How a country chooses the language for its education system is not an easy process. The decision is usually influenced by multiple factors: colonial history, origins of immigrants, legal recognition of minority languages, cultural diversity, political interests – to mention but a few. In some cases, instruction is provided in more than one language; in others the medium of instruction may vary between primary and secondary education.
Underneath this tangled and evolving web of policies and priorities, however, lies an undeniable truth: teaching and assessing children in a language they understand will result in better learning.
The Global Monitoring Report of “Education for All” (UNESCO) 2005 argued that there can be no discussions of quality in education without consideration of the language of instruction. It lays out some key recommendations to ensure that children are taught in a language they understand.
1. At least six years of mother tongue instruction is needed, if the gains from teaching in mother tongue in the early years are to be sustained.
2. Education policies should recognize the importance of mother tongue learning. A review of 40 countries’ education plans finds that only less than half of them recognize the importance of teaching children in their home language, particularly in early grades.
3. Teachers need to be trained to teach in two languages and to understand the needs of second-language learners. Teachers are rarely prepared for the reality of bilingual classrooms. In Senegal, only 8%, and in Mali, only 2% of trained teachers expressed confidence about teaching in local languages. The paper suggests hiring teachers from minority language communities as one policy solution to the problem.
4. Teachers need inclusive teaching materials and appropriate assessment strategies to help them identify weak learners and provide them with targeted support.
5. Provide culturally appropriate school-readiness programmes: Locally recruited bilingual teaching assistants can support ethnic minority children from isolated communities as they make the transition into primary school.
6. Second-chance accelerated learning programmes in local languages can help the disadvantaged to catch up.
In an education system riddled with inequities, language can also be an obstacle that comes in the way of learning. Educationists agree that it\’s best to teach in the child\’s mother tongue, but the issue is a complex and emotive one, given the diverse number of languages and dialects in the country and the attendant linguistic chauvinism that politicians are eager to exploit for their own gains. English, considered the passport to social mobility, is meanwhile becoming the preferred language of instruction among parents.
The three-language formula
The National Curriculum Framework 2005, which lays down broad guidelines for teaching and learning, sums up the views of experts when it says: \”A renewed effort should be made to implement the three-language formula, emphasising recognition of children\’s home language(s) or mother tongue(s) as the best medium of instruction. These include tribal languages.\” The framework recommends that English should find a place with other Indian languages.
The National Policy on Education framed in 1968 and later in 1986 also recommends the three-language formula. Three Indian states, Mizoram, Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir, use English as a medium of instruction while all other states use the regional language as the medium, he explains. \”English and Hindi are the second and third languages, with Hindi being the second language for children who are non-Hindi speaking,\” says Jalaluddin. In Tamilnadu, however, Hindi is an optional language.
The three-language formula helps in fostering bilingualism and multilingualism, traits that improve \”cognitive growth, social tolerance, divergent thinking and scholastic achievement\”, according to the National Curriculum Framework.
The NCF report stresses that multilingualism should be made use of in the classroom. For instance, it says, \”Language teaching needs to be bilingual not only in terms of number of languages offered to children but also in terms of evolving strategies that would use the multilingual classroom as a resource.\”
The complexity of the issue is addressed by a paper on multilingual education brought out by UNESCO in 2003, which looks at the \”contrasting and deeply felt positions\” that the choice of language of instruction evokes in people. \”Questions of identity, nationhood and power are closely linked to the use of specific languages in the classroom. Language itself, moreover, possesses its own dynamics and is constantly undergoing processes of both continuity and change, impacting upon the communication modes of different societies as it evolves,\” says the introduction to the paper. The document says that political changes have led to new language policies in post-colonial countries; many languages have disappeared while others are endangered; the Internet has \”dramatically affected\” the way in which languages are used for communication and learning; and globalisation \”increasingly challenges the continued existence of small, local identities frequently based on language\”. The paper supports multilingual education, and points to a resolution adopted by UNESCO in 1999, which says that the \”specific needs of particular, culturally and linguistically distinct communities can only be addressed by multilingual education\”.
Udaya Narayana Singh, director of Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, says that internationally, experiments by experts have pointed to the fact that one learns best through one\’s mother tongue. \”This is also the basis of UNESCO\’s recommendations on multi-lingual education. My choice would be to educate the child through her mother tongue keeping a strong component of English side by side.” However, one should be cautioned that when English is the medium of instruction, many children could get \”thrown out of the system\” if they have not been exposed to the language in domains such as homes or playgrounds.
While state governments can decide the standard in which English should be introduced, many have chosen to start teaching English from class one itself. Ideally, the second and third languages should be introduced from class three and above, says educationist A K Jalaluddin. The idea is that by the time children complete their secondary education, they should know three languages.
Jalaluddin notes that if children learn in English, they are often not exposed to the literature in their mother tongue. \”A major part of the linguistic experience comes from literature,\” he emphasises. One way of tackling this problem is to teach English as a subject well.
The other side of the problem
Students learning in regional languages do not have the kind of resources they need, as English books [for instance, on Physics] are not translated into their mother tongue, says Kumar. \”Knowledge is available only to those who understand English, and initiatives have not come from regional languages for translation,\” he adds.