Friday 31 July 2020

Why Emphasizing Local Languages in the NEP is a Mistake

Why Emphasizing Local Languages in the NEP is a Mistake

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 31 July, 2020


The New Education Policy (NEP) that was unveiled by the Modi Sarkar a couple of days ago has a disastrous, retrograde step that is bound to fail miserably. This misstep is the recommendation that all primary and some secondary education for all students in India be done in the local language rather than English. This is a problem because it puts migrants at a serious disadvantage because they do not know the local language. It is also a mistake because the world is moving towards greater adoption of English, and primary education in a different language forces a person to constantly translate between that language and English, thereby making him or her inefficient. The NEP threatens to create a nation of English “haves” and “have-nots.” English is the language of science, technology, and finance, among many things, and poor proficiency in English dooms a person in India to a low standard of living. The government should have left the adoption of English or of vernacular languages to market forces and not tampered with it for ideological reasons.

India needs a common language to communicate, and that common language should and eventually will be English. The present attempt by the government is a pathetic effort to stem the advance of the inevitable, and is doomed to fail because people at the grassroots see English as their ticket to a better life, regardless of what RSS and BJP politicians believe.

The Modi Sarkar’s New Education Policy (NEP)

The Modi government has come out with a “New Education Policy.” One of the key features of this policy is that it recommends that all children should be taught in their mother tongue for the first five years of schooling, and preferably the first eight. This contrasts with the current setup in which many parents opt to educate their children in the English medium. Mr. K. Kasturirangan, the chairman of the committee that created the NEP, has said that there is no imposition of the language policy. But one cannot help but worry about the pressure that will be exerted on schools by the government to comply with these guidelines. Since there is no explicit mandate to change the education system completely, English medium schools will still exist as they do now, especially in the private sector. But there will be pressure on publicly funded or partially funded schools to comply with the “recommendations” of the NEP. This is the main cause of worry.

What exactly does the NEP say about languages?

Wherever possible, the medium of instruction, until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother-tongue/local language. Thereafter, the home/local language shall continue to be taught as a language wherever possible. This will be followed by both public and private schools.

The logic that has been explained for this change is that children learn most naturally and effortlessly in their “mother tongue,” especially when what is being taught them is the description of the immediate world around them, which they can communicate with their parents in the language which the parents are most comfortable in and in topics that the parents know very well, since these are not specialized subjects — animals, birds, places, customs, human relations, and the like. It is thus argued that basic concepts are most easily understood when communicated in the “mother tongue” that both the parents and the child are most familiar with.

Why This is a Problem

This is good logic if we are indeed talking about the mother tongue. But what happens when a child from a Tamil-speaking family has settled in Maharashtra or Karnataka, where the local language is not Tamil but Marathi or Kannada? The central assumption in this policy is that all people who live in a particular state will have the same mother tongue. The NEP glibly uses the phrasing “home language/mother tongue/local language.” But these three things are not equivalent. The local language need not be the mother tongue of the child. And that is where the problem arises.

Given that there are unlikely to be Tamil medium schools in, say, a Maharashtra or a West Bengal or Odisha, what will a Tamil speaking child have to undergo? They will teach all the basic knowledge of the world in Marathi to a child who does not speak the language at home. As a result, this child will fall behind in his or her acquisition of knowledge.

And this is hardly an unlikely scenario. Our country has plenty of migrant workers, both at the lower end (e.g., construction workers) as well as the higher end (e.g., software engineers). People move across the length and breadth of this country in search of job opportunities. What is worse, people move a lot between jobs. So one year, I might be working in Karnataka, and the next year, I might be working in Maharashtra. So now my child will have to change her learning from Kannada to Marathi — and neither is her mother tongue. I cannot keep learning new languages as I change jobs and move cities to try to help my child in school.

Is the intent of the NEP to restrict job mobility?

My Personal Experience

I grew up in Mumbai, even though my mother tongue is Tamil. My father was a highly educated University Professor. Hence, at home the languages for communication were mostly Tamil (with my mother) and English (with my father). Mumbai is very cosmopolitan, and so the influence of the state language, Marathi, is not (at least was not) as strong in Mumbai as it is in the rest of Maharashtra. Most people in Mumbai speak what is known as Bambaiyya, a dialect of Hindi with lots of Marathi influence (such as “apuN” for “I”, inspired by “aapaN” from Marathi). As a child, I mostly learned to speak Bambaiyya.

Nobody among my schoolmates spoke Marathi. The school was an English medium school, and we studied English as the first language, Hindi as the second language, and Marathi as the third language. This was a consequence of the three-language formula that was introduced in the 1960s: English, Hindi, and the local language of the state for any English medium school.

I learned Hindi reasonably well because there was so much reinforcement. When I used to go to the market to buy anything, inevitably I would talk in Bambaiyya. I used to watch Hindi movies and listen to Hindi songs. But given that no one around me actually spoke Marathi — a situation made worse by local demographics of the suburb in Mumbai I was living in, known as Matunga, in which 80% of the population were actually Tamil-speakers, the rest being Gujarati (the situation has been reversed today) — with no Marathi speakers except the maids who cleaned our homes, it was actually very difficult to absorb the Marathi I was learning in school. I had no parent to help me with my Marathi homework, no friends to chat in Marathi. Because of my resulting incompetence in the language, I gradually grew to detest it as an imposition.

As a result, I did quite poorly in Marathi, even though I learned it for 4 years – from Vth standard to VIIIth. In our IXth standard, the school gave us the option of Sanskrit for the third language as an alternative to Marathi. Sanskrit, unlike Marathi, was also a high scoring subject in the Xth board exams. I jumped at the chance to ditch Marathi, given how miserable I was with that subject. It also helped that the teacher who taught us Sanskrit was a great teacher. I still have a love of Sanskrit from those two years learning it in school.

Because my father was well-educated in English, I did very well in school, where the medium of education was English. I shudder to think how I would have done if Marathi had been the medium of instruction. I would probably have dropped out and become a criminal selling drugs for D company in Mumbai instead of having this wonderful educated professional life I am leading today. Such are the dramatic consequences of the choices we make as a nation.

Why English Medium Education is of Paramount Importance

Some will argue with me that exactly the reverse problem is true for a native Marathi speaker in Maharashtra if she goes to an English medium school. This is certainly true. If the child has no one at home to help her with her English-based homework, she will fall behind and not learn the concepts that the school is trying to teach her.

So what is the solution here? One has to think of what the final goals of a school education are: self-awareness, community awareness, awareness about health, science, society, the nation, its history, and the world. In addition, school is the stepping stone to college and a professional life. The most lucrative jobs in the world today are in the technological space. Of course, not everyone is going to make it to those jobs. Many will drop out of schools even before what we know today as the Xth standard (I am using these terms even though the NEP has changed them, for the sake of discussion.) If you are going to end up doing manual labour as a class D employee in the government, you may not benefit by learning to communicate in English. But if you even want a peon’s job in today’s India, a good working knowledge of English is a huge advantage.

Most of science and technology, and even most of the financial system, is based on English. You not only need English to understand how to connect your router to the network or to assemble that car; you also need it to understand what are stocks, bonds, debentures, derivatives, and the like. The entire world of finance is a western invention, as are the entire worlds of science and technology.

The only thing that a local language education will give you is an ability to appreciate literature in your mother tongue. Given that most people simply do not read anything in today’s world, whether in English or in any Indian language, this benefit is dubious at best. And there are negligibly few jobs in classical Tamil or Hindi poetry.

I am not downplaying the humanities. I love the humanities, and I love languages (today). But we must focus on what will benefit children in their future. There are only 24 hours in a day, and children have to prioritize their time. They can certainly learn languages, including their mother tongue, as a hobby. Knowledge of culture does not need to be school-fed. I am a connoisseur of Indian classical music — I even sing and play it to a degree — but I am not classically trained. I have learned classical music out of sheer interest. Children of tomorrow can learn their mother tongues in detail out of interest. And anyway, they will learn that language as a second or a third language. That's more exposure than I ever got to Indian classical music — and I still learned it.

Lost in Translation

There is an important handicap that students who are primarily schooled in their mother tongue face when they finally get to the workforce and have to communicate in English in their professions: they are constantly translating.

So, when they have to say something in English, first they compose the sentence in their native tongue, and then they translate it to English. The result of this is sentences like “Today office is there?” — which is wrong construction, but this happens because the speaker directly translated from an Indian language like Hindi, in which you would say, “Aaj office hai kya?” The correct construction would be “Is the office working today?” But because our speaker is translating from a construction first made in Hindi, the result is incorrect English. This has consequences for the person in their professional lives. Like it or not, the world runs on English knowledge, not any of the local languages of India, and it is only going to get worse for those stuck in the vernacular groove.

Similarly, when a person educated in a language other than English during their primary years reads something, they first translate what they read into their local language and then understand what it means. The result is that whenever they have to read anything written in English, it takes them twice as long to understand what they read, and this makes them inefficient.

Someone whose medium of education was English all along will have a competitive advantage over someone who was educated in a vernacular medium during their primary years because of this.

Some friends of mine will counter this claim of mine. They will tell me that they did study in a vernacular medium in the early years of their lives but switched to English medium later, and have done well in their lives. But they discount the effect of privilege. These are people born into upper middle-class homes, where there is a very nice support structure. You have educated parents who can help you when you get stuck in the transition from Hindi or Marathi or Tamil to English. Most lower class children in India have no support structure — they are completely dependent on the school system for their education.

My proficiency in English has helped me tremendously in my career. I would not wish anything else for my child. It is true that I cannot read the Tirukkural, a classic in my native tongue, Tamil — but I anyway would not have been able to do that even under the NEP, given that I grew up in Maharashtra. I cannot even read Hindi very comfortably. I can read a Hindi newspaper with some difficulty, because it takes me time to process the words and translate them into my true “mother tongue,” which is now English. Whenever I read something in Hindi, I experience what students who have studied only in Hindi or Marathi will experience when they read something in English. It is painful.

But I rarely have to read Hindi unless I want to. In contrast, those in professions in today’s world have to constantly read English everywhere. Want to fix a machine? The instructions are all in English. Want to assemble a circuit? English. Want to read a scientific paper? English. You cannot get away from it.

The Advantage of Privilege

In my case, for the sake of my child, I will ensure she is educated in English, so she will have a competitive advantage. Thankfully, the NEP is not yet mandatory, and so the government will not force private schools to abandon English medium education. They will not do that for a very practical reason — the children and grandchildren of most politicians, including those who have introduced this NEP, go to English medium schools.

So I am safe. But what about the poor, who have to go to government schools in which the new NEP will be implemented?

They will grow up as English illiterates. They will struggle to read a newspaper in English, struggle to read a manual at their workplace written in English. One of the problems I have seen time and time again is how many of my colleagues in India will happily do good work in engineering, but shudder in fear when it comes time to document that work and write a report. It is like Chinese water torture for many, and so they keep procrastinating until the boss orders them to finish the report. And then they write a shoddy report of some excellent work. That does not impress.

So what the NEP will end up doing is create a world of English “haves” and “have-nots.” Those with the means to send their children to expensive private schools will reap the benefits of an English education. The vast majority of Indians will end up learning Marathi, Odia, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, etc., etc., and will be at a huge disadvantage when it comes to competing in the global marketplace. When they go to interview for a job at even a call centre, they will be rejected because of their halting English.

This will simply widen the gap between the rich and the poor in India, and increase the income inequality. But that may not be such a bad thing, given that there are very few jobs for people anyway, thanks to economic mismanagement by the Modi Sarkar. If you cut down the pool of qualified candidates, there might be better balance between supply and demand, and that will increase the salary for the “haves.”

The rest can go flip pakodas for a living or sing in suburban trains with a plate for the coins. And continue to sing Modi’s praises for bringing “Acche Din” to them.

What About Other Countries?

One of the common responses from RSS and BJP sympathizers is to point to developed countries whose native tongues are not English. They say, for example, that “In Germany, doesn’t everyone speak German? In France, doesn’t everyone speak French? In Japan, doesn’t everyone speak Japanese? Why should we speak English in India? They even write scientific articles in those countries in German/French/etc. So why should we not communicate in Indian languages in India?”

That was definitely true in the past. But over the past 30-40 years, English has gradually become the lingua franca of the entire world. A recent survey conducted on 55 countries on the use of English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) revealed the following, on average, across these countries:

  • Nearly 53% of all public primary schools used EMI
  • Nearly 71% of all public secondary schools used EMI
  • Over 87% of all private primary schools used EMI
  • Over 87% of all private secondary schools used EMI
  • Over 78% of all public universities used EMI
  • Nearly 91% of all private universities used EMI

The list of countries in this survey included Germany, China, Japan, India, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Venezuela. Note that apart from India, every one of the aforementioned countries have a single dominant language — and yet, these countries teach the majority of their children in English.

In another study of EMI in higher education published by researchers from Oxford University in 2018, the following findings were listed:

  • The percentage of English-Taught Programs (ETPs) in higher education programs in Europe grew from 725 in 2002 to 2389 in 2007 to 8089 in 2014. That’s more than a 1000% increase in 12 years.
  • At the Masters’ level in Europe, the number of ETPs grew from 560 in 2002 to 1500 in 2008 to 3543 in 2010 and to 3701 in October 2011. That’s more than a 500% increase in 9 years.
  • In 2001, China instituted a policy that mandated that, within 3 years, EMI should be used for 5-10% of undergraduate education in top-tier universities.
  • In 2006, the President of South Korea’s Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) announced his globalization project, according to which EMI programmes were to be increased by 10% every year until all classes at all levels (Bachelors, Masters, Doctoral) were taught entirely through English. This was followed by a wider adoption of English across all South Korean higher education institutions.
  • It is clear that the rest of the world is rapidly moving towards greater adoption of English as a medium of instruction. The Indian government’s step, therefore, is clearly retrograde.

What is the Solution?

I have identified the problems. Some would demand, and fairly so, that I provide a solution as well. So here goes.

The current English education system is a disaster in India. People are desperate to get their children educated in English, because they know this is the only way up in life. And “schools” have mushroomed to teach them in English, to take advantage of this growing trend.

However, most of the teachers who are teaching English have very poor knowledge of English themselves. And hence, most kids who go to these schools are none the wiser in their command of English. Worse, they do not even grasp the basic concepts that they are supposed to learn in their formative years.

The reason, of course, is that most of the English teachers have themselves studied in vernacular media, and themselves translate to and from their native tongue. How can they effectively teach English?

But these are growing pains. There is a massive movement all over India by parents who want English medium education for their children. This is the first generation of new English teachers, and that is why the results are so poor.

As the movement grows, there will be more and more private schools (often with low budgets) that parents can afford and where their children will learn English from progressively better English speakers.

Over a few decades, the quality of English education will improve, whether or not the state intervenes. The market will take care of the problems. When there is an urgent imperative, solutions will arise in a market economy. Already there are huge numbers of English speaking schools all over north India.

In fact, the puzzling thing about the NEP is that the drive to a vernacular medium of instruction has not arisen from the grassroots. It has its roots in the RSS and BJP ideologies. These parties are fundamentally opposed to an English education for the mass of Indians (but they will send their own children to English medium schools, in a stunning display of hypocrisy). There is no clamour from the grassroots of India to get a vernacular medium education.

And therefore, the push towards local languages in the NEP will be a failure. It will result in massive dropouts from public schools. There will be a huge rise in private schools that teach in English. The number of schools that teach in local languages will fall as they close down because of lack of enrollment. For ideological reasons, these schools will be kept open by the government, but fewer and fewer students will patronize them. Poor students and their families will prefer to pay money to get an English-medium education than to study in the vernacular for free. And if the government tries to make the move to a vernacular education mandatory, they will have a national revolt on their hands.

A policy that is rooted in an unpopular ideology and not in practicality is bound to fail. Indians will not be denied their right to progress.

In 2014, a certain Chief Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi said in an election speech that “The government has no business to be in business.” Well, PM Modi should listen to CM Modi and not get into the business of education. Let the market sort out what people want. Let people decide the education they wish to give their children based on what they think the opportunities are, not based on some archaic RSS ideology.

English as India’s National Language

India’s greatest weakness is its multiplicity of languages. It creates inefficiency in communication. Therefore, we need a national language. But that language cannot be imposed. It must evolve of its own accord. The only language that can evolve to be the national language is the one that is in sync with the rest of the world: English.

Hindi is a worthless language for practical purposes, and so are all other Indian languages. It is already clear which language is going to rule the world, and most other countries have seen the light. Those who prefer to live in the darkness will be consumed by it.

We can and should study Indian languages to preserve our culture and understand our roots. But our language for all practical communication, including for communicating within Parliament, should and one day will be English. Once the current generation of illiterate politicians dies out, that change will become much easier. As Max Planck once said about science, change, here too, will happen one funeral at a time.

Politicians can either try to enable this evolution of English as the national language, or they will be swept away by the desire for this change that comes from the grassroots. Anybody who tries to impede the progress of the common people will get their just desserts in the hustings.

The present move by the government to institute the NEP is yet another pathetic attempt to try to stem the inevitable tide of English. Other countries have already seen the light. It is unfortunate, but not at all surprising, that this government is trying to swim against the global tide and is taking a retrograde step. After all, it was this very PM who stood up in front of an August assembly of internationally-renowned scientists a few years ago and talked about how India had discovered plastic surgery and stem cell therapy thousands of years ago, thereby making India the laughingstock of the world. And it is MPs from the same party who are claiming that the cure to the coronavirus pandemic is the consumption of cow urine. Yet another retrograde step is but to be expected.

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.