Jaipur: Early schooling in a child's mother tongue, as recommended in the new National Education Policy, can improve learning, increase student participation and reduce the number of dropouts, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of evidence from around the world. However, this would need new books, fresh teacher training and more funding, experts said. Also, given the multiplicity of languages and dialects in India, it is difficult to home in on the one that can be used as the medium of instruction in an area.

The National Education Policy (NEP) approved by the Union Cabinet on July 29, 2020, says that wherever possible the medium of instruction in schools until Grade V -- preferably until Grade VIII -- should be the mother tongue or the local or regional language. “All efforts will be made early on to ensure that any gaps that exist between the language spoken by the child and the medium of teaching are bridged,” the NEP says.

“This is a tremendous idea. That is how it should be,” said Anil Swarup, former school education secretary in the central government. Using the language the child is most comfortable with in the early school years improves attendance and learning outcomes, and the ability to learn new languages. Studies from around the world also show that it increases classroom participation, reduces the number of dropouts and grade repetition.

Still, half of all children in low and middle-income countries are not taught in a language they speak, estimated a 2016 report from the Education Commission, a global initiative for inclusive and quality education.

Parents prefer to send their children to ‘English-medium’ schools regardless of the quality of education they offer because of the perception that mastery of the English language ensures success in later life. For example, in 2017-18, about 14% of those who were enrolled in private schools in India’s rural areas and 19.3% in urban areas chose a private school because English was the medium of instruction.

Experts argue that an English education is not always the best. “You can learn to read and write best in the language that you know. If you are taught in a language you don’t understand then comprehension doesn’t occur and results in rote memorisation and writing it out through copying,” explained Dhir Jhingran, a former Indian Administrative Services officer and the founder of Language and Learning Foundation, an organisation working with state governments in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Haryana to prepare study material in the local language and train teachers to use it.

“Good learning happens when children have high self-esteem, are well-adjusted in a classroom that provides a positive and fearless environment. If the child is taught in a language they do not understand, none of this will happen,” Jhingran added.

In 2019, in rural India, only 16.2% of children enrolled in Grade I could read a Grade I-level text, while only 39.5% could add one-digit numbers orally, found the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) put together by Pratham, an education nonprofit.

The 2011 Census listed 270 mother tongues; of these, as per a 2017 study, 47 languages were used as mediums of instruction in Indian classrooms.

But teaching in the mother tongue is not a silver bullet to solve the problem of low learning outcomes, cautioned Suman Bhattacharjea, the director of ASER Centre. “If the teacher is still focused on completing the syllabus, on some level, regardless of what the language is, the content being transacted is still not at the level that the child can understand,” she explained.

The NEP does not detail a plan to change the medium of instruction. For multilingual education (MLE) to be successful, it has to be accompanied by pedagogical changes and trained teachers who can deal with several languages in the classroom and teach in the child’s mother tongue, Bhattacharjea said.

Old idea but little implementation

The idea of using the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in primary school is not new to the Indian education system. Article 350A of the Constitution states that every state and local authority should endeavour to provide “adequate facilities for instruction in the mother-tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups”.

The report of the Kothari Commission on education and national development (1964-66) suggested that in tribal areas, for the first two years of school, the medium of instruction and books should be in the local tribal language. The regional language should be taught separately and should become the medium of instruction by the third year.

The Right to Education Act, 2009, also said that as far as possible, the medium of instruction in school should be the child’s mother tongue.

Odisha is the only state to formally incorporate MLE into its education system, and that too only for its tribal areas. In 2007, the Odisha government introduced a programme in which the mother tongue of students from scheduled tribes is used as the medium of instruction in primary school. Odia is taught as the second language from Grade II and English from Grade III. Tribal languages continue to be taught as subjects after primary school.

To make this possible, those teachers from the community who are fluent in the mother tongue as well as in a second language (either Odia or English) are recruited, a 2014 circular from the government announcing the extension of this programme said. Those who do not fulfil these criteria are hired on a contract basis with the condition that they acquire those language skills. If no teacher from the community fulfils this criteria, the government hires non-local teachers who are proficient in the local language and familiar with the culture.

The government also created bilingual dictionaries, textbooks, supplementary reading material and language handbooks in local languages such as Desia, Kuvi and Kui.

Convincing families

The commonest criticism of the policy to use the mother tongue in schools is that it widens the divide between those who can communicate in English and those who cannot.

“It is fine for educationists to say that the local language should be the medium of instruction but that is not what parents want, not what families want. They want English which they think will take their children ahead in life,” said Bhattarcharjea of ASER, noting that there might be resistance from communities in changing the medium of instruction. There has to be systematic outreach to parents to help them understand that even English will become easier for their children if they start with the home language, she said.

If schools teach in local languages, families too can be involved in their child's education, said Parismita Singh, who works with a Pratham after-school programme that provides support to children in their mother tongue in tribal and non-tribal rural areas in Assam’s Kokrajhar and Chirang. Community members can also be hired as teachers as they are fluent in the local language.

Schools could continue to teach the regional language and English as subjects, experts say. Evidence from Guatemala, for instance, shows that children in bilingual classes, which includes one of the Mayan languages as the medium of instruction in primary school, perform better on Spanish language tests than those in Spanish-only schools.

No clear implementation plan

“There will be innumerable problems in the implementation of this policy but they are not insurmountable,” said Swarup, the former school secretary, highlighting the lack of an action plan in the NEP to implement this or any other policy change.

He described the policy on mother tongue instruction as “politically acceptable”, since it is a part of the NEP; “socially desirable”, as it would help improve learning in school; and “technologically possible”, because it is possible to implement it. But it might not be financially viable because of the lack of funds, he said, and also questioned the “administrative doability” of the policy because of the lack of trained staff, including teachers, to implement the change.

For instance, a qualitative study on the implementation of MLE in Sundargarh, Odisha, found that schools would not prioritise hiring MLE teachers and children were still reluctant to accept that they spoke a different language at home, perhaps because of the perception that Odia was the superior language.

Another challenge is selecting which mother tongues become the medium of instruction in a school and which do not. “Language is extremely political,” said Singh of Pratham. For instance, students who speak local languages such as Rabha, Santhali and Nepali attend Assamese-medium schools in the Kokrajhar and Chirang areas where Singh works. If schooling in the mother tongue is only seen in opposition to teaching in English and the state language is prioritised, then these children who should have benefited from being taught in their home language will lose out, Singh pointed out.

As per the NEP, the aim of using regional languages is not just to improve a child’s learning outcomes, but also for “instilling knowledge of India”. This “is considered critical for purposes of national pride, self-confidence, self-knowledge, cooperation, and integration”.

“If this language is understood only from the point of national integration, that makes me wary of how you will define it,” said Singh. This is very important especially in areas where she works, where many languages have non-standardised scripts that are not accepted by everyone in the community. This is a bigger challenge in areas that have seen ethnic violence in the past, she said.

Take, for instance, the 2017-18 National Survey Report on education. The report clubbed several languages and local dialects into the 22 major Indian languages to understand whether the child spoke the same language at home as the medium of instruction in school. By this metric about 72% of primary school students had the same medium of instruction in school as their home language but this would still not mean that the child was being taught in school in a familiar language.

Further, there is no clear path to implement this change and it is up to local governments and individual institutions whether they want to implement these changes as it is not a mandatory policy.

The policy does suggest technological interventions to “serve as aids to teachers”, and developing or translating “enjoyable” books into local languages and making these available in school and digital libraries. It also suggests incentives for teachers who know local languages especially in areas with high dropout rates and an overhaul of the curriculum to make it more engaging and useful.

Pilot projects, low-hanging fruits

Swarup suggested trying an MLE model out in some schools across the country for about three-four years, identifying the problems in implementation and the cost of change and then preparing an action plan that resolves these problems.

Introducing the local language as the medium of instruction should definitely be done in two situations--one in areas located along interstate borders and for migrant populations, said Jhingran. He cited some examples of areas where children speak one language at home but are taught in another in school -- Marathi-speaking children on Maharashtra’s border with Madhya Pradesh, Telugu-speaking children in Odisha along the edges of Andhra Pradesh, or the children of Bihari migrants in West Bengal.

And in case of languages that can easily be used as mediums of instruction but are not. Jhingran gave the example of Chhattisgarhi, which is spoken in 8-10 districts that could yield enough teachers proficient in the language and enough literature too -- and would be accepted by the community -- but is still not the medium of instruction in schools. “All over the country you have such languages… It would not take a lot of investment to make a change like this,” he said.

Challenge of many mother-tongues

India has several languages--the 2011 census identified 270 mother tongues--and classrooms might have children with more than one spoken language. “It might not be possible for all languages to become the medium of instruction and it might not be possible for large parts of the country to implement this,” said Jhingran.

He suggested an alternative to formal MLE -- the child’s language would not be the medium of instruction but the government would formally mandate that the mother tongue be used in the classroom by teachers and students. This would allow children to talk, debate and express themselves in their language while also learning the regional language or English.

“When these changes were made we’ve seen these silent classrooms convert in 2-3 months -- [full of] active, engaged children speaking, interacting,” said Jhingran.

One example is the Roshini programme in Kerala through which migrant children, who usually fall behind in school partly because of the different medium of instruction, learn Malayalam through the use of multiple languages including the child’s mother-tongue, as we reported in August 2019. This programme convinced migrants to stay back in Ernakulam district during the lockdown because parents did not want their children to lose out on school, we reported in July 2020.

‘Where are the funds?’

The NEP makes no mention of how this change in the medium of instruction is to be funded. “Where will the money come from?” asked Swarup.

The initial investment in bilingual programmes can be high because of the additional cost of developing new learning material especially for languages that have not been standardised or do not have a script, experts said. It would also require teachers trained to teach in a multilingual classroom and new teachers fluent in these languages. Evidence from Guatemala and Senegal in 1999 estimated that producing local language material would cost about 1% of the education budget with decreasing investment as time passes.

But “the additional cost more than pays for itself through improved learning outcomes”, said Jhingran of the Language and Learning Foundation. For instance, in Guatemala, bilingual schooling, despite higher costs, ultimately led to savings of US $5 million a year (over Rs 374 million) because it reduced dropout and repetition, estimated this World Bank study from 1996.

“Hopefully as a result of this policy, things will change but saying that we want the medium of instruction to be the mother-tongue is only the first step. We need all the other things to be in place to make any meaningful change,” said Bhattacharjea of ASER.

(Khaitan is a writer/editor with IndiaSpend.)

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