The language used by teachers to explain is known as “medium of instruction” in our system. This usage has a considerable history now. It reminds us that education was once regarded as instruction. One would like to believe that things have changed now and that education now covers a wider spectrum of efforts and effects. Had this change in the public perception of education actually occurred, no one would easily share the Andhra Pradesh government’s hope that children studying in government schools will now have a bright future because they are going to switch to English medium instruction from Grade I.
Some years ago, I had an unforgettable personal encounter with the medium problem in Mumbai. Two officials of the municipality were with me on a school visit. There were seven schools in that space, each with a different medium. I spent half an hour in a Grade II classroom where the medium was Hindi. After the period, I got a brief chance to speak to the teacher who was a Marathi-speaking young woman. I asked her if there were children in her class with Hindi-Marathi parents. She said: “Quite a few.” I asked her: “Do you sometimes use Marathi to explain things to these children?” Her answer stunned me. “I am not allowed to speak Marathi in my classes because this is a Hindi-medium school,” she said. The last question I remember asking her was: “Who stops you from speaking your mother tongue?” Instead of answering, she looked at the officials standing beside me. It is hard to say what her gaze meant. It is unlikely that someone had actually stopped her from using Marathi in her classes. More likely, she felt constrained because she had been posted at a Hindi-medium school.
In Andhra Pradesh, the government hopes that English-medium instruction will have a transformative effect. There are plans to re-train teachers and use the new machinery of communication. The pedagogy market is full of attractive teaching devices, and language teaching forms a big segment of this market. The expectation that technology will push our moribund system into a carnival of creativity is widespread. No one is supposed to have any doubt about that. The buzz word is innovation, and digital devices are the best bet to promote it.
It is, of course, true that judicious use of technology can enhance the teacher’s effort. So was it when radio sets were distributed across the system. But the hype didn’t help. Now when smart boards are replacing black boards and chalk, we need to ask why teacher training remains poor and school life so regimented. Teachers have always been at the receiving end. Had they been consulted in Andhra, the switch-over to English-medium might not have happened in such a dramatic manner.
Educational reforms are not like economic reforms. The latter are publicly debated every evening. Plenty of voices keep asking for more and speedier reforms in the economy. Since the 1990s, there has been considerable consensus on what it means to reform the economy. There is no such consensus in education.
That is why the decision announced by the Andhra government will impress many as a radical reform while others will shake their heads in resignation and see it as a political gimmick. It is assumed that parents whose children study in government schools will not mind this sharp switch-over. In all probability, they will appreciate it. Like politicians, many parents have zeroed in on English-medium teaching as a solution to the problems their children suffer in government schools and after passing out.
Parental vision has not shrunk overnight. The medium gap has been growing for several decades now in every part of the nation. It is a measure of social distance, between schools ruled by bureaucratic norms and others who feel more free. The difference between the two types is not always clear. It is a common belief that private schools prepare the child for the brave new world of competition, while government schools don’t worry about their children. In the absence of any real measurement of the school’s role in shaping children’s future, public and political imagination picks on the medium gap and declares it the culprit.
Without exception, all policy documents favour the mother tongue as the best medium of education, especially in the early grades. Those who favour English from the start point towards private schools and ask why government school children alone must carry the burden of implementing the policy. That is a valid point. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Successive governments have failed to influence the private school world on the question of medium. Introducing English as a medium in government schools, thus, acquires a populist appeal.
To put up a stronger case for the mother tongue, we will have to go into the deeper debate — about learning itself. At the primary level, it means connecting things with words. To do that, the child’s language provides a richer resource. The primary teacher who uses the child’s language has a great advantage. Whether she makes the best use of this advantage is a different question.
Our teachers seldom feel free or encouraged to do their best; nor are they trained to exercise professional autonomy. Our teachers are used to being told what to do and they are mostly quite poorly trained. Many didn’t want to be teachers in the first place, not at least at the primary level. If English is what the Andhra government wants teachers to use in the classroom, they will switch on to English — howsoever they can. Let the children fend for themselves. Private tutors will flourish.
What will happen to the children’s mother tongue? The Andhra government has assured us that it will be taught as a compulsory subject. That is nice, but it is not the same thing. To stop the mother tongue from being used across the curriculum as a medium is like changing the architecture of the collective mind.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 21, 2019 under the title ‘Let them have English’. The writer is a former director of NCERT and author of The Child’s Language and the Teacher.
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