The Role of Language in the New National Education Policy

Photo by Jaikishan Patel from Unsplash

Last week the Indian government cleared a new National Education Policy (NEP). An NEP sets the framework for education for approximately the next 10 years. It is therefore worth looking at it from a language perspective. The policy gives a push for multilingualism and at first glance it seems that the pedagogical principle of children being taught in their mother tongue is kept up. However a closer look reveals that it is more complex than that.

The good news is that the NEP says that students should be taught in their mother tongue or regional language until class 5 and recommends its continuance to class 8 and beyond. But does this mean the end of the English medium schools in rural villages and towns where even the teachers hardly know any English? Probably not. The article Reading the new National Education Policy states: 

“A senior ministry official clarified to The Indian Express that the provision on mother tongue as medium of instruction is not compulsory for states. ‘Education is a concurrent subject. Which is why the policy clearly states that kids will be taught in their mother tongue or regional language “wherever possible” [italics added],’ the officer said”. 

Dr Dhanmanjiri Sathe, in Lip Service to Bhasha (Indian Express, Aug 4) explains why:

"There is a conflict between what the educationists say — one understands the subject best in the mother-tongue, we as a nation should not lose such a multitude of languages, studying in the English-medium leads to gaps in the understanding of one’s own society — and what the parents think is necessary for the economic survival of their children.”

The policy does give quite a push for multilingualism. Rather than forcing children towards one language it states: “Teachers will be encouraged to use a bilingual approach, including bilingual teaching-learning materials, with those students whose home language may be different from the medium of instruction.” Also  high-quality textbooks, including science, are promised to be made available in home languages/mother tongue. It will be interesting to watch how this will be implemented and how the teachers will be trained to do that.

Another language related issue is that the original statement that it would be mandatory to teach Hindi in the states where the language is not usually spoken, was dropped. The basics of the three language formula are kept. This means that it is mandatory for at least two of the three languages that the child learns will be native to the country. One of those is supposed to be the local or at least original language. A statement issued by the Ministry of education says that “no language will be imposed on any student” but it is not clear what that means in practice as schools might not have many choices. The article National Education Policy 2020 Pitches Indian Languages As Unifying Force, Gives A Big Push For Multilingualism In Education provides more details on these issues.

To place this all in perspective, let me close with a quote from Dr Nageshwar from Andhra Pradesh in  Mother tongue versus English: an EP recommendation on the medium of instruction revives debate: “ … children are not getting a proper education in either English or Telugu, they are getting the worst of both. Instead of fighting over language the fight should be in the quality of teaching”. This reminded me of a conversation with the education secretary of Andhra Pradesh years ago when we worked on a multilingual education pilot program. He was very excited about the program and promoted it everywhere but my impression was that this had more to do with its child centric approach than with the fact that it was using the mother tongue of the children. Let us hope that the wider goals of the NEP to get better education to all children in India will be reached.