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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

No classroom is monolingual. Our education policies must reflect this

Like its predecessors, the NEP 2020 fails to propose and uphold a multilingual approach to education.

Written by Rama Kant Agnihotri |
Updated: March 4, 2021 8:51:54 am
Students of Class 3rd of Govt Model Sanskriti Primary school in Panchkula (Express photo by Jaipal Singh)

One should not be surprised that the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 uses terms such as home language, mother tongue, local language, regional language with slashes and succumbs to hedges such as “preferably” or “wherever possible” in the context of using it. Not that the previous policy documents have done any better in this respect. It is a persistent refusal to confront reality, outline clear objectives and propose appropriate curricular and pedagogical hints that we falter again and again on the language front — therefore in education in general. As policy makers, we delight in wearing “fly-masks” with slogans of “mother tongue” on one side and the “three language formula” on the other. They sound good and please people. But nothing worthwhile has been achieved in the past 50 years since the Kothari Commission — nothing worthwhile is likely to happen in the next 100 years if we persist with such recommendations.

You don’t need to quote UNESCO’s 1953 declaration on the use of mother tongue for the conceptual clarity and cognitive growth of students, it’s a matter of common sense. If you use the languages of learners, they would indeed learn better. But the issue is that we are not dealing with “a language” in any context.

One should not be surprised that all committees and commissions since the colonial times, including the often critiqued Elphinstone’s Minute of 1824, Macaulay’s Minute of 1835 and Wood’s Despatch of 1854 recognised the importance of using the mother tongue in education, always noting though that there was no way they could dream of teaching a nation as big as India in English. However, they did misunderstand and minimise the importance of “vernaculars” and laid the foundations of English medium western education for the elite. Our own documents, including say NEP 1986 along with plan of action 1992, NCF 2005, RTE 2009 and the draft NEP 2020 reiterated the significance of mother tongue education without making any dent in the gulf that separates the elite English-medium schools from the non-English medium schools meant for the masses.

We have consistently failed to recognise two facts: One, no classroom is monolingual and two, people learn only those languages they need to learn for instrumental or integrative reasons. The three language formula, born out of a consensus among chief ministers of different states, has been a failure because it does not pay any attention to the second fact. Many people from south India do learn Hindi when they see jobs or increments coming their way. Students in North India invariably choose Sanskrit as the third language — it ensures high marks without much work. There will be very few school graduates in North India who can use Sanskrit with any significant level of proficiency.

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All classrooms are multilingual in the sense that children arrive in schools not with “a language” but with a “verbal repertoire”. Students in any class will have overlapping verbal repertoire, but each has some distinct properties. It is this phenomenon that constitutes the theoretical foundations of construing language as multilinguality that forms the essence of being human. One is often told that this may be true of urban metropolises like Delhi or Kolkata but not of small towns or remote villages. But Udaipur, for example, a small town, in addition to having Hindi has Mewari, Marwari, Wagdi, Gujarati and there is constant inter-language fluidity among others. What some call egg-plant or aubergine, others may call here baingan or ringnaa; pumpkin may be called with equal felicity kadduu or kolaa and bottle gourd’ could be laukii or aal. And note that variability is not just lexical; the Mewari “l” is closer to that of Gujarati and Marathi than to Hindi. In spite of all the Indian languages involved being verb-final, there may be variations of style, idiom and folk songs and stories that are often socio-culturally rooted.

We may go still further into a remote village of the tribal region in Rajasthan. Tidi is a small village in the Girwa Tehsil of Udaipur. It has a population of 2,400. In the government girls school, there are 94 students in Class 10. The languages that are used among them include at least Wagdi, Mewari, Hindi, some words and expressions of English, all often with a tinge of Gujarati. Languages travel freely across each other — fluid multilinguality is the language of these students.

The true performative nature of language is multilinguality however homogeneous and rule-governed it may be towards its universal grammar or towards the idealised chunk a linguist explores to write grammars. We need to recognise that multilinguality constitutes the backbone of what we call “mother tongue” and the education enterprise cannot be successful unless we allow the voice of every child to find a space in classroom processes. Fortunately, today in the theory and practice of multilinguality, we do have options that deserve a fair chance of being tried out. We do need to walk out of the nearly frozen paradigm of “a teacher, a class, a textbook and a language” where the voice of the teacher reigns supreme with an occasional question from the front benchers. Multilinguality can also be used as a classroom resource to invite students to engage in scientific inquiry.


Consider the example of a five-year old playing antakshari with his mother. Mother says: Kabutar and the son says “rat”; and the dialogue between the two goes on: Tamatar (tomato), “run”; nal (tap), ladki (girl); kiil (nail), “late”;the son is not sure which “late” he is suggesting. So, he says, ‘Mamaa, there are two “lates”. One when I get late to the school and the other when I lie down.’

In the new classroom where pedagogy is rooted in multilinguality, the teacher steps back and the textbook is replaced by the multiplicity of voices of the learners.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 4, 2021 under the title ‘The language of learners’. The writer retired from Delhi University and is currently Professor Emeritus, Vidya Bhawan Society, Udaipur

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First published on: 04-03-2021 at 04:36:13 am
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