For a child, the school acts like a bridge connecting the home and the world. In this transitional crossing of environments, research and study have consistently highlighted the key role played by the mother tongue. That, when instructed in the mother tongue or home language, children perform better in subject-based learning. So, adopting English as the medium of instruction for early-age learners (from Class 1) in schools, like the proposed plan for government institutions in Uttarakhand, looks problematic.
Education begins at home with the home language and gets conditioned by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch, within doors or close by. The move from home to school alters the learning environment. School, whether private or government, presents a structure, a system for learning, whereas earlier it was a natural flow of experience. It presents new peers, teachers, content, discipline, and format. It’s a lot to adjust to quickly, and then, a new language of instruction.
If education inspires learning and questioning, and if education facilitates freedom of enquiry without fear, then which is better — a medium of instruction using the homely local mother tongue or a powerful global language like English?
Looking at global trends and the aspirations of new generations, an English medium of instruction appears attractive. Such a strategy seems to offer better opportunities for higher education, enhanced career prospects and professional growth, and overall economic well-being. But communicative competence in English — more suited for higher education or professional development — comes later.
What about thorough grounding in curriculum subjects, of which English is simply one subject of study; understanding concepts and thinking independently; responding to and framing questions and offering solutions; creativity and innovation in a disruptive global environment; and learning 21st-century life skills? This real learning becomes that much more difficult without a mother-tongue-led instruction. In a non-English-speaking environment, using English to teach curriculum subjects does not come easy. Add to this the teacher’s competence in handling English — first, in mastering the language; second, in using English to teach curriculum subjects — which remains a cause for concern.
Does the mother tongue offer something better? Representing natural transition from learning at home, using the mother tongue to teach curriculum subjects leads to greater emotional connection with the classroom, teachers, peers, and the learning process. Tending to actively engaged children, teachers — able users of the local language like their students — can give free rein to their creative and innovative impulses: Learning becomes student-led (rather than teacher-led), encouraging skill development. Naturally competent in imbibing new languages and now confident in their learning ability, children can easily pick up any new language — including English. It’s an all-round healthy learning outcome.
Unesco together with Unicef, the World Bank, UNFPA, UNDP, UN Women, and UNHCR organised the World Education Forum 2015 in Incheon, South Korea. The Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action for the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all) states, in Point 32: ‘In multilingual contexts, where possible and taking into account differing national and subnational realities, capacities and policies, teaching and learning in the first or home language should be encouraged.’ Point 59 says: ‘Particular attention should be paid to the role of learners’ first language in becoming literate and in learning.’ Setting out a new vision for education for the next 15 years, the Incheon Declaration for Education 2030 has been adopted by over 180 Unesco member states.
We are a young nation. We are a confederation of states with developed languages and rich literatures held together by the common desire for amity and unity. We have had a deeply disturbing colonial past, a recent brutal one, which led to the use of English.
Instead of changing the medium of classroom instruction, the way forward lies in evolving a connected and implementable approach to school education: Develop instructional material for students and teachers that sustains creativity, conceptualise robust teacher training programmes, roll out innovative teaching methodologies, ensure goal-and-outcome focused learning assessments and, apply data and analytics for personalised learning.
Shaping the mammoth enterprise of school education affecting so many young lives, we should not fail to train our eyes on our roots, our unique, indigenous languages, to offer a learning environment that fosters connection, belonging, and identity embedded in the child’s culture.
In here lies our tryst with destiny.