Why Mother Tongues?

Joga Singh

Of late, the Punjab government has decided to teach science subjects in Punjabi to 11th and 12th class students from the next session; the Jharkhand government is to start teaching class I and II students in their mother tongues instead of Hindi.

This is a welcome trend, a very belated one though. This trend needs to be strengthened because education through mother tongues is essential for India to make a tangible progress in the field of education, the nucleus to any kind of development.

But some myths occupying the Indian minds and the vested interests, particularly of those who are at the helm of affairs, have not allowed Indian governments to truly implement the recommendations advanced by all commissions and committees set up on the issue, the recommendations which are also attested by international expert opinion and practice.

The myths that have blinded the Indian minds in this regard are such as—that only English is the language of science, technology, commerce, and international exchange and that Indian languages are incapable of becoming a vehicle for the higher level of knowledge. In truth these are just misconceptions and are not borne out by any fact.

For the past ten years, eight out of the top ten Countries in teaching of Science and Mathematics at school level have been the ones where medium of instruction is not English. In 2012, the countries teaching in English ranked 3rd (Singapore), 10th (Canada), 14th (Ireland), 16th (Australia), 18th (New Zealand), and 28th (USA) among the top 50 countries. These countries too do not teach exclusively in English at school level. For instance, there are French medium schools in Canada, Irish medium in Ireland, Dyirbal in Australia, Maori in New Zealand and several mediums of instruction in the USA.

Only a few of the top 50 universities in Asia are the ones where English is the language of instruction and none of the Indian universities is among them.

In the 17th century (when barely any Indian knew English), the Indian share in world GDP was 22 (twenty two) percent. It has now come down to around 2.5 percent. Indian share in world trade too is coming down. It was 1.78 percent in 1950 and hovers around 1.5 (one and a half) percent now. Despite so much emphasis on English language, India ranks 150th in terms of per capita exports. It has been reported very recently that European banks are not recruiting British citizens because they know only English and Britain is suffering heavy trade losses due to a lack of learning other languages.

The international expert opinion and practice overwhelmingly support the view that education, particularly at the school level, can be imparted successfully only through the mother tongue medium.

The poor international ranking of Indian educational institutions, the constant fall of Indian share in world trade, the expert opinion on language issues and the contemporary international linguistic scene and practices provide irrefutable evidence that India has suffered great losses by handing over mother tongue domains to other language(s). One significant reason for India's lagging behind countries such as South Korea, Japan and China, etc is the intrusion of languages other than the mother tongues in Indian education and other important domains.

It is true that in the present globalized world, foreign language skills are an essential ability. But even here, the experience and research show that a student getting education through mother tongue and studying foreign language as a subject learns the foreign language better than the one imparted education through that foreign language from the beginning. The following statement from a UNESCO book (Improvement in the Quality of Mother Tongue-Based Literacy and Learning, published in 2008, pp. 12) is very much relevant here: 'What seems to be standing in our way is a set of myths about language and learning, and these myths must be revealed as such to open people's eyes. One such myth is that the best way to learn a foreign language is to use it as a medium of instruction. (In fact, it is often more effective to learn additional languages as subjects of study.) Another is that to learn a foreign language one must start as early as possible. (Starting early might help learners to have a nice accent, but otherwise, the advantage goes to learners who have a well developed first language.) A third is that the home language gets in the way of learning a foreign language. (Building a strong foundation in the first language results in a better learning of additional languages.) Clearly, these myths are more false than true, yet they guide the way policy makers tend to think about how speakers of other languages must learn dominant or official languages'.

The way English and to a certain extent Hindi are occupying the Indian mother tongue domains, the life of Indian mother tongues is under a severe threat. The English medium instruction is producing a generation which has neither an appreciable mastery over the content, over their mother tongues and over English as well and neither it can connect intimately with their own culture, tradition, history and people. It is not wrong to call these children as English children because by the time they complete their schooling their competence in English is more than their mother tongues, it is meagre though in English too. A successful delivery of any kind of service is not possible without the language of the people it is meant for. The Indian Constitution (an epitome of wisdom of the freedom movement) gives a right to every Indian citizen to receive education and services in the mother tongue (article 347 and 350A). Almost all of the countries start teaching foreign language after the age of ten. The foreign language skill of their children is not less than Indian children. Also, most of these countries are ahead of India in education and development as well.

Vol. 48, No. 28, Jan 17 - 23, 2016