There is consensus among experts that education in one’s mother tongue leads to better learning outcomes. It is also true that English as the language of instruction and learning poses a significant barrier for hundreds of thousands in the country, given India’s wide linguistic diversity and several states imparting school education in regional languages. To that extent, home minister Amit Shah was right in saying that making higher education available in Indian languages would lead to a ‘brain gain’, while releasing three MBBS textbooks translated from English to Hindi, at a function in Madhya Pradesh, a predominantly Hindi-speaking state. Apart from the cognitive edge that teaching in the mother/regional tongue would impart, an MBBS graduate trained in a regional language would usually find it easier to communicate effectively with a non-English-speaking patient or her family. That’s the good part of Shah’s proposal. Unfortunately, that’s only in theory. The insistence on Hindi and other Indian languages becoming the medium of instruction and learning for even IITs and IIMs needs to be nuanced against the fact that English as the language of instruction and learning has had obvious benefits. English is central to both addressing aspirations in the domestic job market as well as availing overseas education and employment opportunities.
Researchers at the Oklahoma State University, University of Houston and University of Connecticut using data compiled by the National Council of Applied Economic Research say that hourly wages in India were higher by 34% for men fluent in English and 13% higher for men with some English fluency compared to men who spoke no English. The corresponding figures for women were 22% and 10%. So, in the real world, familiarity with English does give an added advantage—the research also found that the returns from English skills got compounded with educational attainment and experience. While some may argue that the benefits of English emerge from the fact it has been institutionalised over the decades, there is some evidence that shifting away from the language could have a negative impact on economic prospects. Findings presented in a 2016 paper by researchers at IIT Kanpur and The Energy and Resources Institute showed that West Bengal’s 1983 policy of eliminating English as the medium of instruction for the foundational years had a detrimental effect on wages of those who grew up being exposed to only Bengali in the early years. And, no one can deny that India scored over many other comparator economies when many services got globalised, including IT & IteS, and even healthcare.
This is not to say that higher education, especially technical education, should be delivered exclusively, or even primarily in English. Far from it. Making the regional language option available will be much more inclusive. But care must be taken that the regional language option is not pedalled in a manner that it eventually replaces English. The right way to promote regional languages, with their attendant benefits for cognition, is to go full steam on this in the early years even as supplementary English coaching is given to those that need this, quite in the manner that the Delhi and Tamil Nadu governments are doing. English must not become a barrier to entry—and thus it is only welcome that the government has made many competitive examinations in the country, including JEE and CUET, in a clutch of regional languages. But, the endgame can’t be a binary between English and regional languages.