The NEP gets the Language Problem Wrong
Updated: Sep 14
- Madhavi Gopalakrishnan and Kruthika R*
The National Education Policy ('NEP') is the third such policy formulated by the Central Government since Independence. Since its release in July 2020, the NEP, which proposes a major revamp of the Indian education system, has been subject to heated public debate. Among its key changes are the integration of technology into the education system, a change in the medium of instruction in schools, and a new academic and pedagogical structure.
This piece will focus on the policy relating to the medium of instruction (paragraph 4.11), which states the following:
“Wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother-tongue/local language/regional language…This will be followed in both public and private schools.”
The policy further states in paragraph 4.13 that: “the three-language formula will continue to be implemented...However, there will be a greater flexibility...and no language will be imposed on any State.”
A number of commentators have embraced the NEP, describing the current focus on English-language instruction as elitist and exclusionary. However, we argue that English is actually an emancipatory language that is key to socio-economic mobility in India. Further, this aspect of the NEP does not fulfil its historical mandate of protecting linguistic minorities, and needs to be re-evaluated keeping in mind its outsize impact on disadvantaged students and minorities.
I. EXAMINING THE ‘MOTHER TONGUE’ DEBATE IN THE CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY
The suggestion to adopt ‘home language/mother-tongue’ as a medium of instruction can be traced to the pre-constitution and constitution-making eras. The Nehru Report 1928, in its Fundamental Rights section, sought to enable minorities to impart primary education in their own languages.
One can see a similar demand in the formal constitution-making process. In the Constituent Assembly, during the debates on Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution of India, 1950, Z.H. Lari moved a proposal to include: 
"(4) Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language and script shall be entitled to have primary education imparted to its children through the medium of that language and script."
Through this proposal, Lari wanted to ensure that linguistic minorities had the fundamental right to receive primary education in their own language and script. He argued that imparting primary education in one’s mother tongue was a crucial educational principle, and non-adherence to this would lead to “discontentment and bitterness”. He further invoked the Nehru Report, which had provided for the fundamental right to be educated in one’s mother tongue.
Begum Aizaz Rasul, the only Muslim woman in the Constituent Assembly, supported Lari’s proposal, although she sought to replace ‘Any section of the citizens’ to ‘Any minority’ to clarify the scope of the clause. She reiterated the necessity to impart primary education in the mother tongue rather than in “alien tongue and script”.
Govind Ballabh Pant contested Lari’s amendment, citing practical reasons. He argued that given limited resources, it was already challenging to impart universal primary education. Lari’s amendment to make education in one’s mother tongue a fundamental right would be taxing and impractical. He further noted that language did not have any religion: “No language is the language of the Hindus and no language is the language of Muslims”.
Therefore, according to Pant, Lari’s articulation of language as a ‘communal’ or a ‘minority’ problem was inaccurate. Pant suspected that the “ghost of 'Two nations' seems to be lingering somewhere”. He also clarified that if a substantial number of students in any school requested to be instructed in a particular language, the schools would be instructed to make such an accommodation.
The Constituent Assembly rejected Lari’s amendment. The demand for encoding the fundamental right to receive primary education in one’s mother tongue was not viewed as necessary or practical. Interestingly, this demand emerged from members of a religious minority community who were concerned about the status of their language in the wake of Hindi imposition.
Therefore, it is clear that historically, the demand for ensuring mother language as the medium of instruction has been tied to the rights of minority communities.
II. DECONSTRUCTING THE POLICY FRAMEWORK FOR ‘MOTHER TONGUE’
The Kothari Commission Report of 1966 first recommended that educational instruction should take place in mother tongues and local languages. This recommendation was followed by the National Policy on Education of 1968. This policy proposed the controversial three language formula that prioritized Hindi as the language of instruction, English as the second language, and either a “modern Indian language” or regional language as the third.
The 1968 policy was subject to much criticism, particularly from South Indian states, for its imposition of the Hindi language. Although the policy was adopted through the Official Language Resolution of 1968, it was widely viewed as ineffective and detrimental to non-Hindi speaking states; despite this, it was included in the subsequent National Policy on Education of 1986.
The 2020 NEP reiterates the stance taken in previous education policies, with one difference: it does not define the languages of instruction, only making it clear that it will not be English, purportedly to address the concerns of the southern states. Moreover, it uses the term ‘home language’ which, along with ‘mother tongue’, remains undefined. At present, the only official definition of ‘mother tongue’ is the one used during the Census, which is:
“...the language spoken in childhood by the person’s mother to the person. If the mother died in infancy, the language mainly spoken in the person’s home in childhood will be the mother tongue. In case of doubt, the language mainly spoken in the household may be recorded.”
A language also needs to be spoken by more than 10,000 people in order to qualify as a mother tongue, else it is classed as a minority language. This creates a clear demarcation between a mother tongue and a minority language, to the clear disadvantage of the latter.
III. THE COMPETING CONSIDERATIONS IN THE ‘MOTHER TONGUE’ DEBATES
Although the demand for mother tongue instruction historically came from linguistic minorities, the NEP approaches the issue from the perspective of improved learning outcomes. It states that mother tongue instruction correlates to better learning, a fact that is backed up with numerous scientific studies.
However, these studies do not all account for the unique challenges posed by India’s unparalleled linguistic diversity. The one study conducted in a multilingual country, Nigeria, focused on learning outcomes related to instruction in one language, Yoruba. It did not address outcomes or implementation challenges for mother-tongue instruction in a multilingual classroom. Additionally, English-language instruction is considered a key factor in enhancing equality of opportunity for marginalized communities. Based on this, it appears that the focus on mother tongue/home language instruction in the NEP presents two major issues.
The first is how the appropriate authorities will determine the language in which educational instruction will take place. The 2011 Census reported that there were 19,500 different languages and dialects spoken in India, although there are far fewer ‘mother tongues’. If the definition used in the Census is adopted, linguistic minorities are going to be left out.
However, if the upcoming National Curriculum Framework, scheduled for release in 2021, adopts a more expansive definition of ‘mother tongue’ or includes minority languages within the scope of ‘home language’, it will pose massive logistical issues. In multicultural metropolitan cities like Mumbai, which see a constant inflow of families from across the country, there is a real possibility that multiple children will consider different languages as their mother tongues for the purpose of instruction.
Although the policy does suggest that ‘bilingual teaching-learning materials’ should be used to bring this gap, this will not address a situation in which students in one classroom speak multiple languages. This policy may well result in the imposition of another majority language on unwilling students.
The second issue is that English-language instruction contributes to equality of access to opportunities, particularly for Dalits and other marginalized groups. Higher education, both in India and abroad, is primarily conducted in English. Reverting to vernacular education will prevent these groups, who are less likely to possess the capital to access private tuitions, from securing admission in higher education institutions, and understanding the learning material therein.
Further, holding a position of power, both in India and abroad, usually requires a certain amount of fluency in English. This means that students whose only opportunity to learn English is at school will be further prevented from being upwardly mobile. A British Council report points out that the majority of the country views English as a vehicle for progress;  however, despite increasing demands for English-language education, schools continue to lack facilities and qualified teachers to cater to the same.
High-income families, whose children attend private schools, may be able to opt for private tuitions or access in-school facilities that aid their children. The NEP, however, does not address the prospect of increasing funding or providing similar, free facilities. It is likely that in its present form, the NEP will exclude Disadvantaged Groups ('DG') and Economically Weaker Sections ('EWS') – as defined by the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 – from higher education and the pursuit of better opportunities.
IV. THE SOLUTION: IMPROVING ENGLISH-LANGUAGE INSTRUCTION
The massive wealth gap in India, and the dearth of opportunities for non-English speakers in India and abroad, is the key reason why parents continue to prefer private schools, despite the high cost. Such schools can dedicate more resources to teaching English. For the majority of the country, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s view of the English language rings true: it is a “language of emancipation” that allows lower-caste people and other economically and socially marginalized groups to access previously unavailable opportunities.
With regard to the preservation of minority languages, the British Council report observed that in India, “English... has played an instrumental role in maintaining the diversity of India’s language scene because...it has not been necessary to select any one Indian language as a national language”.
Taking into account these considerations, it appears that increasing the quality and funding of English-language education would address the needs and desires of the broader Indian populace, with due respect for linguistic minorities. A caveat is that vernacular languages should continue to be taught, and indeed emphasized, throughout a child’s education; but as the NEP itself points out, “a language does not need to be the medium of instruction for it to be taught and learned well”. Why not reverse course, and ensure that the vernacular languages are also given their due in the classroom while improving the quality of instruction in English?
*Madhavi Gopalakrishnan and Kruthika R are research associates at the Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bengaluru (‘CLPR’). Madhavi works on the constitutionofindia.net initiative and Kruthika on the Supreme Court Observer initiative.
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