Sanskrit by diktat

We need to critically analyse our pedagogy and teacher-education programmes.

Published:December 11, 2014 12:15 am
It is unimaginable that the Centre did not have the foresight to think of the confusion cancelling German would cause. It is unimaginable that the Centre did not have the foresight to think of the confusion cancelling German would cause.

By: Mukul Priyadarshini

The decision to replace German with Sanskrit in the middle of the school year in Kendriya Vidyalayas was as problematic as the decision to introduce it in 2011. This is an opportune moment to analyse the government’s decision and to highlight the real issues pertaining to language that plague our education system.

Just as there is a common belief that Hindi is the national language of India, there is also a misconception about the three-language formula (TLF) being part of the Constitution. The TLF is a strategy that was formulated in the chief ministers’ conference of 1961. It was endorsed by the 1968 National Policy Resolution and the National Policy on Education, 1986. The TLF is quite flexible, as is evident from the position paper of the National Focus Group on Teaching of Indian Languages — six different models of the formula are being followed by the states. The TLF recommends that in middle schools, Hindi, English and any one of the modern Indian languages (MIL) be taught, preferably a southern language in Hindi-speaking states, and vice versa for non-Hindi-speaking states.

However, soon after its formulation, the TLF was violated in the north, where mostly Sanskrit is taught as the third language. Many elite private schools offer foreign languages such as French, Russian, Spanish and German. This extreme interpretation of the formula goes against its spirit and purpose. The 2011 MoU is also questionable. Even so, it does not justify the human resource development ministry’s decision to discontinue German in the middle of the year. It is unimaginable that the government did not have the foresight to think of the confusion this would cause. For instance, are there even enough Sanskrit teachers? And what becomes of the German teachers?

The teaching of Sanskrit in middle school is not uncontentious either. It should be pointed out that there is a difference between languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution and modern Indian languages. In fact, in universities across the country, the Sanskrit department is independent, not part of the MIL department. While a 1994 Supreme Court judgment validated the teaching of Sanskrit as an MIL, it is common knowledge that students choose it, not for the love of the language, but because they get high scores. Also, there is a difference between a classical and a living language. A living language is constantly growing and changing in terms of phonology, morphology, syntax, etc. It is not bound by rigid structures developed centuries ago. Many scholars, like Sheldon Pollock, have argued that Sanskrit is indeed a classical language, a “dead” language. According to the 2001 Census, 14,000 people reported Sanskrit as their mother tongue. Looking at this meagre number, one could argue for the teaching of other minor languages that have a greater number of speakers.

Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, a leading private school in Delhi, introduces Sanskrit in Class V. Middle-school students study as many as four languages: Hindi, English, Sanskrit, as well as one of Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati or Urdu. This system has been running smoothly for six decades. Imposing a language on students will not prevent it from disappearing. A language can survive only if it becomes part of its speakers’ being. How can this be achieved?

This brings us to the theoretical and pedagogical perspectives on which language-teaching is based. What is our understanding of the nature of language and a child’s linguistic-cognitive abilities? Is a child still expected to sit in silence and listen passively to what the teacher says? What are the aims of language education? Is language still considered to add no value to our lives or have we begun to realise that it’s central to learning?

Had we realised the significance of mother tongues or neighbourhood languages as the medium of education, we would not have introduced English-medium sections in our schools in Class I. Nor would we have introduced English as a subject in Class I had we an understanding of the fact that, to learn a language organically, a child needs natural exposure to it, even if it is not a language spoken by her family. And English, we know, is not part of the linguistic milieu of a huge majority in this country. For this reason precisely, the NCERT position paper on Indian languages suggests that foreign languages be offered as an option at the senior-secondary level. It is too early to teach them in middle school because a language learnt in a formal classroom setting, without any organic social or cultural context, cannot be retained by the learner if she does not get opportunities to use it.

Official circulars are not the solution for keeping a language alive. The discourse in education has undergone a sea change in the past half century. It is time we started critically analysing our pedagogy and teacher-education programmes. There is a dearth of academic resources in Indian languages for school children and teachers. There is a lot that remains to be done. If only the government got its priorities right.

The writer teaches linguistics at Miranda House, Delhi, and was a member of National Focus Group on Teaching of Indian Languages

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