The NEP Language Debate: For & Against

In the aftermath of the new National Education Policy, as the debate over education in Indian languages heats up, IPC collates arguments from both sides.

The new National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, is the talk of the town. What is being most debated is its proposals for change regarding education in regional languages, that claims to lead us towards a more multilingual approach. 

According to the NEP, the medium of instruction should be in the “home language/mother tongue/local language” until Grade 5, ideally until Grade 8, in both public and private schools. Following this too, the “home/regional language will be taught as a language wherever possible”. In the case of students whose “home language” differs from the decided upon language of instruction, a bilingual approach will be adopted to ensure a smoother transition to the primary language of instruction. 

This means that the three language formula, first adopted in the NEP of 1968, will be continued. This formula provided for the study of "Hindi, English and modern Indian language, preferably one of the southern languages, in the Hindi speaking states and Hindi, English and the Regional language in the non-Hindi speaking States". However, there will be a greater emphasis on flexibility, allowing students to change one or more of the languages they are studying in Grade 6 or 7.

Students will also receive a small amount of exposure to most of the other languages of India through a course taught in Grades 6-8 called ‘The Languages of India’. 

Also, there will be a much greater emphasis on the ‘classical languages’ of India, including Sanskrit, classical Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Odia, Pali, Persian and Prakrit. Students in Grade 6 must opt for a course in one of these classical languages. 

Sanskrit, in particular, receives special attention from the NEP 2020 and “will thus be offered at all levels of school and higher education as an important, enriching option for students, including as an option in the three-language formula.” This means it can be taught as a part of the three-language formula or as one of the classical languages to be studied. 

Finally, foreign languages will also be offered in secondary school, and Indian Sign Language (ISL) will be standardized across the country. 

The study of these languages is to employ experiential learning methods as well. The NEP also calls for greater investment in supplying high-quality regional language textbooks and teachers for such languages. The policy suggests that states could enter into bilateral agreements, to hire teachers from one other, in large numbers.

IPC has collated points from both sides of the debate. Here are the points for and against the NEP’s proposals for change regarding regional languages: 

Points For: 

- The purpose of the new focus on regional languages as a medium of instruction is not to do away with present languages that are being used but, rather, to promote multilingualism. The study of India’s many languages will strengthen national integration.

- This multilingualism will also better expose students to the country’s tremendous cultural diversity and heritage, which will enrich their minds. 

- The NEP 2020 document claims research showing children, from age two to eight, to have more flexible minds and, consequently, an increased capacity to learn multiple languages. 

- Also, the document states that teaching multiple languages will impart “great cognitive benefits to young students”. 

- Global experts and organisations like UNESCO have pointed out that young children understand concepts most quickly and thoroughly in their home languages or mother tongues. They may end up falling behind in an early and crucial stage of development if the language of instruction is one which they are not well versed in. Children whose primary language is not the language of instruction in school are more likely to drop out or fail in early grades. This applies especially to children from lower income or marginalized backgrounds. In India, a study done in the tribal districts of Chattisgarh, amongst 50 schools, found 63.9% teachers claiming that stories in the local dialect, and contextual pictures, have been the proven instruments in increasing the capacity of beginner students. According to the study, 90.6% teachers felt that if the teaching medium was different from the local language in schools, the students would be unable to understand, because their vocabulary is limited in other languages and hence they struggle to understand the subjects.

- Additionally, teaching in a language foreign to a child has the risk of negative effects whereby children fail to become linguistically competent members of their families, and communities, and lose the ability to connect with their cultural heritage. 

- Other historical and contemporary studies, in India and abroad, cited here, have also shown the benefits of instructing children in their mother tongue.

- Finally, English, which is the language of instruction for many schools, is actually relatively inaccessible and exclusive. It is spoken by a relatively small percentage of the Indian population, most of whom are members of the country’s economic elite. English has come to be a cultural prerequisite for an entry into India’s elite class and access to the economic opportunities their circles and networks enjoy. It is time to do away with this discriminatory roadblock. By educating children in local languages as well as English, a more inclusive atmosphere can be hoped to be created.

Points Against:

- Teachers have pointed out that there are a significant number of classrooms and that the students in each classroom often have several different mother tongues. The new policy will lead to a situation where imparting lessons will simply become impractical.

- A Supreme Court Verdict has deemed the imposition of mother tongues as a medium of instruction as “unconstitutional” and contravening Article 19(1)(a) of India’s Constitution. i.e. this is presumed to infringe upon the fundamental rights of parents who wish to choose the medium of instruction in which their children study in school. With the new NEP, school management bodies have been pointing to this judgment as well. 

- According to studies, by the year 2000, the returns to studying in an English medium school (as compared to a Marathi medium school) were about 25% higher for both boys and girls. Another paper puts the incomes of households where the head of the household was fluent in English at as high as 34% more than when the head of the household didn't speak English at all. However, these figures may be affected by the flattening out of the outsourcing boom, and the growth of the Indian domestic market, in the past two decades. 

- Voices from Non-Hindi speaking states are apprehensive that this may lead to Hindi being forced upon non-Hindi speaking students in their states. The implications of studies such as the study from Chhattisgarh, cited above as well, would apply to Hindi being forced upon non-Hindi speaking students too. 

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