In the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020, one of the central provisions is to provide primary education to children in regional languages. Recently, the Ministry of Education went a step further with its decision to push for regional languages a medium of instruction in technical select education institutions such as at the IITs and IIMs. According to policymakers, it has been scientifically proven that children learn faster in their mother tongue.
In November 2019, the government of Andhra Pradesh issued an order to introduce English as a medium of instruction in government schools. It created a stir and the state government was widely criticised by the opposition and various others, including Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu. The Andhra Pradesh high court struck down the state government’s order in 2020. The state government then challenged this judgement in the Supreme Court, a matter which it is still pending.
Government schools in India are supposed to be free of cost up to the age of 14 under the Right to Education Act, but there is a massive issue of students’ lack of enrolment. In my home state of Uttar Pradesh, the rate of enrolment is low and most students are from underprivileged sections – parents who lack the financial capacity to send their children to an English medium private school send their wards to government-run primary schools.
Earlier, there used to be very few English medium schools, but today there are many such schools across the country – even in rural areas. It is both harsh and ironic that the privileged class, including bureaucrats, judges, politicians and even government school teachers, send their children to English medium schools but advocate sending children belonging to financially low-income families to government primary schools.
If a child learns faster in the mother tongue, then why does the Indian elite send their children to expensive English medium schools?
Earlier Sanskrit, now English
Back in the old times, the Brahminical mindset did not allow society’s backward castes to learn Sanskrit. As a result, it couldn’t become the language of the common people. We now see one of the world’s ancient languages struggling to sustain itself even as the government spends a lot money to promote it.
Today, English (as a language) is creating a class divide. For example, the number of successful Hindi-medium candidates in the coveted civil services examination is decreasing year after year. English is an important part of most competitive exams. Exams conducted by Staff Selection Commission (SCC), NDA/CDS by UPSC, IBPS for Banking, CAT to get into management schools – all of these exams ask questions in English. Even the official language of the Supreme Court and the high courts, under Article 348 of the Indian constitution, is English.
Many poor students from rural areas are forced to leave their homes for the city and pay hefty fees for coaching classes to learn English to be able sit for these exams. Although the internet has now made access to information easier, most of the information available online is still in English.
As I have witnessed myself, higher education is a naïve dream if a person does not have the ability to write good English. One might conceive a great idea, but what good is an idea is without expression? For example, my area of interest and study is international law. Unfortunately, one will not be able to find any good book of international law in Hindi except by Dr S.K. Kapoor, and Dr H.O. Agrawal – published by Central Law Agency and Central Law Publication respectively.
When I joined South Asian University (SAU) in Delhi to pursue my LLM, I found that the books and articles available in the library were written in English and were from foreign publishers such as Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Springer, Routledge, Brill etc. In general, a majority of research is produced in English – and this is not just limited to the field of law alone.
Political parties and English medium
I have not seen any political party, particularly in the Hindi-belt, state in their manifesto that the medium of instruction be changed to English. There is a need for strong political will to change the medium of instruction in government-run schools. This would benefit low-income students by putting them at par with ‘those who know English’, uplift them and give them some much needed self-esteem. English is the global and ‘professional’ language, and learning it will help marginalised children do better in terms of employment and higher education. Recently, the Andhra Pradesh government signed an MoU with Cambridge University to enhance the English proficiency of teachers and students in school education. This is a welcome move.
As Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd argues,
“…the linguistic and cultural class difference in North India is far greater than it is in South India. In the south, all sections have realised the need for learning English along with their regional languages. Hence, the linguistic and cultural gap is narrowing while in North India, it remains wide, and the poverty of economic and cultural resources is stark.”
English as a medium of instruction in government-run schools is the need of the hour. Imposing regional languages in government schools while letting private schools teach in English is bizarre. More so, the idea of teaching courses in regional languages when it comes to technical education is absurd. It does more harm than good to students belonging to underprivileged sections of society. This will create a greater class-divide based on language in higher education.
It is better to bring innovation in government-run schools to attract students from every part of society – not just those who are compelled by low-income circumstances.
Akhand Pratap Rai is a PhD Candidate at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Featured image credit: Reuters