The National Education Policy 2020 has revived an old debate on medium of instruction, especially in primary schools: What role should English have in our education system?
But like all ex-colonies, this question is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
It is worth noting though, that there are actually very few public proponents of English as the medium of instruction for primary school children. The only exceptions are perhaps some Dalit public intellectuals. In contrast, there are many individuals and organisations that speak for and demand vernacular, officially recognised state languages or mother tongues, to be recognised as the medium of instruction at the primary school level. This is especially so in schools supported or run by state governments.
In this situation with so many mother tongue lovers and supporters, it is as though there is the ghost of the English language that mysteriously works its powers and succeeds in not just becoming the language of instruction in high and low income private schools and institutes of learning, but also the language of power and privilege against which the majority of the communities in India have to perpetually fight.
There is no denying that English owes its position as the language of power to colonialism. But it is also true that many of those who speak for the mother tongue are comfortable in English, making them integral to that power structure. So, we need to ask ourselves honestly who these proponents of vernacular medium are.
Do they send their own kids to non-English medium schools? What opportunities do they promise for those who are to study in non-English medium?
At the core of the argument for vernacular/mother tongue I find an issue of elitism. It is as though only a certain section of the population in India will be allowed to move ahead in life by learning English — even if the elite were to study in a vernacular language, because of their social capital, they would go ahead in life so they can escape this dynamic of medium of English versus vernacular medium.
In contrast, the majority of the population will be enticed to study in local languages through calls of nationalism or patriotic fervour without much opportunity for higher studies or employment, thereby limiting social mobility for this majority.
How does one make sense of the language debate? What does it mean to think through the language debate from that position?
What if we were to think from the position of the oppressed section of society; oppressed not just economically but also socially, culturally and linguistically? How does one make sense of the language debate? What does it mean to think through the language debate from that position?
First, mother tongue as referred to in official/policy decisions should not be equated with the state, or officially recognised language of the region. In that sense, learning in the state language or the officially recognised local language, which we may call dominant language, may be as alienating for the child of a dominated language speaker as learning in English or any other alien language.
If it is equally alien, then one may as well choose the language, i.e. English that is going to give more dividends in future. In addition, it is possible that there may be a social, cultural gap between the dominant language speakers and the dominated language speakers. So, continuing with the language of the dominant group in the form of either the state language or the officially recognised local language helps perpetuate this social tension. Learning in a language such as English helps to circumvent this power relationship.
Second, it is true that a lot of the people who support instruction in mother tongue at the school level may not send their own children to such schools. Instead, it is most likely that their children go to English medium private schools. Even if they go to schools where the medium of instruction is the state language, these are elite, exclusive schools. And as such, they would have easy access to English language books and other educational materials at home and in their environment.
Therefore, learning in your mother tongue becomes a point of rootedness rather than an obstacle. In the long run, this becomes an investment in intellectual, social, cultural capital. In other words, the hegemonic socio-economic status gets amplified by learning in a language other than English.
But will this hold true for a child who goes to an under resourced state school and struggles with a ‘mother tongue’ medium, which isn’t even her mother tongue?
Third, for someone who comes from a socially and economically oppressed section of the society, almost all languages would prove to be one form of domination or the other. In other words, if you are in Manipur and not a Meetei then Manipuri is a dominant language, if you are in Assam and not an ethnic Assamese then Assamese is a dominant language, if you are in Bengal and not a Bengali then Bengali is a dominant language, and so on. Hindi is the universal language of domination in almost all parts of India. So the question that needs to be asked is this: If English is the language of domination, and if that is the basis of opposition to the language, then which language – Hindi, Meeteilon, Assamese, Bengali, etc. – that is recognised officially is not a language of domination?
English which was introduced as a part of colonialism, especially through its education system has always been the language of power. Even today its users are connected only by the bond of class. As such, it has the advantage of being identified as such. The material advantages of English are incomparable to any other native language in India. In addition, it has this added advantage of being nobody’s language except that of power. Therefore, to learn English is to enter into the corridors of power. Those who say otherwise are either being naive or duplicitous.
Fourth, we must reject this shallow binary that has been created between English and mother tongue. It works merely as a facade to divert our attention from the real issues. The real issues are ones of the quality of education, and access to quality education. So, we must broaden the conversation on resource allocations and funds and the workings of government schools. Medium of instruction is not enough.
Fifth, in India, it is those who belong to socially and culturally dominated groups who are forced to become bilingual or multilingual. Those who belong to the dominant group can comfortably remain monolingual. At the most, few may become bilingual. Multilingualism is the ideal that we must strive towards. But until we come up with a workable plan on how to structure a classroom where the mother tongue/home language of each child is taught at school and not just that of the dominant language, it is best avoided. Until such time, we must encourage English as the medium of instruction with added provisions for learning facilities and opportunities in other languages as well.
What does it mean to be multilingual in India?
As it is, multilingualism in India is mostly the reproduction of social inequality. The dominated learns the language of the dominant. The reverse doesn’t happen, and is not expected to. There is hardly any democratisation of the relationship between the two groups. As a result, there is this extra burden on the dominated communities. All the problems associated with language domination can be found but now with the added problem of progressive optics. As a result, one cannot even see the problem let alone work towards finding alternate practices.
Instead, if a language like English is introduced then there is the possibility that it is equally distant from both the communities, and can prove to be a new avenue for resolving existing conflictual and unequal relationships between communities.
This, of course, doesn’t do away with the question of quality. But that becomes one of efficient implementation of policies.