Language Policy and Status of English as a Medium of Instruction

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Dec 2 18:23:47 UTC 2006

Friday, December 1, 2006

Language Policy and Status of English as a Medium of Instruction
A Contextual Analysis

Written by: BENUDHAR CHINARA Department of Education North Eastern Hill
University Mizoram Campus, Aizawl (Taken from

In a mulltilingual country like India, the medium of instruction from
primary to higher education has always been an issue. The magnitude of the
problem is evident at different stages of education. Out of a total of
1652 languages and dialects only are used as media of instruction in
schools. English as a medium of instruction continues to dominate over
vernacular media in colleges and universities. It continues to be an
exclusive medium in medical, agricultural and engineering courses. And
this has often been the subject of discussion among academicians in spite
of certain policy-decisions undertaken at the national level. What
decisions have exactly been taken by the policy-makers? To what extent
have the decisions taken so far been successfully implemented? How far are
they to the ground reality? The paper strives to seek answers to these
questions through an analysis of the language policy and the status of
English as a medium of instruction at both the levels of school education
(primary and secondary) and higher education (college and university).

School Education

INDIA CONSTITUTIONALLY (Article 350 and 350-A) guarantees primary
education to every child in the mother tongue of the child. This provision
has been duly recognized by different commissions and committees appointed
by the Government of India from time to time (Education Commission
1964-66, Education Policy 1968, National Policy on Education (NPE) 1986,
NPE Review Committee 1990 and Central Advisory Board of education (CABE)
Committee 1992). Deviating from the normal course and hitting upon reality
the National Advisory Committee 1993 argued that the question of the
medium of instruction in early life would not be fully resolved as long as
the dominant sections of our society continued to give importance to
elementary graces in a foreign language rather than to the vernacular
knowledge which our children gained during every week of their growing up
before they went to school. Accordingly, the committee restrained itself
from repeating the recommendation that the mother tongue alone should be
the medium of instruction at the primary stage. At the secondary stage,
the States Reorganization Commission commended that the mother tongue be
the medium of educational interaction. But the Chief Ministers Conference
1961 suggested that the media only be restricted to the modern languages
mentioned in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and that
English as the medium of instruction at this stage enabled students to
choose a vocation and prepared them for university education (Ram Gopal,

However, the Education Commission 1964-66 was strongly in favour of
reorganization of media at the secondary and polytechnic stages.
Supporting the then existing status as it was, the NPE Review Committee
1990 recommended that education be imparted in the minority language at
the secondary stage in conformity the 15:60 formula. The review of the
media of primary and secondary school education indicates that the first
four decades after Independence, India mostly witnessed a national policy
consensus over the mother tongue medium at both the stages. But the early
1990s showed a policy drift which was flexible in respect of the mother
tongue as a compulsory instructional medium at the primary stage. At
present, the overall policy consensus with regard to the educational
medium has been implemented more in the breach than in the observance at
both primary and secondary stages as is seen from the following.

1. English dominates over the mother tongue medium in different schools
and of various groups.

English continues to be the medium in almost all the private elitist

English or Hindi remains as the medium for most of the majority groups.

English and Hindi are used as the media of instruction in the Central

Schools and the Navodaya Vidyalayas for the children of highly mobile
sectors of society and for rural talents respectively.

2. English as a subject of study

English happens to be the first language and is taught as a subject from
Class I in the States of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Sikkim.
Indian States, namely Assam, Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh & Kashmir,
Karnataka, Kerala, Lakshadweep, Meghalaya, Manipur, Pondichery, Rajasthan,
and Tripura, etc. accept English as the only second language.

Higher Education

The Education Commission 1964-66 had proposed English to remain the
principal medium of education and called for a change over to the regional
languages media over a ten-year time-frame at the university stage. As the
regional languages were already in use as media at the primary and
secondary stages, the Education Policy 1968 recommended that urgent steps
be taken for progressive adoption of these languages as the media at the
university stage. Both NPE 1986 and the Programme of Action 1986
reaffirmed the same. Besides, English as a means to learn non-language
subjects was never under-mined. According to the Education Commission
1964-66, Even if the regional languages become media of higher education,
a working knowledge of English with reasonable proficiency will be a
valuable asset for those who proceed to the university. Similarly, the
Education Policy 1968 particularly suggested that the study of English be
strengthened in order to keep up with the tremendous growth rate of world
knowledge and to make sufficient contribution to it. Sharing the same
lines of thought, the NPE Review Committee 1990 recommended that Pending
ultimate switchover to the media of regional languages and Hindi for the
purpose of higher education, English will continue to be the vital medium
for the universities and colleges. A review of the language Policy reveals
the importance of regionalization of medium besides non-abolition of
English medium at the higher education level. It had resulted in change
from English to regional medium in almost 50 per cent of the universities,
but certainly not in all, by the middle of the 1980s (Pattanayak, 1986).
Apart from the above stated foresight of the language policy-makers,
English continues to dominate higher education as is evident from the

1. English as a medium of instructing teaching and examination: Out of a
total of 120 Indian Universities listed in the University handbook (AIU,
1992) English continues as the medium of instruction in many universities.

Eighty-four universities have English as a medium of teaching and
examination at the B.A. level.

English is the only medium of teaching and examination in 19 universities
at the B.A. level.

Eighty-nine universities have provision of teaching and examination
through English medium.

English remains the only medium of instruction and examination in 45
universities at the M.A. level.

2. English as a means of scientific communication: Indian languages are
deficient in scientific and technical literature. It was perhaps due to
this that the Education Commission 1964-66 had viewed the continuous
requirement of a good knowledge of English for the students going in for
study and research in engineering. In fact the problem is not with the
acceptability and usability of the scientific and technical terms coined
in regional languages, but with their viability and familiarity. Deenammas
study (1979) reports the same which showed that misunderstanding in
meaning was more with Malayalam words than with their English equivalents.
According to the University Handbook (AIU, 1992) the position of English
as a means of scientific communication is as follows.

Out of a total of 93 universities offering M.Sc. courses, 67 have English
as the only medium of instruction.

All the 28 agricultural universities have the provision of teaching and
examination in English. It is the only medium at the undergraduate level
in 21 universities and at the postgraduate level in 26 universities.
English continues to be the only mediumof teaching and examination in all
the IITs and all the university faculties of engineering.

3. English as a Subject of Study: Language as a subject of study
supplements the language as a medium of instruction as the competence in
learning a language enables the individuals to use it effectively as a
vehicle for the transmission of ideas. It is true in the case of English.
As a subject of study, English has a unique distinction compared to its
status as a medium of instruction. There is not a single universities or
an under-graduate college in India which does not offer a course in
English. Such a distinctioncannot be claimed by any other language in the
country, not even Hindi (Mehrotra, 1994).

4. English as a Print Medium: As a print medium it predominates the Indian
Distance Open Learning system which is growing at a relatively faster pace
than the classroom system. Its importance may be realized from the fact
that the production of university level books in modern Indian languages
by the Government of India came to a standstill as in many States the
books produced in regional languages were not sold.

It is in fact that the demand for teaching of non-language subjects
through English medium is rising at an increasing pace at both school and
higher education levels irrespective of official recognition. But early
English education in English at the cost of the mother tongue which comes
spontaneously from exposure to the environment creates a chasm between the
child and his environment. This linguistic gulf, in turn, limits the
childs natural growth as is seen from the following.

It curbs the creativity and innovativeness of the child.

It weakens the childs attitude towards his studies and generates hostility
towards school leading to illiteracy and drop-outs.

It creates imbalance between the child and the immediate environment in
which he grows up leading to social deprivation.

It distorts self identity resulting in an identity crisis for the child.

On the contrary, an adequate command over the mother tongue at the
earliest stage when the basic conceptualizing processes are being formed
leads to cognitive fulfilment. Thus competence in the mother tongue and
learning through it should be a prerequisite before learning a foreign
language like English. It is, therefore, suggested that urgent steps be
taken for implementing the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in
the primary and secondary schools uniformly across the country. At the
same time, English as a subject of study should not be neglected during
schooling. Because of its status as a library language in the field of
higher education (Education Commission, 1964-66) or as a link language
(viewed by two prominent members of CABE Committee, 1992) it cannot be
overloaded at any point of time. Even of late, the importance of English
has been felt in Japan which privately offers English classes to Japanese
and in Russia where English seems to be the most popular subject after the
collapse of Soviet Russia.

Learning of non-language subjects (science, mathematics, etc.) through the
English medium in Instructions of higher learning should not be restricted
in any form once it has been successfully replaced by regional media
during schooling. Teaching through English at this stage leads to
cognitive enhancement and thus becomes a strength as by this time the
student normally has a competent knowledge of the mother tongue and his
processes of concept formation normally reach a considerable degree of


ASSOCIATION OF INDIAN UNIVERSITIES, 1992. University Handbook, New Delhi,
DEENAMMA, K.V. 1979. Verbal Barriers in Classroom Communication.
Unpublished doctoral thesis in education, Kerela University.
1986. National Policy on Education 1986. Ministry of Human Resource
GOVERNMENT OF INDIA. 1986. Programme of Action 1986. Ministry of Human
Resource Development.
GOVERNMENT OF INDIA. 1990. Report of the National Policy on Education
Review Committee.
GOVERNMENT OF INDIA. 1992. Report of the CABE Committee on Policy.
GOVERNMENT OF INDIA. 1993. Report of the National Advisory Committee.
GOVERNMENT OF INDIA. Report of the Education Commission (1964-66).
Ministry of Education, New Delhi.
PATTANAYAK, D.P. 1986. Language Education-A Trend Report. In M.B. Buch
(ed.), Third Survey of Research in Education. New Delhi, NCERT, p. 579.
RAM GOPAL. 1966. Lingustic Affairs of India. New Delhi, Asia Publishing
House, p. 132.
The 15:60 formula seeks to provide faciliteies for teaching through the
medium of the mother tongue at the secondary stage where there is a
minimum of 15 students in a class or 60 in a school as a whole.


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