NEP: Should we rethink English as ‘medium of instruction’?

·6-min read

Education is a Concurrent List subject in India.

Concurrent List includes subjects that are of common interest to both the central and the state governments. This means that both can enact laws on these subjects. However, in case of a conflict, the Constitution provides for the central law to prevail over the state law.

The Modi government has announced the New Education Policy 2020 (NEP) that brings about several major reforms in education in India. The NEP, however, only provides guidelines and is not mandatory.

The 10+2 structure in the schooling system has been replaced by a 5+3+3+4 structure, which corresponds to the age groups 3-8 years (foundational stage up to grade 2), 8-11 (preparatory up to grade 5), 11-14 (middle up to grade 8) and 14-18 (secondary up to grade 12).

This is a good move as it brings pre-school education for children of ages 3 to 5 under the ambit of formal schooling. The mid-day meal programme will be extended to pre-school children.

Under the four-year Bachelor’s programme proposed in the NEP, students can exit after one year with a certificate, after two years with a diploma, and after three years with a bachelor’s degree.

This is a welcome change as it allows deserving students to take a break from education, based on their life situation and yet have an option to rejoin for further higher studies.

Mother-tongue as medium of instruction

The NEP says that wherever possible the medium of instruction in schools until Grade 5 (that is, up to age 11); preferably until Grade 8 (up to age 14) should be the mother-tongue or the local or regional language. This is based on numerous studies which show that children learn best in their mother-tongue or home language.

No doubt, the government has noble intentions of improving the learning outcomes and class participation among young children with enhanced self-esteem due to easier and better comprehension of concepts in a language familiar to the child.

The objective is also to make education more inclusive with better assessment scores and reduce school drop-outs.

The argument against English as a medium of instruction is that parents send their children to English medium schools due to peer pressure and it is not ideal for early learning.

Early learning in a child’s mother-tongue can also lead to greater parent-child collaboration in learning as parents themselves would be comfortable in the mother-tongue. This would, in effect, lead to preserving our languages and rich cultural legacy.

But should we rethink the medium of instruction from the point of view of higher education and not just be focussed on early learning?

While, one cannot deny the benefits of early learning in one’s mother-tongue, we need to take a pragmatic view on the topic, especially in the context of the diversity in our country.

Let’s look at India’s diversity. Every few kilometres, the language changes in India. Metropolitan cities have become a melting pot of cultures where people of different dialects cohabit.

As per the last Census, there are 121 languages which are spoken by 10,000 or more people in India. The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution consists of the following 22 languages – Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Bodo, Santhali, Maithili and Dogri.

Given so many mother-tongues, if the language of instruction is based on the region (e.g. Marathi in Maharashtra or Gujarati in Gujarat), it would defeat the purpose as a Gujarati child in Maharashtra who will study in a Marathi medium school will be in a similar position as him studying in an English medium school.

Why should we dilute our advantage of being a largely English-spoken nation?

Command over English has given Indians an edge over other nationalities who are not proficient in English. China and Japan are lagging India in medical and IT areas due to Indians’ proficiency in the English language. India is a global call centre hub.

Most of the discourse in India about economic, social and political life happens in English. The best literature, scientific, technological, managerial, etc books are written in English. Most of the best works around the world are translated and available in English.

Will this not increase the disparity between the government schools and private schools further?

It is unlikely that private schools will change their medium of instruction to their mother-tongue and will continue to teach in English.

We cannot deny the fact that good command over English is needed to succeed in higher education, post-graduation courses (Medical, Law, Finance, Engineering, etc) and also in the corporate career.

While it might be easier to get teachers in local languages, it will not result in the best outcome for the child in the years of higher education. An English medium student will always have an edge over such children in language fluency.

It will take a Herculean effort for the vernacular medium child to switch over to English after grade 5 or grade 8. While in higher grades, the level of education and studies itself becomes quite complicated and difficult, it would be unfair to put the additional burden of crossing over to a not-so-familiar language on the student.

Let’s look at the scientific argument. Neuroscientists tell us that a baby is born with roughly 86 billion neurons​, almost all he or she will ever need. During certain times in the child’s life, the brain is active in forming connections for specific abilities called critical or sensitive periods.

During a critical period, synaptic connections in those brain regions are more elastic and malleable. Skills can still be learned after a window of opportunity has closed, but with greater time and effort.

The sensitive period for language skills mastery is from birth to before puberty. A young child can learn a new language and attain proficiency more easily before puberty. Therefore, if the child is expected to switch-over to English medium after the age of 11 (grade 5) or 14 (grade 8), it will require a lot more effort.

Kids’ brains are wired to be multi-linguistic. It would be far more difficult for a child to cross-over to English as a medium of instruction after grade 5 (age 11) or grade 8 (age 14) as proposed.

If the child learns English from the beginning itself, he naturally gets fluent in it by the time he reaches the higher grade, so he can then only focus on the concepts and not struggle with the language.