Multilingual Education in India: Myth and Reality

Published: June 25, 2012 - 15:42 Updated: June 26, 2012 - 14:14

Since higher education is the avenue to institutional recognition and establishment, we should create opportunities of learning through the mother tongue unlike the various proposals of structural and gradual replacement of multilingualism by a monolingual world order
Samir Karmakar  Bangalore 

The difference between languages that the children learn in their home environment and the languages valued by the Institutes and Organizations is a universal problem in the educational systems across the countries. The problem is worst in a developing country like ours due to different intervening layers of various issues pertinent to economical growth and increasing population size. 

While going through various position papers on Multilingual Education (henceforth, MLE), we found some fundamental problems which need to be understood better. Among those the most important one is the notion of “multilingual” itself. The way we understand it in academics is not the way MLE position papers and the policies have envisaged it. Next major problem is the nature of the policy itself. The successful designing and the implementation of the stated policy in position papers depend largely on the very notion of common aspirations in the larger public sphere. Any approach towards MLE is bound to fail if the stated form of the policy lacks an understanding of what is being aspired by the population with reference to the Indian languages which is often being decided by various economical and historical factors. Therefore, understanding the linguistic culture in India becomes a must. 

In India, the problem becomes acute mainly because of the number of different languages people speak in their day to day conversations. As per the Census Report 2001, the number of languages specified in the 8th Schedule is 22. The report has also identified 122 languages and 234 mother tongues. Even if we overlook the politics of defining the status of language and the criterion Census has fixed to exclude a good numbers of languages under the category of ‘Others’, the situation seems challenging since we clearly lack resources to deal with the problems of multilingual education at this large a scale. Compare India’s situation with Sweden where literacy rate is 99% to get an idea of how complex the problem of multilingualism in India is. As per the most recent survey showcased in Ethnologue, Sweden is a land of just 12 languages. 

Under this situation when National Curriculum Framework 2005 (henceforth NCF 2005) position paper advocates the necessity for teaching of Indian Languages, we need to know how many languages: Are we thinking of teaching 1562 odd languages? Are we talking about teaching 122 languages and 234 mother tongues? Or, should we narrow down our focus to teaching the 22 scheduled languages? Interestingly, policy makers, academicians and politicians prefer to maintain silence on this issue. Therefore, the entire burden of implementing the suggestions made in NCF 2005 position paper actually falls on those who want to translate the suggested objectives into real practices. 

Though position papers and policies are explicitly arguing for the linguistic rights, mother tongue instruction, and inclusion of the home language, one thing we need to understand as has been already pointed out by the researchers that policies and positions papers are generally designed to minimize the complexities of social multilingualism which are considered to be inconvenient for the functioning of the State and Nation. This can be traced not in the explicit suggestions but in the implicit assumptions. These implicit aspects of a policy also reflect the perception of the common mass. Failing to judge the common perception will definitely lead to the adverse situation not expected before. For example, in past few years the number of English medium students is grown by 150 percent in spite of the government policy of promoting MLE.  

One way of capturing the aspiration of peoples on the issue of language education is to consult the census report. Census report of 2001 projects a horrifying situation: Most of the languages, except Hindi, are showing negative growth.  It is more horrifying when we contrast it with the growth of English in India as mentioned above. A recent study by NUEPA, referred in Times of India, shows that the number of English-opting students from class I to class VIII has grown by 150 per cent in last decade, while the number of students opting Hindi grew by just 32 per cent. No doubt a comparative growth analysis of Hindi with a special reference to English will also show a retarded growth. Under this situation, we think 22 is the magic number to start with. But, then, we need to make it specific what the phrases like “Indian Languages” or “home languages” mean in different policy documents. After all, their meanings are subject to some political choices which we are left to deal with. 

Compare India’s situation with Sweden where literacy rate is 99% to get an idea of how complex the problem of multilingualism in India is. As per the most recent survey showcased in Ethnologue, Sweden is a land of just 12 languages 

To make it clear, let’s consider the example of Hindi. As per the census report 2001, it is an umbrella term containing at least 12 different varieties which are used in market places, in home environment to communicate with each other. Are we talking about bridging the gap between these 12 languages and the language of instructions which is definitely supposed to be the standard Hindi? If yes, how? 

While discussing the designing of the text books always we put emphasis on incorporating local cultures. So the question is how reasonable is it to produce culturally rich textbooks for these many varieties of Hindi, even if we overlook other 122 languages and 234 mother tongues and 1562 different languages spoken across the country. If we go beyond the production of texts, then the most pressing questions will be the following one: do we have enough number of teachers trained in these many languages to demolish the barrier between the school culture and the home culture? Isn’t this an absurd demand? And a lot to expect from a teacher? – Particularly in a situation where (s)he is expected to know the home language of each and every student of a class; (s)he  also is expected to resort to different innovative techniques of teaching, and probably some theories also, so as to have a perspective on human cognitive development. 

While talking about the multilingual education, policy documents and researches assume that lack of equal access to the education results into the unequal development and growth and finally ends by adding up to the problem of cultural intolerance and separatist movements. Obviously, these have some negative impact on the overall development of the country.  As a consequence, while defining the goals of multilingual education these policies and researches keep the following four agendas in sight: the right to mother tongue education to all linguistic communities, the national integrity and cultural tolerance, the promotion of the cultural plurism in future, and the production of the better learners equipped with better adaptive capacities. However, a careful investigation reveals the emptiness of MLE in India. 

Though the right to mother tongue education is emphasized in both national and international forums the number of Indian languages as medium of instruction decreases significantly. Referring the reports of 6th All India Education Survey conducted by NCERT, Mallikarjun of Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) shown how rapid is the rate of decrease in the Indian languages used as medium of instruction: According to this report when in primary level the number of Indian languages used for medium of instruction is 33, it simply drops to 20 as one moves towards the higher secondary level. It is thus, not hard to imagine the fate of MLE in graduate and post graduate levels. 

Focusing on the point of national integrity and cultural intolerance, again, shows the extreme insensitivity of the policy makers and researchers: Consider the bilingual transfer model developed by the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore. This model proposes a specially designed successive dual language medium of instruction programme for tribal groups in India. As per this bilingual transfer model, as the name itself suggests, tribal languages are used in the initial days of education along with the dominant regional languages. As the learner moves towards the higher education with the gradual improvement in his/her expertise in regional language, the tribal language structurally gets replaced with the regional language as the medium of instruction. The same trend can also be noticed in NCF 2005 position paper on teaching English in India. 

Very often the success and failure of a policy depends on the implicit, unofficial, unwritten, de facto aspect of what we call public opinion. Therefore, it becomes quintessential to understand the linguistic culture of the population to achieve the stated goals of the policy documents

In most of our state run primary and secondary schools in the initial days mother tongue instructions are given in the classroom along with the English and Hindi medium of instructions. After a certain level, students are generally encouraged to switch to a system where English is the medium of instruction. This approach of gradual replacement of the non-dominant forms of linguistic communication by the dominant ones only widens the linguistic divide in India and will leave India as fertile ground for intolerance defeating the agenda of promoting cultural pluralism. 

To understand the true nature of the language related policy documents we need to focus on the implicit, unofficial, unwritten, de facto aspect of people’s perceptions along with the explicit, official, written, de jure aspect of the position papers.  Very often the success and failure of a policy depends on the implicit, unofficial, unwritten, de facto aspect of what we call public opinion. Therefore, it becomes quintessential to understand the linguistic culture of the population to achieve the stated goals of the policy documents. This includes an in-depth investigation into the ideas, values, beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, myths, religious strictures, and all the cultural baggage that we bring to our dealings with language from our culture. 

Success and failure of a policy depends largely on the peoples’ perception of languages as social capitals. Instead of coming up with some theory laden solutions in a top-to-down fashion, we need to rather have some answer of why individuals opt to use (or cease to use) particular languages and varieties for specified functions in different domains, and how these choices influence – and how they are influenced by – institutional language policy decision-making (local to national to supranational) as once asked by Ricento. Answer to these questions somehow depends on the linguistic ecology of a particular space and time with an emphasis on the following issues: (i) the diversity of languages of a linguistic ecosystem, (ii) the factors that sustain diversity, (iii) the maintenance that the ecological niche needs, and (iv) the functional interrelationships between the languages of linguistic ecologies. 

Success of MLE in India, then, primarily rests on mobilizing the public spheres rather than suggesting solutions only to the school teachers and government officials. More specifically, introducing MLE in India expects the involvement of parents in the dynamics of teaching-learning process. Facilitating this process includes the change of our attitude towards the traditional concept of teachers and schools. We need to recognize the fact that learning happens not only in the school environment but also in the vast learning space and the huge learning moments outside the formal structure of the Indian schooling system.  

But, then, we need to make it specific what the phrases like “Indian Languages” or “home languages” mean in different policy documents. After all, their meanings are subject to some political choices which we are left to deal with 

We also need to recognize that the functional load of a language as a social capital is determined by the complexity of knowledge and market. Since higher education is the avenue to institutional recognition and establishment, we should create opportunities of learning through the mother tongue unlike the various proposals of structural and gradual replacement of multilingualism by a monolingual world order. 

The writer is  Faculty Fellows at Azim Premji University, Bangalore

Since higher education is the avenue to institutional recognition and establishment, we should create opportunities of learning through the mother tongue unlike the various proposals of structural and gradual replacement of multilingualism by a monolingual world order
Samir Karmakar Bangalore 

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