Is the draft National Education Policy (NEP) triggering linguistic regionalism or is it really promoting multilingualism and learning in one’s mother tongue?
The draft NEP, prepared by a seven-member panel headed by former ISRO chairman Dr K. Kasturirangan, submitted to the HRD minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank on May 31, has stirred a hornet’s nest. The non-Hindi speaking states are alleging “imposition of Hindi” on non-Hindi speaking states. If Tamil Nadu erupted in protest resisting the three -language policy, states like West Bengal and Karnataka demanded primacy to the regional language, and opposed the imposition of Hindi.
The protests seem to have worked as the draft has now been revised to exclude the clause that stipulated the specific languages the students were to choose. The old version had a clause that made Hindi compulsory for the non-Hindi speaking states.
While the three-language policy is nothing new, as it was first conceived in 1968, and endorsed in the National Policy on Education in 1986 and also 1992, the three-language policy has Hindi and English compulsory for both Hindi-speaking and non-Hindi speaking states in practice as the student gets to choose from among the modern Indian languages (listed in Schedule 8 of the Constitution) as the third language. A major grouse is that the Hindi-speaking states invariably choose Sanskrit and not any other Indian language, the non-Hindi states are left to choose between Sanskrit and local language (as Hindi is compulsory).
The revised draft now states that, "in keeping with the principle of flexibility, students who wish to change one or more of the three languages they are studying, may do so in Grade 6 or Grade 7, so long as they are able to still demonstrate proficiency in three languages (one language at the literature level) in their modular Board examinations in the secondary school." But such a change seems far-fetched as the three-language formula too is perceived as a “burden” by some states.
Speaking to THE WEEK, Professor M.K. Sridhar, member of the NEP drafting committee said, “It is not a change in the three-language policy, but only a fine-tuning of the existing policy. Broadly, the draft recommends mother tongue to be the medium of instruction from the pre-school level. Students must try to pick up as many languages as research clearly shows that children pick up languages extremely quickly between the ages of 2 and 8, and multilingualism has great cognitive benefits to students. The draft has made the choice of languages flexible too, where a student who studies three languages has the freedom to change any of them in Grade 6.”
Union minister for chemicals and fertilisers D.V. Sadananda Gowda refuted the allegations of the Centre imposing Hindi saying, “It is only a recommendation and not a policy. No decision has been taken by the Centre yet.”
Gowda added that it was wrong to accuse the Centre of taking “unilateral” decision of imposing Hindi especially when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogan while addressing the NDA MPs has been “National ambition and regional aspirations”. Kasturirangan has clarified that the revision of the draft was carried out by the committee, which apparently has approved alternatives to many contentious clauses.
While the HRD ministry has called for objections within June 30, the draft has raised some real concerns and questioned the “power structure of language”. Despite the rich, expressive and scientific nature of Indian languages, there has been an unfortunate trend in schools and society towards English as a medium of instruction and as a medium of conversation. While only 15 per cent of India speaks English, Hindi is spoken by 54 per cent, notes the Committee.
Stating the English language has no advantages over other Indian languages, the committee attributes the affinity to English to the patronage it enjoys from the "economic elite". Multilingual children have been found to learn faster and are placed better in life. A multilingual India is better educated and better nationally integrated. And Indian languages are some of the richest, scientific and expressive. Yet, English is the preferred medium of instruction because the “economic elite” have adopted English as their language. These elite use English as a test of entry into the elite class or to the jobs they control. This has lead to marginalisation of a larger section of the Indian society, which are smart, educated, highly skilled and hardworking. It has also created an unnatural aspiration among the parents to get their children educated in the English medium, observes the committee.
Further the draft adds that for true equity and inclusion in society, and in the education and employment systems across the country, this power structure of language must be stopped at the earliest. It also reminds that the most advanced countries use their own native languages as the languages of interaction and transaction, and it is suggested that India works towards the same, or its rich language and cultural heritage, along with the rich power of expression, may slowly be lost.
Meanwhile, the controversy has exposed the double standards of the state governments. In Karnataka, most leaders accept that primary education must be in one’s mother tongue, the JDS-Congress coalition government has promised to start at least 1,000 Karnataka Public Schools, which will have English medium sections in Class 1.
While several research studies, including the one by UNESCO state that primary education in one’s mother tongue is more beneficial to the child, the government-run schools are slowly moving towards making English as the medium of instruction. Ironically, Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy and former chief minister and coordination committee chairman Siddaramaiah have been hailing primary education in mother tongue, but the government has failed to arrest migration of students from Kannada medium government schools to private English medium schools.
The commitment of the state government to accord primacy to Kannada is also questionable as many private schools are found to be violating the Compulsory Kannada Language Learning Act 2015, that mandates teaching Kannada as first or second language across all schools in the state. Many private schools are offering foreign languages like French, German, Spanish, or Mandarin as third language, while making Hindi compulsory, thus depriving the children a chance to learn in the local language or mother tongue.
In contrast, the draft encourages increased recruitment of language teachers, and accords primacy to mother tongue as pre-primary and primary education will gradually be taught only in the mother tongue, along with bilingual learning of science in higher classes. The focus will shift from three-language formula and expand to five-language policy where Sanskrit (as classic language) and any one foreign language (as elective) can also be pursued by the students.