Teaching of Languages in Indian Schools

Languages in India: Diversity and Complexity

The 1962 consensus of India reported 1652 mother tongues being used across the country. The first authentic survey of Indian languages was conducted by George Grierson, who presented his report titled, Linguistic Survey of India (LSI) in the first quarter of the twentieth century. LSI continues to influence the listing and grouping of languages in decadal census in India. The constitution of India adopted in 1950, fully recognized the multilingual character of Indian Nation and listed fourteen languages in its Eighth schedule. The languages listed in Eighth schedule are called Scheduled Languages. The list was expanded to fifteen in 1967 and to eighteen in 1992. More and more languages are continuously seeking a place on the Schedule, since the scheduled status entails a number of political and economic benefits. Nearly ninety of the living Indian languages recognized in the census are not in the Eighth Schedule and are referred to as Non-scheduled Languages. The Scheduled Languages account for ninety-six percent of Indian population, while the non-scheduled languages are spoken by merely four percent of the population; and yet the number of Non-scheduled Languages is nearly four times the number of Scheduled Languages. A large number of non-scheduled languages are tribal languages. Some of these languages are written but many don’t have a script of their own and are transmitted through oral tradition. Given the dynamic language situation, the role of language in Indian education has been at the centre of debate and controversy. The central issues for the last hundred and fifty years has been the medium of instruction. There is evidence to show that before the British rule there was a vigorous system of Indigenous education with provision for both secular and religious education. However learning of an elite standard language has always been a part of the Indian education system. Before the British the language of power was Persian and before that it was Sanskrit. Local vernacular or regional dialects used to be the medium for basic education while Persian or Sanskrit was the language of higher education. After the arrival of the British, the system of education expanded.

“When specialised education is restricted to a small section of population, the problem of medium is sorted out more easily. Once education is universalized, the problem of medium takes on several unpredictable implications”- C.J. Daswani.

During the British period, the controversy centred round the question of education through English versus Indian languages, which was decided in favour of English. The question of which language should become the medium of instruction at school level was closely linked with the freedom struggle and national identity. It also became linked to the question of identifying a national language for independent India. After independence the question of language has become inextricably linked to regional and linguistic identities, as well as economic and political aspirations of the people. As the educational facilities expanded, more and more regional languages have been recognized as medium of primary and secondary education. At the tertiary level, while English continues to be influential, regional languages have been accepted as mediums of education. The three language formula was introduced in 1950s and refined to accommodate various regional, national and international aspirations. Although the formula has not been implemented uniformly, there is no serious or viable alternative to it.

Government Policy: The Three Language Formula

The three language formula is designed to ensure that every school going child learns three languages by the end of secondary school (class X). The formula was first given in 1950s, modified in NPE 1968 and was upheld and verbatim adopted in NPE 1986. In its most basic form, the formula lays down the following scheme of language education at school level:

In Hindi Speaking States:

  1. Hindi
  2. English
  3. Modern Indian Language (Preferably a South Indian Language)

In non-Hindi Speaking States:

  1. Regional Language
  2. Hindi
  3. English

For the purpose of implementation of the formula the languages are divided into following Categories:

Mother Tongue

Article 350 A of Indian Constitution lays down that medium of instruction at the primary level should be the mother tongue of the child. However mother tongue is a tricky term which often means different things in different contexts and there are several challenges in providing primary education in the mother tongue of the children which include:

1. Defining the term ‘Mother Tongue’: Often different political and educational agencies interpret the concept of mother tongue in narrow or broad terms, according to the exigencies of the situation. One interpretation holds mother tongue to be the home language of each child; “the language spoken from the cradle…in the case of infants and deaf mutes…the mother tongue of the mother.” However in Indian context, Mother Tongue is not necessarily the language one learns to speak in childhood, but a language that one perceives as one’s mother tongue because of social, political or religious reasons. This later definition of mother tongue however defeats the very purpose of providing instruction in the mother tongue of the child, which is to make child comfortable in the learning environment and to improve the learning of the child. Moreover people may declare different mother tongues from one census to the next.

2. Listing and Classification of Mother Tongues: There has never been total agreement on the number of mother tongues spoken in India. Every ten years the Indian census lists a different number of mother tongues reported by Indian people. Mother tongues classified as dialects of one language in one census have been recognized as a language in the next census.

3. Mother tongue with no script: There are several Indian languages, especially the tribal languages that do not have a script of their own.

National Language

Hindi has been recognized constitutionally as the language of the nation. National language is a part of citizen’s identity. Promoting national language is the duty of the state.

Regional Language

Languages spoken in a particular geographical area are called the regional languages.

Indian Classical Languages

Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian are recognized as the Indian Classical languages. They are a part of national heritage and the state is responsible for their preservation and promotion. These languages are not a part of the formula though they can be studied separately.

Modern Indian Languages

Many regional languages which may have a long past but have made major development in the recent past due to emergence of printing and media.

Official Language of the State

Official language may be the dominant language of that state. There can be more than one official language in a state if there are significant numbers of speakers of both languages in that state.

Link Language

A language that facilitates interaction between states, it may include Hindi, English or any other languages.

International Language

Study of a foreign or foreign classical language is not included in the formula.

Challenges in the Study of Languages

Some of the challenges in implementation of three language formula and teaching of languages in India are as follows:

  1. In most states three languages are being taught but there are some discrepancies:
  2. No South Indian languages are being studies in the North, instead Sanskrit is being taught. In some schools Sanskrit is being taught in conjunction with Hindi. This has been criticised because Sanskrit is a full fledged language and cannot be taught with some other language. 1988 CBSE Circular promoted teaching of Sanskrit with Hindi. This circular was later struck down.
  3. The study of languages that are not dominant in any state such as Urdu and Sindhi suffer because in those states the languages dominant in the state is taught along with Hindi and English.
  4. Text books, supplementary books and teaching learning material are not available in sufficient numbers and appropriate quality in many languages.
  5. Progress of education of any language varies according to motivation to study that language. It has been found that South Indians study Hindi with greater motivation while the motivation in North India to learn South Indian languages is generally lacking.
  6. People living in bordering districts between two states suffer because they often use the language of the neighbouring state at home but the state language is being taught at school.
  7. Languages of small linguistic groups, specially the tribal languages are often neglected or the means to teach them are inadequate.
  8. As children complete primary education and move to the higher levels of education, the transition in medium of instruction from mother tongue to another language, usually Hindi or English or the state language is difficult for the students.

What can be done

Measures suggested for better implementation of three language formula and to improve the formula to make teaching of languages at school level more inclusive and efficient include:

  1. Preparation of adequate number of textbooks, supplementary books and teaching learning material of good quality and appointment of qualified teachers for teaching of the mother tongues that do not have such resources.
  2. Identification of the mother tongue of the children at school level and taking appropriate measures for the teaching of those mother tongues if there are sufficient number of students having that language as mother tongue.
  3. Making transition from one language to other smooth as the students reach higher levels of education by gradually increasing the proportion of time allotted to the teaching of the language that is to be used at higher level as medium of instruction. Experiments of this kind have been carried out by beginning with mother tongue as medium of instruction and gradually introducing the other language. Initially more time is allotted to teaching of mother tongue. As the child progresses to higher levels, the language that is to be used as medium of instruction at higher levels is gradually allotted greater proportion of time.
  4. Promotion and development of literature in several languages.
  5. Enriching the languages through translation from different languages.
  6. Community involvement in teaching of languages in particular and schools activities in general improves not just the teaching of language but overall quality of education being provided at school.

Time for a new Policy?

It seems policies have been framed with considerations for political expediency and the urge to secure political consensus. As a result, rendering the language policies out of sink with the ever changing language scenarios in the country. Moreover less than dependable picture presented by the census statistics regarding language use in India does not help in formation of a sound policy for language education in the country. The attitude of the policy makers and those responsible for the implementation of policies ranges from negligence to outright hostility towards minority languages, especially in the case of tribal languages. After the formation of states along linguistic lines, it is feared that bringing up the issue of languages might open up a Pandora box of political instabilities, Government policy of Education based on Three Language Formula has remained untouched for decades even though it has been observed that some changes are required to make the policy more in tune with changing times. Moreover even the implementation of the present language policy has suffered due to lack of political will and community participation in its implementation.

Further Reading

History Development and Contemporary Problems of Indian Education, R. P. Pathak

Study of Languages in Multilingual India, UNESCO, Edited by C.J Daswani

Education in India, J.C. Agarwal

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