Tag Archives: Education

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.