[lg policy] India: The Word and the World

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Sep 29 20:37:58 UTC 2013

The word and the world
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*Children do learn better in their home language. This is not a verdict on

*Shivali Tukdeo*

Since the early 19th century, questions surrounding language have occupied
a rather uncomfortable place in the formal system of Indian education.
While the knowledge of English was unmistakeably part of the making of
modern Indian education, its relationship with vernacular languages was a
source of anxiety. Education policy in the early post-Independence years
struggled with the challenge of balancing language and learning. How do we
introduce students to multiple language-worlds, in all their richness and
complexities? How do we teach them an appreciation of different knowledge
systems? How do we teach different scripts? Some of these questions were
addressed by the three-language formula, where regional and official
languages were introduced in schools at different points.

Several decades of language education policy and multilingual education
later, the question of language continues to be unsettling and unresolved,
for many reasons. The recently approved National Early Childhood Care and
Education (ECCE) policy is a case in point. The proposal, drafted by the
women and child development ministry, includes an overarching framework for
early childhood education: regulation of playschools; infrastructure and
sanitation norms; child-teacher ratio; better monitoring practices and
curricular strategies. The section on the inclusion of the mother tongue or
home language and local vernaculars has predictably aroused animated
reactions. The inclusion of home or local languages in preschool is a step
in the right direction, for educational as well as social reasons.

To begin with, it is an obvious and overstated fact that young children
learn better when they understand the language of instruction. Equally
important is the fact that children begin to respond to the world around
them through their home languages even before they enter preschool and can
go on to complex conceptual learning in these languages. Early childhood
education focuses on developing the following domains: cognitive, physical,
emotional, social. It also stresses on non-cognitive domains like
motivation and curiosity. Evidence-based studies on early childhood and
research in educational psychology and cognition suggest that exposure to
multiple languages can facilitate early development.

Importantly, early childhood education revolves around activities,
discoveries, plays, stories and songs that go on to construct learning and
meaning for the young child. Emergent literacies — ways to listen, see,
play, respond and participate in one's close surroundings — prepares the
young ones for what comes later in school, reading and writing. Given the
interactive nature of early learning, home languages and local vernaculars
would be excellent resources to introduce the child to the rhymes, rhythms
and stories of a world that she inhabits. With the inclusion of mother
tongues and local vernaculars in preschools, many neighbourhoods and
localities, with their different stories, will enter the realm of school.

According to the 2011 census, India has 158.7 million children in the age
group of 0-6 years. Strengthening anganwadis and non-formal early education
would be essential to improve the overall quality of education. Quality
early education would also be the foundation for the realisation of the
Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE). A large
percentage of children drop out and experience learning difficulties
because they do not have the opportunity to learn in their home language.
Its inclusion in the early years, along with English and other languages,
would enhance their school experience.

The questions of medium of instruction, language choice and education often
mirror the social relations of domination as well as the aspirations that
have been associated with formal education. For decades, Adivasi students
have gone to school only to find the silence and invisibility of their
languages. If the responses to the recent textbooks in Santhali, Gondi and
Kok Barok are any indication, Adivasi children want to see their languages
in school. The development of local languages as languages of knowledge
production and dissemination will be crucial in democratising our
education. But this development needs to occur keeping in mind the current
material conditions and symbolic expectations of education.

Despite the constitutional guarantee (Article 350A), demands by minority
language rights groups and growing research on education, learning in the
mother tongue or home language has not become part of the mainstream. The
language debate would be more productive if it were not framed within the
binaries of either-or. The proposal to introduce mother tongues or home
languages is not against English, and should not be taken to be so.

The writer is a member of the faculty in the education programme, School of
Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore

express at expressindia.com


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