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Teaching in tongues

How our overheated language politics affects learning outcomes.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:July 2, 2014 12:16 am
First, there is a peculiar choice we have forced on students that access to good English often requires going to an English medium school; the distinction between learning a language and committing to it as a medium of instruction is often lost. First, there is a peculiar choice we have forced on students that access to good English often requires going to an English medium school; the distinction between learning a language and committing to it as a medium of instruction is often lost.

The politics of language in India is often a farce; the pedagogy of language, on the other hand, is often a tragedy. So much energy is expended in an overstylised homogenisation-versus-diversity debate that we actually pay very little attention to the pedagogical failures that form the backdrop of this farcical politics. In terms of imagining a complex political relationship between languages, India is a triumph. But that triumph is not matched by the imaginative teaching of language. This failure is at many levels. The learning outcomes at the level of school education, as documented by ASER reports, are very poor. But its political implications are that there will be a large section of nominally educated Indians who will feel excluded from access to knowledge structures. Rather than blaming a poor education system as such, which often seems to fail to teach in any language, it is likely that this group will be permanently available for mobilisation against a language “Other.”

Some might think this fear is far-fetched, particularly since there is a massive turn to English anyway. States with pronounced vernacular nationalisms, like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, have also turned to English at earlier grades; and the poor seem to be voting with their feet for English. But the pedagogic effects of this are decidedly mixed. As Karthik Muralidharan’s brilliant empirical work has shown, it appears that from the point of view of learning outcomes, switching mediums seems to make students worse off. As he puts it, “switching medium of instruction may hurt accumulation of content knowledge”.

In Andhra Pradesh, according to this study, switching to English-medium private schools led to improvement in learning English, but also to worse scores in subjects like maths. To be clear, these results are suggestive. But switching mediums seems to be a real problem, exacerbated by the fact that English learning is hard to reinforce at home in most languages. But the larger point is this: so much energy has been expended in celebrating this turn to English as a kind of acknowledgment of modern politics, an iconic turn to a new cosmopolitanism, unfettered by the past, that very little attention has been paid to pedagogic effects. Language choice has been so consumed by a politics of identity that we cannot even get a proper cognitive debate on language going.

Think of other ways in which politics trumps pedagogy. You want to the see the real scandal of India’s political language compromise? Most students in India do at least three or four years of a third language, but the net retained learning outcome in that language, with some exceptions, is roughly zero. Three years is a long time to pick up a language, but no one has asked the question of why the formula is leading to such low linguistic competence outcomes in the third language. We can bemoan the loss of Sanskrit in north India. But this is not because it did not find adequate place in the school curriculum, in north India at least. In fact, quite the opposite. If you want to kill a language, make it a third language in an Indian school.

Think of how politics has trumped pedagogy at every stage of language teaching. First, there is a peculiar choice we have forced on students that access to good English often requires going to an English medium school; the distinction between learning a language and committing to it as a medium of instruction is often lost. There is very little pedagogical imagination. Because of linguistic politics, the emphasis in teaching has been more on differentiation than on finding commonalities. Learning a language has, paradoxically, been seen more as creating a barrier than building a bridge. The divide is very palpable, for example, in the pedagogic evolution of Hindi and Urdu; modern Hindi teachers in Delhi’s most progressive schools take expunging “Urdu” words to absurd lengths. But a little more imagination could bridge other divides: a little teaching of one or two more scripts for example, could make a Hindi speaker more functional in at least a couple of other regional languages. Two different stalwarts of Hindi literature, Shivani and Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, could find a home more easily in Shantiniketan than in Benares, in a way that now seems unimaginable. But the obstacles to a more polyglot linguistic imagination are not pedagogical, they are political.

Nowhere have political concerns more damaged language pedagogy than in Hindi. This is true in three respects. First, the Hindi-speaking region is the only region where there is a genuine social divide over language. In all the other regions, elites are not embarrassed by their identification with the regional language. No Bengali runs away from Bengali as a mark of social distinction in the way in which elites in north India, at some point, get embarrassed by Hindi. A lot of the politics of Hindi imposition is not directed against other regions; it is more a product of the fact that the Hindi-speaking region is subject to a peculiar politics of ressentiment, in a way no other region experiences.

Second, pedagogic choices in Hindi have been constricted by identity and purity concerns, not the growth of the language. It is not an accident, therefore, that this is one language in which modern disciplines have grown the least, at least compared to Malayalam or Bengali. No wonder even Hindi papers source so much editorial content from English writing. And third, if you want to see what is wrong with Hindi, just see the typical CBSE or ICSE syllabus. It is not clear, first of all, whether this syllabus was designed to excite kids about the possibilities of the language or whether it was designed by a group of morose social reformers who thought the Hindi syllabus was occasion to be earnest, boring and identify all the ills of Indian society. Its earnest paternalism and infantilism is in stark contrast to most children’s social worlds and is a permanent turn off from the language. No language has been damaged as much as Hindi has been damaged by its intellectual custodians.

India was truly innovative in not following the identification of language and nation-state that bedevilled Europe. On the other hand, in the ensuing politics, pedagogy has been given short shrift. Therefore, we waste so much of our children’s efforts, we constrict their choices, create false conflicts and ultimately damage language in the name of preserving it. The politics of Hindi is not driven by a desire to impose; it is driven by a larger learning and social failure.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, and contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express


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