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The word and the world

Children do learn better in their home language. This is not a verdict on English.

Children do learn better in their home language. This is not a verdict on English.

Shivali Tukdeo

Since the early 19th century,questions surrounding language have occupied a rather uncomfortable place in the formal system of Indian education. While the knowledge of English was unmistakeably part of the making of modern Indian education,its relationship with vernacular languages was a source of anxiety. Education policy in the early post-Independence years struggled with the challenge of balancing language and learning. How do we introduce students to multiple language-worlds,in all their richness and complexities? How do we teach them an appreciation of different knowledge systems? How do we teach different scripts? Some of these questions were addressed by the three-language formula,where regional and official languages were introduced in schools at different points.

Several decades of language education policy and multilingual education later,the question of language continues to be unsettling and unresolved,for many reasons. The recently approved National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) policy is a case in point. The proposal,drafted by the women and child development ministry,includes an overarching framework for early childhood education: regulation of playschools; infrastructure and sanitation norms; child-teacher ratio; better monitoring practices and curricular strategies. The section on the inclusion of the mother tongue or home language and local vernaculars has predictably aroused animated reactions. The inclusion of home or local languages in preschool is a step in the right direction,for educational as well as social reasons.

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To begin with,it is an obvious and overstated fact that young children learn better when they understand the language of instruction. Equally important is the fact that children begin to respond to the world around them through their home languages even before they enter preschool and can go on to complex conceptual learning in these languages. Early childhood education focuses on developing the following domains: cognitive,physical,emotional,social. It also stresses on non-cognitive domains like motivation and curiosity. Evidence-based studies on early childhood and research in educational psychology and cognition suggest that exposure to multiple languages can facilitate early development.

Importantly,early childhood education revolves around activities,discoveries,plays,stories and songs that go on to construct learning and meaning for the young child. Emergent literacies — ways to listen,see,play,respond and participate in one’s close surroundings — prepares the young ones for what comes later in school,reading and writing. Given the interactive nature of early learning,home languages and local vernaculars would be excellent resources to introduce the child to the rhymes,rhythms and stories of a world that she inhabits. With the inclusion of mother tongues and local vernaculars in preschools,many neighbourhoods and localities,with their different stories,will enter the realm of school.

According to the 2011 census,India has 158.7 million children in the age group of 0-6 years. Strengthening anganwadis and non-formal early education would be essential to improve the overall quality of education. Quality early education would also be the foundation for the realisation of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE). A large percentage of children drop out and experience learning difficulties because they do not have the opportunity to learn in their home language. Its inclusion in the early years,along with English and other languages,would enhance their school experience.

The questions of medium of instruction,language choice and education often mirror the social relations of domination as well as the aspirations that have been associated with formal education. For decades,Adivasi students have gone to school only to find the silence and invisibility of their languages. If the responses to the recent textbooks in Santhali,Gondi and Kok Barok are any indication,Adivasi children want to see their languages in school. The development of local languages as languages of knowledge production and dissemination will be crucial in democratising our education. But this development needs to occur keeping in mind the current material conditions and symbolic expectations of education.


Despite the constitutional guarantee (Article 350A),demands by minority language rights groups and growing research on education,learning in the mother tongue or home language has not become part of the mainstream. The language debate would be more productive if it were not framed within the binaries of either-or. The proposal to introduce mother tongues or home languages is not against English,and should not be taken to be so.

The writer is a member of the faculty in the education programme,School of Social Sciences,National Institute of Advanced Studies,Bangalore

First published on: 28-09-2013 at 03:20:45 am
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