Tag Archives: Education system

The language of Indian Education

There was a lovely article in The Diplomat a while ago which talked about one major perceived failing of the Indian education system namely, the medium of instruction. In India, unlike in most other countries around the world, children are educated primarily in English. The article brings some very valid points to the table. English is a foreign language for most Indians, it states. Learning a foreign language and then trying to learn concepts in that new language would be tantamount to Americans learning Mandarin and using it as a medium of instruction right from elementary school.

A primary school in India
Children learning to write, courtesy Live Mint

The article makes many other points; however, the importance of this one point cannot be overstated. And as such, it is important to state all the benefits and reasons for using English in light of this one important point.

Reasons for keeping English

There are two reasons for keeping English as the medium of education in India’s universities and schools. The first, and possibly the most important reason is that English is the world’s language. International journals publish in English, textbooks are written in English, most scientific terms are English words and if you speak English, you’ll be able to communicate with academics all around the globe. A good, working knowledge of English ensures that the only errors you’ll face are experimental and theoretical, not communication-related.

The second, and the more political one, is that the founding fathers, in an attempt to appease every group in India, decided to not take a stand on our national language. Given the time and situation, it was understandable. Even today, if a politician attempts to sidestep this provision of the constitution, he’d be voted out of office quicker than you can recite the alphabet.

The first reason is quite easily dismissed. A vast majority of Indians have no visa on their passports (if they possess passports in the first place) and are unlikely to go abroad or exchange ideas with foreigners. The second reason, on the other hand, merits a pause and more than just a cursory brush-off.

The cultural and linguistic legacy of British India

British India was a complicated place. There was British India proper, and then there were hundreds of different states all over the sub-continent. Sardar Patel was instrumental in getting these states together to form modern India. However, the legacy of these small and fractured kingdoms as well as India’s rich and storied history is the number of languages left behind for us to manage. The 2011 census lists 1,635 rationalised mother tongues.

A map showing the major languages spoken in India state-wise
A map showing the major languages spoken in India state-wise – sourced from mapsofindia.com

Of course, that’s all the languages they could find, and just to be on the safe side, let’s assume that there are some duplicates on that list. Taking all that into account, though, the census still tells us that the number of languages spoken by more than a million speakers each in India is 30.

Take a second to absorb that fact. There are 30 languages in India which are spoken by over a million people each. And that’s just half the story. They’re not just spoken by a million people each, each of these languages has more than a million people claiming them to be their mother tongue. This poses an interesting conundrum. One argument goes that Hindi remains by far the most dominating language across the sub-continent, and hence should logically be considered the language of choice across India. Bollywood, arguably the country’s most popular film-making industry is predominantly Hindi-based. The language used by most TV shows (ones which have pan-India viewership, at least) is Hindi. It’s also the one language mandatorily taught across the country. Hindi is a language spoken and understood by most urban residents of modern India across its provinces (except for the deep south and parts of the north-east).

However, India remains predominantly rural. The hinterlands of Andhra Pradesh, for example, do not contain people who would understand Hindi. The argument for using a State’s national language as the medium of instruction is a citizen’s familiarity with it. If a language is used with one’s family members, friends as well as teachers, then it removes one great barrier to learning. Unfortunately, many proponents of the status quo claim that Hindi does not fulfill the criteria required to be such a language. Not enough people use it for casual communication, it is claimed.

A third alternative, one which seems, at first glance, to properly address this issue, is to use a province’s mother tongue as the medium of instruction in its schools. It gets people educated in their mother tongues while retaining the diversity India boasts as a result of its rich history and culture. However, if we look at it with a jaundiced eye, we find a big, fatal flaw in this solution. If you use thirty different languages to teach the basics of science, literature, philosophy and society, then one criterion people would have to pay attention to while searching for an institute of higher learning would be its medium of instruction. Engineering students from the Hindi speaking belt, for instance, would not be able to study in IIT Madras or IIT Bombay, while students of the arts from Andhra Pradesh would not be able to fit in well in Delhi University. This policy would end up isolating regions linguistically which would lead to factionalism and quite possibly, calls to secede from India. Another problem would be that the best talent across the country would not be able to learn from the best teachers simply by the accident of being born in another linguistic zone.

A choice between many evils

In summary, the choices before a politician brave and foolhardy enough to moot changing India’s linguistic practices are all bad. India happens to be in a unique position in history, and as such, it is important for us to consider carefully the steps we take from here. Education is the key to a rich, vibrant society and whatever decision is taken will need to take care of the demographic bulge just across the proverbial corner.

  • Keeping the status quo hasn’t exactly paid us any dividends. There are parts of the country where education levels are sub-Saharan, and in some places, even worse.
  • Switching the medium of instruction to Hindi is both political suicide, and it also reeks of favouritism and linguistic chauvinism. Not only is Hindi not better than any of the other 30 languages we can use, but it’s not the mother tongue of a majority of the population either.
  • Switching to a regional language will lead to factionalism and other problems, like the best minds facing communication barriers.

We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. And quite frankly, there’s no wiggle room. Any choice we make is bad, and it’s really time to see which one of these has the fewest cons.

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Why do we lag behind?

I got to see this article just yesterday. What with the IIT results coming out and everything, a few friends of mine wanted some advice about where to go and everything of that sort. While I could easily tell them to come to BITS Pilani, I got curious about just what the world thinks about Indian colleges. I got to an article on the Times Higher Education about Indian universities (courtesy Shankar Venkatraman).

Top ten Indian Colleges
List of top ten Indian colleges – courtesy Times Higher Education

The list comes from the article I linked to in the very beginning of this post. Seems kind of shocking, no? IISc Bangalore gaining such a high rank out there in the world? Well, I guess it is time we recognized the importance of basic science not just in paving the way for applied sciences, but rather in character building as well.

This small piece aside, however, the issue to discuss and think about is not about IISc Bangalore surging ahead of IIT Bombay in rankings. It’s more about the fact that India’s best institute is ranked 130th in the world.

One Hundred and Thirtieth. Not even in the top one hundred. IIT Bombay ranks an even bleaker 192nd place. And after that, India doesn’t even come into the picture. We want to become a world power, and yet we don’t have the quality needed to get there.

I guess many people have talked about introspection and the need for reform. With a man like Kapil Sibal in charge of the modernization of our entrance exams and admission structure, I guess we have introduced reform into our system.

A different kind of reform

We hardly need to change the pattern of our entrance exams, as I see it. While the American system has been considered epic for a while, I’ve read some research (a long while ago) that if you divorce education from its rigor and rote learning, you produce students of the liberal arts. While I’m sure Liberal Arts’ majors are awesome, an emerging power may not exactly want all its students to go in that direction.

A professor teaching a class in BPHC
A high tech classroom does not make a great learning experience. It’s the professor that counts – Photo courtesy the Department of Photography at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad Campus

No. The reform I’m talking about comes in the professors who are teaching us. I, of course, have the experience of just one college. But being a campus of BITS Pilani, I’m sure that if I feel this way about my professors, people from other colleges aren’t too far behind. The professors need to understand two things:

  1. No one respects you until you aren’t good in your own subject and aren’t actively doing work in it. You might point out the various papers you’ve published, but until and unless we see you working on yet another, most of us aren’t likely to respect you.
  2. Learn how to communicate. University students aren’t kindergartners. We care about how you talk to us. We like being talked to as adults and being taught without taunts, heavy accents or boring monotonous droning voices.
  3. Please, please try to understand that dry, boring lectures do not appeal to us. We want demonstrations which make sense and look interesting. We want to know exactly how the things you’re teaching us will help us become good engineers/scientists etc. Involve us and make us feel as if we’re actually being taught something instead of being lectured.
  4. While I appreciate the need for numerical problems, please do not let them define your exams. You see, there are these things called computers which exist today. They run some other things called programs which can calculate upon being given a formula. They kind of seem to make a great deal of difference while calculating, you see.
  5. Please, please let us in on some cutting-edge research you guys are doing? (If at all?)

Am I being arrogant? Maybe. Is it for a good cause? Definitely! Please, do take my criticism the way it is meant. Constructively. I understand that many of you are great people who have done wondrous things in your life. All I ask is that you please try to actually act the part.