Unfinished MoI Debate

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Language alone cannot be foundation for education

The statement of Chief Justice of India S A Bobde that it was “important that a child learns in the mother tongue” to build the “foundation” is likely to rekindle the debate over the issue of medium of instruction. The CJI made the statement while hearing a petition of the Andhra Pradesh government challenging the state High Court order striking down its decision to make English medium compulsory for classes I to VI in government schools. It was contended by the senior counsel K V Viswanathan appearing for the Andhra Pradesh government that lack of proficiency in English language limits opportunities and creates “islands of exclusion”. He also argued that around 96 per cent of parents in Andhra Pradesh want their children in English medium schools, though every mandal has a Telugu medium school with free transportation. He pointed out that the Andhra Pradesh government wanted to provide access to children from poor families, who cannot afford education in English in costly private institutions, to English education for their betterment.

The Andhra Pradesh policy shows the complexity the makers of education policy face in every state of India. The mother tongue versus English debate has remained unfinished throughout the country. There is little dispute about the ease and comfort of learning in the mother tongue.  Justice Bobde sought to drive home the same point when he observed that imparting education in the mother tongue was vital in laying a strong foundation for the overall progress of children. He cited examples of China and Russia where children were taught in their own language. The problem that the parallels of China and Russia present is that in those two countries there is one language and mother tongue and hence it is easier to make it the medium of instruction. India has many languages; each state has a language spoken by the majority and other languages spoken by other communities. Though Hindi is the national language of India it has failed to establish itself as a medium of instruction beyond Hindi speaking states. It is not accepted in southern states. Higher education continues to be mostly in English throughout the country. Those who receive instruction in a state language find themselves in a disadvantageous position in higher education or when they move out of the state.

 Justice Bobde’s observation has once again emphasized the suitability of mother tongue as a medium of instruction, but it needs to be said that the issue is too complex and beyond the finite powers of the Supreme Court to put an end to the complexities. What the Andhra Pradesh government is relying on is a slice of reality: an increasing number of parents, rich or poor, want their children to study in English medium. The principle Justice Bobde upholds as rational is the principle of enlightened education policymakers, but this principle clashes with the demands of the market, which is what the parents want their children to cater to. How to resolve this conflict between the enlightened education policymakers and parents? The debate goes on.

One idea suggests that the state give parents the freedom to choose the medium of instruction for their children. A bridge course in English should be made available to those preferring to study in vernacular languages so that they can cope with higher education. As education in private English medium schools, from lower to higher levels, was costly, the central government started a scheme for inclusion of children from lower income background, but somehow that has not worked with satisfactory results. It is necessary that every Indian is educated and is able to participate in the development and economic prosperity of the country. And here we need to keep in mind the factors other than the medium of instruction that are denying access to education to children from poor backgrounds. There are a host of reasons behind dropout such as poverty and poor health. Often children of poor families have to drop out in order to earn additional income for the households. This shows that the economic life of the lower classes has to also improve in order to create an environment conducive to reception of education in the poor families.