. Many arguments can be marshalled against these suggestions, not in the least the fact of the language’s history of exclusion, but the most important one is that introducing at a very young age what is largely a foreign language to the overwhelming majority of Indians is pedagogically most unwise and downright alienating.

    Furthermore, even as it is true that these suggestions do not work their way into the final recommendations of the report, they signify an attempt to manipulate the development of Indian languages by expanding the influence of Sanskrit to languages that it has had no access to hitherto. The challenges of the general project of sanskritisation to diversity and difference are well known, and these suggestions serve to embed it at the very heart of the education system.

    Language in Higher Education

    Intriguingly, beyond a few cursory comments about the necessity of devising suitable courses for improved proficiency in Hindi and English at the level of college and university education, the Subramanian committee report treats the question of language at the level of higher education as largely settled. This is disappointing, especially because a policy commitment to education in the mother tongue should have occasioned at least a cursory mention of the need for higher education in these languages, even if merely in the realm of teacher education. But, these are not the only issues, as anyone who is either a student or a teacher in any such institution will agree. In the submissions that Academics for Creative Reforms (a group of Delhi-based university teachers) made in response to the NPE 2016 survey on MyGov website (, it flagged a whole range of issues and possible solutions that the NPE 2016 must address, but not one of these has been deemed worthy of discussion.

    Academics for Creative Reforms (2015: 27) has also emphasised the need to shift away from institutional policies that enable English to function as the “gatekeeper of higher education in India decades after independence,” and towards policies that harness the linguistic resources in the classroom for the improvement of both pedagogy and research. In its submissions, it made many specific recommendations that would ameliorate a situation in which knowledge of English (rather than ability and curiosity) is almost the sole metric by which success in higher education is measured. Arguing for the recognition that primary research necessitates speaking and skills in other (familiar or unknown) languages, as well as skills in translation and interpretation, it proposed that policies need to be framed at three distinct levels: the University Grants Commission (UGC), the university, and individual departments. It proposed that,

    (i) At the level of the UGC, knowledge creation through translation must be accorded due weight as an academic activity of students, faculty, and the university as a whole. Weight must be assigned to translations at the level of the academic performance indicators (API), where translated material is published as parallel texts to assist students to hone their English language competence, as well as disseminate knowledge through the regional languages.

    (ii) At the level of the individual university, fostering and supporting translation activities of the sort outlined above is imperative. Any research student who receives full financial assistance/fellowship from the university/the UGC may be required, as part of the conditions of availing the fellowship, to produce a translation of a research article into or from English (or any other language) every year in his/her chosen area of research.

    (iii) Individual departments and schools of universities must make sustained attempts to bring multilingualism and training into the classroom. Departments must identify good regional language periodicals and journals in the region, and classify them to standards. Encouragement and recognition must be given to occasional publications as well as other cultural texts in regional/local languages. Research technique courses and methodo­logy workshops should focus not just on methods, but also on translation and interpretation and writing.

    These, and many other suggestions have been made by Academics for Creative Reforms and others committed to a democratic, accessible, equitable, accountable, and progressive education system for future generations. While the prospect of the government listening to us now is admittedly bleak, it is nevertheless imperative that we reiterate and sharpen the critique, as education policies that perpetuate exclusion and marginalisation cannot endure; the terms of their exit are inscribed into the stuff of which they are made.


    Academics for Creative Reforms (2015): “What Is to Be Done about Indian Universities?”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 50, No 24, pp 25–29.

    MHRD (2016): “National Policy on Education 2016: Report of the Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy,” Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, New Delhi,….

    Panda, Minati (2012) “‘Bridging’ and ‘Exit’ as Metaphors of Multilingual Education: A Constructionist Analysis,” Psychological Studies, Vol 57, No 2, pp 240–50.

    Ayesha Kidwai ([email protected]) teaches linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

    First published in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, Issue No. 35, 27 Aug, 2016.

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