The language riddle: Mother tongue helps learning, but English still key to jobs


Even among those who could read sentences, only two-thirds could explain the meaning of sentences.

The finance commission’s (FC) push for promotion of mother tongue as the medium of instruction—it recommends the allocation of Rs 1,065 crore for development of courses in the local language for two medical and two engineering colleges in each state between 2021-26—ties in with the National Education Policy’s (NEP) vision. While the NEP talks of instruction in the mother tongue until grade 5, it does ignore some stark realities, such as the diversity of language in the country and even within states, and the fact that English has become the language of employment both in India and internationally.

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But, the FC charts a more pragmatic course; in talking of developing content first, that too for higher education, it has underscored resource gathering before a headlong plunge. The allocation would help develop course material for professional courses and also help test the viability of a focus on regional-language mediated learning. More important, it would bridge the urban-rural divide in education—year after year, there have been reports of students from state education boards dropping out of prestigious higher education institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, unable to keep up with teaching because of English handicaps.

To be sure, English is the lingua franca in a globalised world, but it has contributed to poorer learning outcomes in India. ASER findings from 2016 onward show that there has been a consistent decline in English learning in schools. While 60.2% of students in Class 8 could read simple sentences in English in 2009, this declined to 46.7% in 2014 and further fell to 45.2% in 2016. Even among those who could read sentences, only two-thirds could explain the meaning of sentences.

While the NEP tries to address this, it also has to take into account the challenges in implementing local languages in professional education. Even if the courses can be converted to local languages, most of the journals and research publications are still in English and may take time to be converted into local language. Also, even if local language content can be provided by leveraging online classes, the faculty has to be comfortable and well-versed in teaching concepts in the local language. For courses like computer sciences, where entire programming languages are in English, incorporating local language teaching would still be a problem.

As most companies require their employees to have some basic proficiency in English—the Indian tech/medical graduate has done well globally and has been able to seize leadership roles in business/academia internationally in no small measure because of English proficiency, the value of which the likes of China are realising only now—colleges must focus on remedial classes to boost English proficiency, as much as they do on local-language mediated learning.

While IITs conduct an English proficiency test for all first-year students and do provide remedial classes for one semester, such programmes need to be extended beyond the one-semester duration. The government must keep in mind that local language may ensure fewer dropouts, but employability in the globalised world is a different ballgame.

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