The Government of India in 2020 rolled out the National Education Policy with much fanfare, claiming that the reforms would revive the nation’s flagging education system. The need for reforms cannot be denied. An article in The Economist this week, noted, “Only about 55% of the country’s ten-year-olds can read and understand a simple story, reckons the World Bank. The last time India’s children participated in internationally comparable tests, they ranked almost last out of 74 countries.” The NEP seeks to introduce changes at all levels of education, and one way it proposes to improve the level of Education and literacy in India is by stating that “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”. As someone who was only educated in English, I was, at first, rather optimistic about such a shift. I had often resented the lack of exposure to the literature of the language most of my family spoke, Hindi. English education meant that I knew neither English nor Hindi very well. To not have to do one, the language that seemed most alien felt like a decent escape from having to struggle through both. But in almost no time, optimism gave way to scepticism, and soon after, to worry.
The policy advocates for the use of the “mother tongue,” or a regional language, as a medium of instruction wherever possible. In a diverse nation such as ours, the lack of specificity of the term ‘mother tongue’ only leads to confusion. Is ‘mother tongue’ the tongue of a student, or the tongue of a region? Won’t there be situations where the tongue of the student may not be the language of the region? Had the policy been around when I was in junior school, for instance, I would have been educated (‘if possible,’ as the policy notes) in the Kumaoni dialect, since I live in the Kumaon region. However, the composition of my district is nearly entirely native Punjabi speakers, resettled to what we now called Uttarakhand. The languages spoken within 30 kilometres of my home are Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and English, each understood by a separate demographic. And my village is not an exception to the rest of India, but it is the rule. Most of India is polyphonic, and like the poet Walt Whitman, can boast of containing multitudes. In the situation that the recognised regional language becomes the official medium of education in a particular school, its usage will only mirror the imposition of English. That is, the hegemony of English will be replaced by the hegemony of another regional language, whichever may be dominant in the area, or in the vogue with a particular government. For a policy aiming to make education more accessible and inclusive, the NEP seems to achieve the opposite.
For the masses, school is where several students are exposed to a new language, especially one like English. For many, learning English is the sole aim of starting school. And whether we like it or not, English does open doors. Most of the vocabulary of Science and Technology is in the language. It has, since the national movement, been a language that has allowed non-Hindi speakers to communicate further. Wouldn’t such a policy end up making opportunities less accessible for the students in government schools? And I stress on government schools here, because for private schools, bypassing such a policy is easy, and the ‘English Medium’ is emphasised. This could widen the gap in the education received at public and private institutions and reinforce class hierarchies amongst those who attend them. For most students, their exposure to their regional languages is through social interactions largely outside the classroom. English is taught to many only in schools.
What also complicates the NEP is that it does not list English as an Indian language, even though English is constitutionally recognized as a national language. While many Indians may not speak English, it cannot be denied that English is a widely spoken Indian language. Indian writers have made English their own, Indian films and television use English liberally. In an op-ed in the Hindu, K Chidambaram argued that English is an Indian Language and that it is aspirational, useful, and should not be done away with in such a manner. The Poet and translator, Ranjit Hoskote, too, views English as a language that has become Indian, and does not see it as a borrowed tongue.
Even if everything with the policy is ironed out and every region is given as inclusive a language as possible, the logistics remain complicated. Education is a concurrent subject, legislated upon by both Central and the State governments. Even in college student governments, the shifting of responsibility between hierarchies prevents much work from being done. Between disparate regimes at the Center and states, this may be a recipe for disaster.
While the importance of including more regional languages in syllabi cannot be denied, we must be mindful of how the Indian languages are taught, and that they are not taught at the cost of one another. The way to promote the regional languages is not to replace English as a medium of education and entirely disregarding its utility, but rather, to include the practice of communication and appreciation of regional languages and literature, to encourage students to be critical by employing the languages they are taught in, and to teach them in a way that the process of education does not make learning more difficult and stressful. This means that for students whose homes are not familiar with English, there is a greater responsibility with their teachers to communicate material with their students in the language they understand.
To change subject material without altering the pedagogical approach will continue to limit students in one way or another. It may be more freeing to consider ways to incorporate the thinking of Paulo Friere and restructure education or “men and women develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality but as a reality in the process of transformation”. This could be done by training teachers to adapt to the needs of polyphonic classrooms, by introducing practices of translation, or by making conversation a greater part of the experience of learning.
Swati Singh is a student of English Literature and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. They are a member of Sandhi, the languages society at Ashoka University, and are interested in translation.
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