As the world’s largest multilingual federation, debates about language are common in India. The Union government’s New Education Policy, released on July 29, resurrects one of the country’s most common policy conundrums: in which language should Indian children be taught?

The NEP’s recommendation that, “wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother-tongue/local language/regional language” has been furiously opposed in the English-language media. One columnist pushed the line that education in Indian languages “is responsible for keeping India a poor, backward country”. Another argued that teaching Punjabis, Bengalis, Tamils, Marathis and so on in their native language will “ruin India’s economic prospects”. Yet another English-language journalist called the move “regressive” and “thick-headed”.

Language is key to human identity in the modern world so it is hardly surprising that linguistic policy engenders strong reactions. However, what is lost in this furious identity debate is that there is a rock-solid scientific consensus that teaching a child in her own language is the best pedagogical method.

The Union Cabinet Minister for Education.

Academic consensus

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has argued since 1953 that “every effort should be made to provide education in the mother tongue”. “Mother tongue-based bilingual schooling is seldom disputed on the basis of its pedagogical reasoning,” explained Carole Benson, a researcher at the Centre for Research on Bilingualism Stockholm University, in a paper half a century later.

In 2016, UNESCO reiterated the message as part of its Global Education Monitoring Report: “To be taught in a language other than one’s own has a negative effect on learning.”

UNESCO’s recommendation: “At least six years of mother tongue education should be provided in ethnically diverse communities to ensure those speaking a different language from the medium of instruction do not fall behind.”

Krishna Kumar, former Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, points out a bit wearily just how water-tight the academic consensus is on the matter. “This is a heavily researched area for decades now,” he said. “It’s so obvious a point that it really can’t be debated. Mother tongue is the best place to start a child’s education.”

Better learning outcomes

It was in the 1970s that a spate of empirical studies started appearing that scientifically backed up what the present NEP is proposing: bilingual education with mother tongue being the medium of education early on and English being introduced later, as the child is older.

In 1970, pioneering Nigerian educationist Aliu Fafunwa began a project where experimental groups of students were taught in their native Yoruba language for their first six school years. Like India, Nigeria was multilingual with a history of British colonialism, which meant that English dominated the education system. The results of the study were unequivocal: children taught in their mother tongue simply did better than those who were taught in English.

Since then, Fafunwa’s findings have been replicated across time and space. Research by Nancy Modiano on native Americans in Mexico in 1973 found that children who were taught in their native language early on and later transitioned to Spanish actually outperformed children taught only in Spanish. More recent studies carried across places as diverse as Honduras, Iran and Togo found that test scores shoot up when a child is taught in the language she speaks at home.

When home and school languages differ, there is an adverse impact on test scores. Score refers to the percentage of children taking part in an assessment who achieved an international minimum learning standard in reading. Source: Global Education Monitoring Report, 2016, UNESCO.   Note: PASEC assess student abilities in mathematics and reading French for 10 countries in Francophone West Africa (Cameroon, Burundi, Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Chad, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger). PIRLS is an international study of reading (comprehension) achievement for children in class four.

Self-esteem boost

It is not difficult to see why students taught in their mother tongue would outperform students taught in a second language. For one, teaching a child in a language she doesn’t know leads to “lecture and rote response”, explains Carole Benson. On the other hands, starting a child’s education in the mother tongue “allows teachers and students to interact naturally and negotiate meanings together, creating participatory learning environments that are conducive to cognitive as well as linguistic development”.

Apart from the sheer barriers to learning a new concept in a new language, the existence of the latter also produces negative psychological effects. “English is aspirational but is also feared by children,” explained Shivali Tukdeo, Associate Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies who has researched the sociology of education policy in India since the nineteenth century. “In my research with Adivasi students in Maharashtra, English and mathematics are the most feared subjects.”

Benson explains: “The affective domain, involving confidence, self-esteem and identity, is strengthened by use of the L1 [mother tongue], increasing motivation and initiative as well as creativity. L1 classrooms allow children to be themselves and develop their personalities as well as their intellects, unlike submersion [not using mother tongue as medium] classrooms where they are forced to sit silently or repeat mechanically, leading to frustration and ultimately repetition, failure and dropout.”

The ease with which mother tongue allows a child’s natural ability to push through means it can also help students from disadvantaged classes. For example, multiple studies have shown that mother tongue education helps girls do better on tests, makes them less likely to fail a class, more likely to be identified as good students and even increases enrollment rates.

Even results in better English

So powerful is schooling that uses the mother tongue at the initial level that it even helps in better second-language acquisition. Research by Jim Cummins, a professor at the University of Ontario in Canada, shows that when children acquire a second language later in life, they can utilise the skills they learn while being taught in their mother tongue as younger children. An eight-year study on Latin American-origin students in the United States found that there was an “inverse relation between exposure to English instruction and English achievement”. This meant students who were taught in primary school using Spanish actually did better at English than Latin American-origin students who were taught in English from the beginning.

Carole Benson sums up the research in this area: “The more highly developed the first language skills, the better the results in the second language, because language and cognition in the second build on the first.”

Rather than acknowledge this research, however, Krishna Kumar points out that the medium of education debate in India is often built on a strawman: those who want mother tongue education don’t realise the value of English in the modern world, argue people who desire English-medium education. “But who is saying we should not learn English?” he asked. “In fact, by starting with mother tongue as the primary medium and introducing English later, research shows learning English becomes easier.”

A UNESCO poster promoting mother-tongue based education in the Asia-Pacific region.

English bottleneck

The empirical research helps explain the paradox of why English-medium education occupies an outsized size of the education pie in India – but data shows the country ranks far below other countries who offer mother tongue education when it comes to English proficiency.

As this data also shows, even if it were somehow desirable to teach small children in English, there is a more practical consideration: it is simply not possible in India given there aren’t enough English-speaking teachers. “Only a tiny minority of people are comfortable in English,” argued Sabbah Haji who runs a private school in Breswana village of Doda district, Jammu and Kashmir. “Most of my teachers have studied in Urdu medium schools themselves. They are not comfortable in English. For most places in India, running an English-medium school is not possible.”

Haji continued: “A small child spends only three-four hours at school. The rest of the time he is in a non-English environment. If we only push learning in English, it will get reduced to rote learning.”

Social prestige

In spite of how clear cut the pedagogical evidence is, why does this debate keep happening again and again in India? Haji thinks the issue is skewed by a small number of Indians who themselves have received education in the English-medium and would not want to change things. “The number of people who are outraged about mother tongue education is very small,” she argued. “Till now, the whole system has been suited for them, so naturally they would not want it to change.”

Krishna Kumar also blames social factors for skewing the debate. “Certain structures of power have been created which override the scientific consensus on mother tongue education,” he explained. “There is now a social perception that English is what makes a difference to learning. And we in India are driven by these perceptions – not the science.”

Shivali Tukdeo points out that India’s state languages have seen a significant drop in prestige. “Till the 1980s, you had a number of excellent Marathi-medium schools, including in Mumbai,” she said. “However, things have now changed and state languages have taken a backseat.”

This prestige means parents are even ready to put up with poor learning outcomes – as long as those outcomes are in English. “English is aspirational,” argued Sabah Haji. “That’s all people are seeing. Nobody is seeing what kids are learning.”

Cup and the lip

While experts might support the NEP’s emphasis on mother tongue education, this does not mean that the Union government’s education policy has not come in for criticism.

Tukdeo, for instance, argues that the Union government is only paying lip service to the concept of mother tongue education. “If they were really serious about mother tongue education, they needed to have created an ecosystem of good schools which teach in the mother tongue. But that didn’t happen.”

Krishna Kumar points out that far from encouraging private schools to drop English, the Union government does not even use mother tongue in its own network of elite Kendriya Vidyalaya schools. “In effect, the government does not follow its own recommendations,” he said.

Kumar also flagged the critical point of definition of what is a “mother tongue” and the possibility of language politics this opens up. “The Hindi belt, for example, consists of so many spoken languages which later got standardised into Hindi,” he explained. “Hindi is a kind of creation. But governments push Hindi while ignoring [say] Chhattisgarhi. So we need to look at languages as human agencies not political identities. One can’t say Hindi has higher status than Chhattisgarhi.”

This is not a small issue. Kumar points out that, for example, Bhojpuri would be one of the largest languages in the world. However, contradicting India’s own language policy, governments do not use it as a medium of instruction in primary school since, politically, Bhojpuri is counted as a dialect of Hindi.

The languages of Uttar Pradesh. Credit: Creative Commons.

The fact that India is unable to work out even the answers to basic questions such as medium of education even seven decades after Independence means that Indian children have some of the worst learning outcomes in the world. As per World Bank metric used to measure schooling quality, for 2018 India chalked up a figure of 355 – the same as war-torn Afghanistan. Some of the countries which have better schooling quality than India include Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iraq.