As a cornerstone of India's ambitious new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, the proposal to instruct students in their native language has sparked an intense debate. While this initiative acknowledges the importance of preserving linguistic diversity and promoting better understanding of lessons, it also presents a significant challenge in our increasingly mobile society, especially in urban areas.
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Multilingual India & NEP 2020
India is a vibrant mosaic of cultures and languages, with over 2,000 distinct languages. Each of these languages carries unique cultural nuances and enriches the country's incredible diversity. The NEP 2020 has recognized this, stipulating that until at least grade 5, and possibly till grade 8, education should be imparted in the student's mother tongue or regional language, where possible. This move has been supported by several studies, showing children tend to grasp concepts more effectively when taught in their native language.
These are the screenshots of the NEP document (Page 13-14) - click to enlarge.
Where are you from?
I contend that this recommendation of NEP presents a considerable challenge, given India's internal migration trends. Though ethnically a Bengali, I grew up in a city in Central India where my father had moved to, for work. Everyone had moved to that city for the factory, and 99% of us were non Hindi speakers. My father himself, another ethnically Bengali, grew up in a Hindi speaking area where his father had a job. We all grew up exposed to different languages at home and in the community. We had English interspersed with Hindi as the medium of education for us, and it was convenient for us because we happened to have Hindi as a separate subject as well.
Where is everybody from?
According to the Census of India, 2021, over 450 million people have moved from their place of birth, many from rural areas to cities for better opportunities. In this process, they carry their unique languages and dialects into new regions. A single classroom in urban India can have students whose native languages differ significantly from the state's official language. How then do we maintain a common medium of instruction, while still upholding the mandate of the NEP? Imagine an ethnically Bengali child, who speaks Bangla at home, growing up in M.P. for 7 years, and then moving to Kerala, taking admission in Grade 2.
When the school teaches in the local language, assuming that to be the mother tongue of every child, it gives an advantage to the children who indeed speak that language at home, and creates a disadvantage for the "outsiders". I agree that teaching in English does not offer a magical solution, but it does not penalize the "immigrant" children - it makes the playing field even in some ways.
NEP offers vague directions
This issue has been recognized by NEP 2020 itself, as it states, "Teachers will be encouraged to use a bilingual approach, including bilingual teaching-learning materials, with those students whose home language may be different from the medium of instruction." The onus is on educational institutions to create an inclusive environment that caters to linguistic diversity.
Technology to the rescue?
As per the suggestions of NEP, training teachers to become multilingual educators is one potential solution. This requires significant investment in teacher training programs, equipping them with the skills to navigate multilingual classrooms effectively. Leveraging technology could play a crucial role in addressing this challenge. Interactive language learning apps, AI-based translation tools, and customized digital content can aid in ensuring each child's linguistic needs are met without compromising the pedagogical quality.
A significant step could be recognizing and valuing the multilingual nature of Indian society within the education system. Encouraging children to respect and learn from each other's languages can foster a sense of inclusivity and mutual respect. Implementing a flexible language policy that allows students to learn in their native language, while also acquiring proficiency in the state language and English, could be a balanced approach. Furthermore, involving parents and communities in the education process can enhance children's learning experiences. Parents can be encouraged to participate in language-related activities at schools, reinforcing the value of diverse languages and cultures.
Are we ready?
While the NEP 2020's language policy is a commendable step towards preserving linguistic diversity and enhancing learning, it also unveils complexities in our fast-paced, mobile world. Yet, it's these very challenges that open avenues for innovative, inclusive, and culturally rich educational experiences. Navigating this unfamiliar landscape will require collective efforts from educators, policymakers, parents, and the students themselves. However, I feel there are no easy answers to this language related challenge and an era of experimentation will come where the policy makers, schools, and parents will strive to find a balance or solution. The collateral damage will be the children as unwilling guinea pigs, as always. But the potential rewards - future generations of linguistically versatile and culturally aware citizens - are perhaps well worth the journey.