Switching medium of instruction in schools from local languages to English is not educational reform

Teaching in the mother tongue supports learning by enabling children to build on their existing knowledge base.

Meera is a domestic worker in a state capital. Like thousands of others like her, she is a feisty lady who single-handedly carries the present and future of her family on her shoulders. Having migrated from a rural region of the state in search of a livelihood, not literate herself, and with an unemployed and unsupportive husband, she is determined to do her best to provide for a better future for her children.

One of her proudest achievements is getting her elder son admission into a Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, which are residential schools run by the government, set up following the National Policy of Education, 1986. In what is at once a reaffirmation of gender prejudices and a reversal of a commonly held narrative around the choice of government vs private schools, she is content with sending her younger daughter to a nearby private school.

It is easy to attribute Meera’s choice of private school for her daughter to considerations like the fact that it is an English medium school, at least officially, or the perception (however misconceived) that private schools offer better quality. But a deeper conversation with her reveals that the reality is more complex. In her case, it comes down to the fact that while she is most concerned about the quality of education for her son, her primary concern for her daughter is safety, which, in her mind, is better served by the private school because of the longer school hours that cover the entire time she is away at work, and the school’s strict rules.

An ongoing nationwide study by a research group at the Azim Premji Foundation seems to corroborate this complex nature of parental expectations, choice and experience of schooling. While the study is still in the preliminary phase, if one understands ground realities and education in all its complexity, it is not difficult to believe that there is not going be a simple answer for issues like parental choice regarding education.

It is this context and background that is relevant to a report that appeared in the Times of India on June 29, which says that Uttarakhand intends to convert over 18,000 government schools into English-medium schools from Hindi-medium ones in a phased manner, starting from 2018. This writer has not independently verified the report, but then such proposals, of smaller or larger scale, seem to be afoot in various parts of the country.

If such proposals are intended to be reforms to improve the quality of education in India’s schools, it is problematic. The initiative may be too simplistic even if it is only to attract more parents to send their children to government schools based on the consideration that English is an important element influencing parental choice.

Learning in one’s home language

To begin with, let us be clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong in teaching English in schools. There is no research that says it should not be done. Many view English as a means of social mobility and economic progress. It is seen as the language of power. English is also seen as the language of good institutions of higher education, making its knowledge necessary for the pursuit of such institutions. Learning more languages, apart from being a good in itself, is also known to aid cognitive development in children. Therefore it certainly may be desirable for all children to learn English.

However, matters get problematic when one starts equating learning a language like English, to teaching in that language – that is, as a medium of instruction in schools. Research supports learning in one’s home language. Sound pedagogical principles call for enabling children to construct their own knowledge based on their earlier knowledge and experience, in other words, building from known to unknown. A child who enters school already has a basic grasp of their first language (home language), a reasonable vocabulary and its grammatical structure. Teaching in the mother tongue or home language enables this child to build on their existing knowledge base in a language familiar to them. It facilitates richer classroom interactions, leads to greater participation of learners, and yields better learning outcomes. The school’s acknowledgement and acceptance of the child’s language and culture leads to a positive identity of self and thereby better educational achievement.

On the other hand, teaching a young child in a language that is unfamiliar to them can make them sink into deeper incomprehension with each passing day. Studies also point out the psychological trauma faced by young children when confronted with an alien language in school, which could also contribute to lower attendance in many situations. Therefore the language deficit soon becomes a learning deficit.

Globally, several countries have their local languages as the medium of instruction in schools. For instance, countries like China and Finland, which have good results in international tests, do not have English as the medium of instruction. In Finland, Finnish and Swedish are both used as mediums of instruction. Similarly, China recognised that the most effective school education for rich and poor alike is conducted in the mother tongue. However, acknowledging that English skills are also critical, English is taught as a second language in Chinese schools and also at the post-secondary education level.

To compound the problem of teaching young children in a language that may be alien to most of them, there is the issue of teachers themselves lacking the necessary language competency to teach in English. The quality of teaching in English in several private and government schools is questionable. Teachers with poor English language skills have no clue how to teach in the language to children who come from poor, lower- and middle-class backgrounds, where they have never heard this language before. The lack of teachers who can teach competently in English has posed the biggest roadblock in other attempts in the country to convert schools where local languages are the medium of instruction to those that teach in English. In such a situation, converting the whole educational experience for children into English is only going to worsen their learning experience.

No silver bullets

“What innovation are you coming with?” is probably the question I have been asked most by teachers in the course of my visits to hundreds of schools. This question reveals one of the biggest issues that ail our school education system – the obsessive search for a silver bullet that will resolve all actual or perceived deficiencies of the education system. When teachers ask me this question, it is not in eager anticipation of one more innovation, but a gentle expression of the cynicism towards one more in a long line of innovations that they and their wards have been inflicted with over the years.

Many of these innovations are educationally unsound and ineffective. They are almost always compromises that the privileged would not allow in the education of their own children – for instance, substituting qualified teachers in the classroom with guest teachers or technology – thus widening inequities in education.

However the biggest issue is that the search for a silver bullet crowds out the resources available, and prevents the focus and investment needed in more fundamental aspects that are key for real and sustainable improvements in education – most importantly sound teacher education and continuous professional development. Dropping the local language as the medium of instruction in schools in favour of English is likely to add to this list of failed silver bullets.

English is an important language especially in today’s globalised world. English language skills are vital and should be taught in schools. However, this should not be at the cost of the overall quality of the learning experience, or the development of healthy self-esteem and higher order skills of the child. Language is important for communication and the development of critical thinking abilities. This objective is best achieved through teaching, at least in the initial years, in the home language of the child.

Not surprisingly, the so-called English medium private school that Meera’s daughter goes to has Hindi as the de facto medium of instruction. The English medium part is actually fraudulent, a marketing gimmick. Ironically, this may in fact be a good thing for Meera’s daughter.

Anish Madhavan heads field research at the Azim Premji Foundation.

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