Teaching in tongues

Jul 02 2014, 15:17 IST
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SummaryHow our overheated language politics affects learning outcomes.

The politics of language in India is often a farce; the pedagogy of language, on the other hand, is often a tragedy. So much energy is expended in an overstylised homogenisation-versus-diversity debate that we actually pay very little attention to the pedagogical failures that form the backdrop of this farcical politics. In terms of imagining a complex political relationship between languages, India is a triumph. But that triumph is not matched by the imaginative teaching of language. This failure is at many levels. The learning outcomes at the level of school education, as documented by ASER reports, are very poor. But its political implications are that there will be a large section of nominally educated Indians who will feel excluded from access to knowledge structures. Rather than blaming a poor education system as such, which often seems to fail to teach in any language, it is likely that this group will be permanently available for mobilisation against a language “Other.”

Some might think this fear is far-fetched, particularly since there is a massive turn to English anyway. States with pronounced vernacular nationalisms, like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, have also turned to English at earlier grades; and the poor seem to be voting with their feet for English. But the pedagogic effects of this are decidedly mixed. As Karthik Muralidharan’s brilliant empirical work has shown, it appears that from the point of view of learning outcomes, switching mediums seems to make students worse off. As he puts it, “switching medium of instruction may hurt accumulation of content knowledge”.

In Andhra Pradesh, according to this study, switching to English-medium private schools led to improvement in learning English, but also to worse scores in subjects like maths. To be clear, these results are suggestive. But switching mediums seems to be a real problem, exacerbated by the fact that English learning is hard to reinforce at home in most languages. But the larger point is this: so much energy has been expended in celebrating this turn to English as a kind of acknowledgment of modern politics, an iconic turn to a new cosmopolitanism, unfettered by the past, that very little attention has been paid to pedagogic effects. Language choice has been so consumed by a politics of identity that we cannot even get a proper cognitive debate on language going.

Think of other ways in which politics trumps pedagogy. You want to the see the real

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