[lg policy] Opinion | Should Indians not learn in their mother tongue?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat Sep 1 14:57:06 EDT 2018

 Opinion | Should Indians not learn in their mother tongue?The government
should launch projects to translate all major works in serious sciences, in
all the Indian languages
Last Published: Wed, Aug 29 2018. 11 32 PM IST
Aditya Kuvalekar <https://www.livemint.com/Search/Link/Author/Aditya
[image: Photo: Mint]
Photo: Mint

When the British came there was, throughout India, a system of communal
schools, managed by the village communities. The agents of the East India
Company destroyed these village communities, and took no steps to replace
the schools; even today... they stand at only 66% of their number a hundred
years ago”, wrote Will Durant in *The Case For India *in 1930. Indeed, the
empire had an enormous effect—mostly destructive—on Indian education.
Probably this is what was required of the British. As Karl Marx wrote in
the *New-York Daily Tribune* in 1853, “England has to fulfill a double
mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation
of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western
society in Asia.”

There is a growing debate around the pros and cons of an education system
with English as its medium of instruction. Many believe that English
proficiency is the path towards prosperity and, unfortunately, is viewed as
a sign of expertise. However, a small minority working on the ground are
shedding light on the perils of imposing English as the medium of
instruction over a student’s mother tongue. There are two important
questions here. First, does language of instruction impact learning?
Second, can studying in English medium schools alone increase economic

A recent paper by Tarun Jain sheds light on the first one by using the 1956
reorganization of states along linguistic lines. Before 1956, provinces
were formed without regard to language—some districts (minority districts)
fell in provinces where the official language of the province (also the
medium of instruction for school education) differed from the mother tongue
of the majority in the district. After reorganization, a majority of
students were taught in their mother tongue. Jain finds that, prior to
1956, minority districts had 18% lower literacy rates and 25% lower middle
school completion rates compared to the majority districts. Post 1956,
those districts began catching up—matriculation growth rate in the minority
districts was 46.8% higher than the majority districts. But the gap was
bridged only by 1991. Evidently, the effect of mismatch in the language of
instruction on learning are persistent.

Rajesh Ramachandran, an active researcher in this area, studied the effect
of a 1994 policy in Ethiopia that introduced mother tongue as the medium of
instruction in primary schooling for the largest ethnic group. He finds
that this policy increased the ability to read by 40% and the probability
of completing primary schooling by 5%. Ramachandran, along with David D.
Laitin from Stanford University, also studied the effect of language policy
on socio-economic development in a paper titled *Language Policy And Human
Development*. They find a substantial negative relationship between an
official language that is distant from the local indigenous languages and
some indicators like internationally comparable cognitive test scores, life
expectancy, gross domestic product per capita.

>From anecdotal evidence too, I strongly share the view that mother tongue
as medium of instruction leads to better learning, especially in poor
families where parents often lack the skills to help their children with

We now come to the second question. What if English medium education offers
vastly superior economic opportunities? Unfortunately, empirical evidence
on this is scarce in India. Typically, children from relatively affluent
families make up the most of the English medium cohorts. If we find that
children from English medium schools earn more, it would be hard to isolate
the effect of their affluent background from the effect of their English
education. In a paper titled *Traditional Institutions Meet The Modern
World: Caste, Gender, And Schooling Choice In A Globalizing Economy*,
Kaivan Munshi and Mark Rosenzweig observe (not the main focus of the
paper), based on a dataset of children in Dadar (Mumbai) from 1982-2001,
that the returns from studying in an English medium school increased
sharply post 1990s. By 2000, the returns to studying in an English medium
school were about 25% higher for both boys and girls, compared to studying
in a Marathi medium school. In another paper called *The Returns To
English-Language Skills In India*, Mehtabul Azam, Aimee Chin and Nishith
Prakash argue that the returns to being fluent in English can be as high as

These findings suggest that there may be a real trade-off here. Moving to a
mother tongue medium of instruction may improve learning but at the cost of
earnings. However, it seems, proficiency in spoken English is the driver of
these economic gains. In the Munshi-Rosenzwieg paper, the difference
between the English and Marathi medium schools showed a spike in economic
returns post 1990s—a period of the outsourcing boom in India. We may have
reached the end of this boom. Moreover, the domestic market is now growing,
where English proficiency is not very relevant.

Also, even if English proficiency were important, do we know that a mother
tongue medium of instruction necessarily means poor English proficiency? As
someone who studied in a Marathi medium school, I do not share that view.

On the question of if and how we should migrate towards a system with the
mother tongue being predominantly the medium of instruction, we should
first note that this obsession with turning the entire education system
into a monolithic English dominant one is far from being a global
phenomenon. From South Korea to Europe, higher education in sciences is
available in local languages. One could offer explanations why that is
infeasible in India. But, at the very least, the government should seek the
opinions of teachers and educationists from across the country who have
worked on these issues for years. Simultaneously, I would propose that the
government should launch projects to translate all the major works in
serious sciences, such as *The Feynman Lectures On Physics*, in all Indian
languages. Perhaps in a decade then, we can imagine the possibility of
higher education in sciences in native languages.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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