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India’s language conundrum: The National Education Policy has skirted elegantly a political minefield. But the obstacle is the teacher
In 1947, a weary Britain packed up and left India, leaving behind absent-mindedly the English language and a headache for Indians. Ever since, we’ve been quarrelling over the place of English in our lives, particularly in what language to teach our children. The latest to join the debate is the National Education Policy (NEP), which to its credit, has skirted elegantly a political minefield, coming up with an answer that has satisfied almost everyone, offending only those who insisted on being offended. But the obstacle is the teacher.
At the root is a conundrum based on two facts: One, children learn best in the early years in their mother tongue; two, if a child isn’t fluent in English by age 10, she’s disadvantaged for the rest of her life, especially in getting a job. There’s plenty of research to support both facts. Nativists and educationists focus on the first, practical parents on the second.
The answer is simple: Teach the child in grades 1-5 in the mother tongue but also give a strong dose of English to ensure the child is fluent by 10. Since a child is naturally bilingual, this is possible. Have a dual medium of instruction – teach the arts in the mother tongue; the sciences in English. The practical problem is the average Indian teacher cannot teach, not just in English but in any language. 91% of 7,30,000 teachers tested in 2012 failed the basic teacher eligibility test. This is not a failure of policy but of governance.
NEP, through brilliant drafting, has given freedom to states, schools and parents. While strongly recommending learning in the mother tongue, it has refused to ban English medium schools. Its framers were mindful of damage done in Bengal, Gujarat, UP and other states that had banned English earlier in primary schools and decimated the futures of a whole generation. Having missed the IT revolution, all these states have made a U-turn. Mamata Banerjee destroyed communists in Bengal on this issue. Yogi Adityanath proudly reintroduced teaching English in primary schools in UP.
BJP-RSS, by accepting NEP, has in effect conceded defeat. One of its oldest, dearest projects was to rid India of English and make Hindi the national language. Just last year, Amit Shah pushed the case for Hindi. But the Sangh Parivar has lost its convictions – its own sons and daughters want to learn English and get a good job. Imposing Hindi today is a vote loser.
Sometime in the 1990s, India’s mindset changed. The constant whining against the colonial language died and English became an Indian language. A middle class of aspirers came up after the economic reforms. Confident in its own skin it regarded English not as an alien imposition, but as a skill to navigate the global economy. With the IT revolution, parents began to move their children from government to private schools that taught English. Today, 47.5% of India’s children are in private schools, making it the third largest school system in the world. In it, 70% of parents pay a monthly fee less than Rs 1,000 and 45% less than Rs 500. English has been democratised.
Meanwhile, English is even more dominant globally after the IT revolution. Linguists believe that whoever speaks a language owns it. They predict that India will soon have the world’s largest number of English speakers. Given the proliferation of Indian writing in English, they foresee Indian English becoming a widely spoken variant like American English.
NEP rightly reminds us, however, of the virtue of bilingualism and let’s hope we’ll do a better job this time. The last time, it led to a tragic social divide. The well-off kids, led by the Khan Market gang, went to English medium schools and aam admi’s kids in Sadar Bazaar went to Hindi (or regional language) medium schools. The former became brown sahibs and the latter were condemned to be ‘deaf’ in any serious discussion in business, government, or the university. HMT, ‘Hindi medium type’, became a slur. English became the new Sanskrit, the language of exclusion. In the charming film Hindi Medium, Irrfan Khan makes heartbreaking attempts to get his daughter into an English medium school. Frustrated, he says, “India is English, English is India.”
Back to the conundrum: The rise of English shouldn’t be at the expense of the mother tongue. Language is not just for communication; it’s a source of new ideas, new emotions. I cannot think and feel without language. There are certain emotions I feel in Punjabi that I don’t in English. Since a child is naturally bilingual, India should aim for bilingual instruction. Today, technology can help. There are a number of interactive apps on our phones, such as Hello English, that can make one fluent in English and become teacher aids. It’s also possible now to have bilingual teachers since teacher salaries have risen to respectable levels.
The NEP envisions teaching becoming a true ‘calling’ and has even proposed a four-year BEd professional degree. But India’s problem remains governance. Unqualified teachers have proliferated, hired not on qualifications but by paying a bribe. A chief minister is serving a 10-year jail sentence for selling teaching jobs to 3,206 teachers. Once hired and protected in this way, teachers don’t feel they need to teach and are routinely absent. Unless state governments fix this problem, no amount of good policy making will help the Indian child to realise her future.
Gurcharan Das, September 30th 2020