Mind your language: Critics debate India’s new education policy for schools

Mind your language: Critics debate India’s new education policy for schools
Mind your language: Critics debate India’s new education policy for schools

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - NEW DELHI: The writing is on the wall, parents and critics of India’s New Education Policy (NEP) told Arab News on Wednesday, as debate rages on over the government’s move to use local languages as the medium of instruction in primary schools, while English is pushed to the back burner.

New Delhi’s announcement on July 30 was the first change in policy after 35 years, and encourages the use of “the mother tongue” in a child’s early learning years. 

“Wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least grade five, but preferably until grade eight and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language,” the draft NEP says.

With a nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus disease pandemic, the implementation of the policy is expected to take place in a “phased manner” once schools reopen.

Experts, however, argue that the move could backfire, especially in a multilingual country such as India.

“The first language of the child should be the language of the child which he is familiar with, be it mother tongue or the language the child is exposed to and knows well,” Dr. Dhir Jhingran, director of a New Delhi-based NGO, the Language and Learning Foundation, told Arab News.

He added that primary school children should be introduced to English and other languages for intellectual growth.

“We should use English as a link language after initiating the learning through the vernacular language. The best way is to allow language which they know well and then build the foundation of English,” he said.

This emphasis on local language has agitated parents and experts.

“No doubt, I want my daughter to learn in her mother tongue, but I would also like her to know English which is important in a country like India,” Anjana Kumar, a Delhi-based parent, told Arab News.

“It’s always good that a child learns as many languages as possible. How can you expect the growth of a child without English?” she added.

It is a sentiment echoed by another parent, Jaiprakash Yadav, from the eastern Indian city of Patna.

“Hindi is my mother tongue, but I cannot expect a good future for my children just being exposed to this native language. Children need to be exposed to English early in school so that they can have a strong foundation and be confident in facing academic and professional challenges when they grow up,” he told Arab News.

Some educators argued that the NEP was vague.

“Vernacular language is important, but it does need to be taught at the exclusion of any other language. India is a country of multiple languages. If all education is done in (a) mother tongue, then it will pose a problem for people who have transferable jobs and belong to a different linguistic group,” Gowri Ishwaran, a Delhi-based educator, told Arab News.

She added that the “mother tongue should not stop me from being proficient in English, which is the lingua franca of India whether we like it or not.”

However, not everyone agrees, with representatives from a Bangalore-based NGO, the Centre for Square Foundation (CSF) — which works for quality school education — citing empirical studies showing that learning in a mother tongue ensures “better success” for children.

“Research experiments around the world have shown that schooling in the home language of the child is one of the strongest predictors for successful reading outcomes in their mother tongue as well as any other additional language that the child may be required to learn,” Akhila Pydah and Avantika Dhingra of the CSF said.

“It is very challenging to find a common language for teaching that addresses the home-language ideal for all children in most classrooms.”

The NEP’s language policy has also created a renewed sense of fear among several south Indian states as to whether New Delhi wants to “impose … Hindi on them.”

The fear was further accentuated when, on Friday, a senior secretary of the Indian government asked non-Hindi speaking yoga teachers and medical practitioners from the south of the country to leave a webinar if they “could not understand” Hindi.

“It’s extraordinary when a secretary of the Indian government tells Tamils to leave a webinar if they can’t understand his Hindi. If the government has any decency, he should be replaced by a Tamil civil servant forthwith,” tweeted Shashi Tharoor, a parliamentarian from the south Indian state of Kerala.

Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, a parliamentarian from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, termed the incident an “imposition of Hindi” and asked the center to “take action against all officials who have acted in a manner discriminating (against) our fellow citizens based on language.”

There are 22 officially recognized Indian languages in the constitution, with all central government job applications issued in these languages.

In the 1950s, New Delhi adopted a language policy where the widely spoken Hindi language was given the “status of an official language” while English was to be used for “official purposes.”

Tamil Nadu had always opposed the three-language formula in schools, and revolted against the imposition of Hindi in the state.

“I always oppose this policy of imposition of a language on others. People pick up the language according to their interests, why to impose them and create conflict,” Ishwaran added.

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