Mother tongue first

Imagine you joined a course without knowing that the instruction was in Russian. You would understand nothing. In a poignant scene from the Hindi movie, Taare Zameen Par, the parents of Ishaan, who is dyslexic, are asked to read Chinese and learn. They struggle and fail. This is what happens to thousands of Indian children who are enrolled in English-medium schools, though they do not hear English at home. Many lose interest, and a significant number drop out.

Educators stress the importance of using the mother tongue in the early years of education, asserting that teaching in an unfamiliar language hinders learning. A recent study by the Gyan Vigyan Samiti in Jharkhand found that students speaking tribal languages struggle in Hindi-medium government schools. Conversely, when Odisha changed the medium of instruction in government schools, in districts with large tribal populations, from Odiya (the state language) to Saora and other tribal languages, it significantly improved student learning. The National Education Policy 2020 recommends the mother tongue as a medium of instruction. Yet Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah courted controversy when he recently batted for Kannada-medium schools. Of course, ‘Kannada medium’ should connote mother tongue education for all Kannadigas. This implies schools offering instruction in Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Urdu, Konkani, and Tulu, languages spoken in numerous Kannadiga homes. And languages like Hindi, Nepali, Bengali, and Marwari that are spoken by migrant communities.

Educators opine that English (or any ‘second language’) can be more easily learned once the child is comfortably learning through the home language, as the home language can serve as a bridge to support ‘second language’ learning. This is why a second language is usually recommended to be introduced after a few years of formal schooling.

Pedagogical-political conflict

However, parents, viewing English as crucial for socio-economic mobility, prefer English-medium schools. Government schools, mostly offering Kannada-medium education, see declining enrollments, while private schools promote English as the medium of their instruction. Mandating Kannada in government schools might not solve the problem, as parents may opt for ‘English medium’ schools wherever possible. English-medium private schools will continue to proliferate, and children in such schools who have little or no support for English at home will suffer. They are unlikely to learn English, and what’s worse, they are unlikely to learn other subjects as well.

Yet what Siddaramaiah wants, as recommended by educators, is not impossible. A child can learn English as a language while studying other subjects in her mother tongue. English proficiency does not necessitate English-medium instruction. Schools in Germany, China, or Russia teach only in their home language in the primary grades. While Kannada should be the medium of instruction, it is essential to strengthen teaching English as a second language in all government schools. Kerala introduced the E-Language Lab (ELL) English language programme during the 2022–23 academic year. The ELL provides ample digital resources—picture story books, audio stories, and videos—for an ‘immersive’ environment in English. ‘Listening’ is the first step in language learning, but the learner usually has only ‘textbooks’ for learning a language. A textbook can only be read; ‘reading’ is a skill that needs emphasis after acquiring basic language competencies through listening. Students found the ELL stories engaging and often listened to them on their own. This facilitated interest-driven self-learning of English, reducing inhibition. ELL has been effective in strengthening the English competencies of children in government and aided schools, potentially reversing the move of children from government to private schools. The programme shows that digital technologies can be used for creating, sharing, storing, and using audio-visual resources to create an effective ‘listening rich’ environment in schools. (The study of the Kerala ELL programme was conducted by IT for Change along with the Regional Institute of English, South India.)

Yet this would not be adequate. Karnataka must invest significantly in government schools, meeting the basic requirements outlined in the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009. An Annexure in the RTE specifies physical infrastructure, including adequate classrooms, toilets, drinking water, a compound wall, and a playground, as well as sufficient teachers (one teacher for 30 students). While the RTE made education a fundamental right for children, Karnataka’s compliance is at a dismal 23.6% (the Ministry of Education’s response to the question in Lok Sabha in 2021), with a severe shortage of teachers. Kerala’s relatively better education system is due to state legislation that made the ‘teacher to student ratio’ 30:1 a school-level mandate; other states compute this ratio at a state level, which leads to teacher shortages in larger schools. Also, ad hoc or guest teacher recruitment cannot ensure quality education. School maintenance and development budgets are pathetically inadequate. A primary school with even 100 students would need more than Rs 1 lakh every year; current allocations average less than Rs 10,000. The government’s thinking that poor people can do with poorly resourced (government) schools is inherently iniquitous.

Secondly, the government must close down private schools that do not comply with RTE and are unlikely to. Most schools that depend wholly on parent fees cannot meet RTE norms. The small percentage of elite schools, where parents cover all expenses, should comply with the 25% admission of children from marginalised sections to provide diverse learning contexts to students.

Thirdly, a society-wide programme for building a more informed discussion on the aims and principles of education is absolutely necessary. For most people, education is merely a means to employment and economic mobility. However, education is the primary vehicle for building a better society, which makes curriculum a complex political question. Hence, the government needs to continuously organise open public discussions (in and outside panchayats and on social media) on topics such as home language education, language learning, the role of digital technologies, secular education, constitutional morality, the role of community in education, etc. to evolve a shared and rational understanding and build political will for progressive education. Such reconciliation of pedagogical and political perspectives would be essential for a healthy education system. Promoting the medium of instruction in the mother tongue would also protect and promote the linguistic diversity and cultural wealth of our country.

(The writer is a teacher educator, and director of IT for Change.)

This article originally appeared in the Deccan Herald.

languages struggle in Hindi-medium government schools. Conversely, when Odisha changed the medium of instruction in government schools, in districts with large tribal populations, from Odiya (the state language) to Saora and other tribal languages, i...

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Mother tongue first