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National Education Policy 2020 of the Government of India makes a few sweeping recommendations that could dramatically change the whole education process in the country in an incredibly positive way. This is the first such comprehensive review and policy recommendation in 35 years. The scope of this policy review and the magnitude of engagement of a diverse set of stakeholders is commendable and it shows in its all-encompassing policy recommendations.

While there are more than one major policy recommendations that caught my attention, I will limit my focus in this article to the recommendation to provide education until Class 5 in mother tongue or local language. 

This, I believe will be by far the most effective recommendation, which would have tremendous positive implications in ages to come, if implemented. The national government could set the policy and make recommendations. But it comes down to respective state governments to implement the same as Education is on Concurrent List, giving shared responsibilities to the two levels of executive powers.

In a country where we take great pride in having English as the medium of instruction and boast of little kids’ ability to converse in English, it will be a hard sell to switch to the mother tongue. It will be a long-drawn transition that could go on for a few decades, if at all it will get started with sincerity.

Time and again it has been proved all over the world that the best cognitive development in children results when their primary education happens in their mother tongue. Language and Cognition are the two most important elements in the development of a child, and they need to go hand in hand. Cognition is an umbrella term that covers various activities such as thinking, conceiving, reasoning, and others. A child would be able to perform these activities to the best of her or his abilities in the mother tongue only!

According to the famous psychologist, Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of cognitive development, children acquire the means of thinking from their surrounding culture. So, when we speak, eat and sleep mother tongue at home, and with friends and relatives, how is it going to help our children if their education happens in English, more importantly during early growth years?

Thus, nothing complements cognitive development more than one’s own tongue. The engagement by the learner is maximum and natural when the medium of instruction is the mother tongue itself. There is no further need to translate the learnings into their own language to absorb and internalize. Secondary engagement, discussions, and deliberations with family members will also happen in a more comprehensive way as there would be no language barriers. This is exactly what would be missing in countries like our own and other South Asian and African countries that crave for English as the language for education.

We have a strong argument in India that English is the language of the working world as it is the only connecting language in a country that has a few dozens of languages. Furthermore, we also strongly go with the notion that English medium education makes us ready to be a global citizen and for global career opportunities.

The first argument, which on the face of it looks apt in the current context of our country but is a result of over a century of neglect and disregard for Indic language sources and their destruction. It is an overly complex argument, which will bring into fray various socio-political and socio-religious contentions. By not dwelling on those contentious points, I would like to emphasize that it is not imperative to have English to conduct the affairs of the country. For example, Switzerland has 4 official languages of German, French, Italian, and Romansh. English appears nowhere in the affairs of this country. How do the Swiss do it without a connecting language? Why cannot we venture to learn another Indian language? If we take pride in learning Basic French in school, why not Bengali or Punjabi? Why do not we have Semester Exchange programs in Secondary school so that children are exposed to other languages and local cultures of the country? Europeans do these things with pride and they cherish those experiences. In terms of diversity and magnitude of cultures, India is much more than the continent of Europe.

The second argument is a total non-starter. People from many countries learn English as a means for communication and are ready to work in English speaking parts of the world. To be able to work in an English language environment, one need not get educated in English. This is what we do not realize in India. As someone who took great pride in having English medium education, I got a rude awakening when I set foot out of India for the very first time. When I landed in Switzerland in the year 2000 to study for my undergraduate degree, my Croatian classmate was surprised to learn that back in India, English was my medium of education all through my life! She could not fathom the thought that I have a mother tongue called Telugu, which is spoken at home, in my town and state but my education happens in English. She wondered if this Telugu language is an underdeveloped language. No, it is a highly developed language, which is more than 2,000 years old with its own grammar, deep prose, and poetry and all. She asked if I think in English or in Telugu… I was embarrassed to answer as until that moment I used to take pride in thinking in English. This conversation led me to start to reflect on this whole language for learning debate, especially in the context of our country.

During my near decade long stay in England, I had numerous colleagues whose first language was not English and who did not get educated in English, at least until secondary school, but leading successful professional lives.

It will be no picnic to start learning in the mother tongue in India. A lot of work needs to happen. There are limitations in vocabulary. For example, there is no word in Telugu for Lift or Elevator. This is the case today as the process of continuous enrichment and expansion of the language, which has to go hand in hand with scientific developments and societal changes has been ignored, starting from over a century and the last several decades, especially. But this transition must happen for more profound and deep socio-cultural development of our future generations, to relate to their roots and take pride in their heritage.

More importantly, English based education in our country turns English into a language that denies homogenous connectivity in the society, which in fact is the fundamental purpose of a language. For example, in Germany, people across the hierarchical structure in an organization speak the same language, could have free communication and exchange of ideas. Language is an enabler and not a barrier as they are dealing in their mother tongue. This cannot be translated to a typical corporate office in India, where the English language often proves to be a barrier to many and an enabler to a few.

English is still the leading business language of the world and it is important to learn it. But let us learn it as a language and not make it our world!

Having presented this argument, the irony is that I will struggle to write this same essay in my mother tongue, Telugu. I am disconnected from my first language to some extent. Thus, I am a classic product of the English focused Indian education system that disconnects you with your mother tongue! And I am to change this very soon…

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