By Pranay Aggarwal
The first sound that a newborn hears is that of her mother cooing gently or singing lullabies in her native language. The first teachings that a child picks up are in the home environment by one’s family members, again, in the mother tongue. However, the moment the child steps into the school, she is introduced to formal education in an alien language, English. A century back, Gandhi had remarked that to give education to millions of Indians in English is to enslave the nation.
The National Education Policy (NEP) suggests intent to change that. NEP lays down that the medium of instruction at least till grade five and preferably till grade eight and beyond, should be the mother tongue, wherever possible, in both public and private schools. This, if implemented earnestly, will be a watershed in the history of education in modern India and could truly democratize education.
Benefits of learning in the mother tongue
Pedagogic research indicates that several individual-level as well as social benefits accrue when children are taught in the mother tongue. Based on research, UNESCO statements and personal experience as an educator, I list here some of the most salient advantages of education in the mother tongue:
It ensures better learning outcomes and academic performance. Presently, Annual Survey of Educational Reports year after year highlight the poor learning outcomes in the country. Only about 27% of grade three students are able to read a grade second level text. In fact, more than one-fourth of grade eight children are also unable to read a grade second level text. Research suggests that there is a noticeable improvement in students’ test scores and overall learning outcomes when they are taught in the mother tongue.
It eases communication and enables the students to talk and express themselves in schools. This boosts the self-confidence and self-esteem of the child. It will reduce the alienation of children from the school and make learning more fun. Thus, it will ensure higher student retention and reduction in the drop-out rates.
When taught in the mother tongue, all children, particularly those from humble socio-economic backgrounds, are able to participate in discussions and activities in the classroom to a far greater extent. It also makes learning more engaging and results in more proficiency in the subjects taught. As Nelson Mandela had said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
UNESCO has been a strong votary of multilingual teaching with an emphasis on the use of the mother tongue, arguing that it helps to preserve the cultural and traditional heritage which is embedded in language. It will also help to keep languages alive and preserve our rich linguistic diversity. It also facilitates the development of a sense of community and belonging and instills a sense of national pride in the future generations.
Challenges in implementation
At best, NEP is a vision document. The specifics need to be worked out.
Actualizing the policy of using mother tongue in our education system will require development of study materials and learning resources in the Indian languages. It will also call for human resource development-either hiring new teachers or retraining old ones or both. Teachers will require proficiency not only in speaking in the mother tongue but also in thinking, understanding and writing in it so that they can pass it on to the child.
The linguistic diversity of the country will pose a peculiar challenge, particularly in the urban areas where people from different linguistic backgrounds comingle.
Given the haloed presence of English speakers in our society, with proficiency in English being seen as a marker of high social status, it will be challenging to displace English education as a preference for not only the upper classes but the burgeoning aspirational middle class and the social strata further down, who imitate their social superiors.
Teaching in the mother tongue will help create a more accessible, inclusive, democratic and student centric school environment which is conducive for learning. While the NEP makes the right noises in this direction, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It remains to be seen how effectively policy makers and education administrators of today and tomorrow are able to translate the vision of the NEP into a social reality.
The author is India’s representative in research committee on Education, for UNESCO’s International Sociological Association.