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‘Mother tongue’ education is great on paper but highly impracticable in practice.

21-Feb is celebrated as ‘Mother Tongue’ day around the world. Advocate K.V.Dhananjay speaks here about ‘Mother Tongue’ desired as a compulsory medium of instruction by scholars and politicians vis-à-vis the growing preference for English Medium instruction in school education across India. Mahatma Gandhi spoke very passionately about ‘mother tongue’ as the compulsory medium of instruction but Dhananjay says that nobody had asked Mahatma Gandhi on how more than 2500 mother tongues in India at his time could have become the ‘medium of instruction’ at all (only 26 languages in India currently serve as medium of instruction during primary education). If somebody had asked him then, he would not have had any answer and might have simply reiterated his unflinching praise of English medium education made during his South Africa days, says Dhananjay.


A substantial variation of this article is published in Kannada in Praja Vani, a leading newsdaily in Karnataka on 21-Feb-2016.


Karnataka deserves an award for most struggle: There are 29 States in India today. One State has fought the most to have ‘mother tongue’ as the medium of instruction during primary education. And failed. It is Karnataka. Proponents of ‘mother tongue’ as compulsory medium of instruction will be delighted to take note of extraordinary effort by Karnataka Government to make ‘mother tongue’ as the compulsory medium of instruction in primary schools of Karnataka. No other State even comes close.

Complex and multi-faceted: The subject of compulsory medium of instruction in the ‘mother tongue’ of a child during primary education is a matter of great complexity and no amount of space would be enough to shed light on the numerous aspects of this topic. So, let me make a very cursory effort to discuss about this topic here.

Constitution doesn't like a compulsory medium of instruction: To begin with, the Constitution of India does not tolerate this concept of a compulsory medium of instruction. In April, 1994, the Karnataka Government had come out with its language policy. It said that in primary education, the ‘mother tongue’ or ‘Kannada’ shall be the compulsory medium of instruction. This was challenged by English medium schools in the courts. The Karnataka High Court struck down this language policy with respect to private unaided schools on the ground that it would violate their constitutional rights. The Government then appealed to the Supreme Court. In fact, I represented several thousand of these English medium schools in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court dismissed the Government’s appeal in May, 2014 by holding that no Government could compulsorily impose any particular language or ‘mother tongue’ as a medium of instruction. So, after a court battle of two decades, the Karnataka Government had to firmly realise that it has no more room to impose ‘mother tongue’ as a compulsory medium of instruction. Let’s briefly see why the ‘mother tongue’ concept is not quite practicable in our educational system.

Mahatma Gandhi: Mahatma Gandhi was one of the greatest proponents of ‘mother tongue’ as a compulsory medium of instruction during primary education. He wrote very passionately about it. However, he also wrote about 45000 pages and if one carefully looks at his writings, one will find that he had said while he was in South Africa that English medium alone produces a higher quality of education. This writing of his is generally hushed under the carpet by the proponents of ‘Mother tongue’ policy. Added to it, though greatly respected by our Courts, Mahatma Gandhi cannot be taken very seriously by constitutional courts - he had said that a law should be made to criminalise whoever has sex for pleasure instead of procreation; a law cannot be made in such a manner whether in a democracy or a totalitarian regime. Of course, I have assumed that he was not misquoted in his own letters and writings. The Central Library at Bangalore is just a stone's throw away from the Karnataka High Court and the Legislative Assembly; thanks to it's near complete collection of complete works of Mahatma Gandhi. 

Mahatma Gandhi was terribly wrong: And, India had more than two thousand languages at the beginning of the 20th century and if we take the ‘mother tongue’ to simply mean the native language of the mother of a child, nobody had asked Mahatma Gandhi on how, the Government could have provided 2000 mediums of instruction at all. If only anybody had asked him, he would not have had any answer then. By the way, according to the 1991 Census, there were 1576 ‘mother tongues’ in India. However, how many ‘mother tongues’ do we have in India today as ‘medium of instruction’ in our schools? 26. Yes, only 26 of the more than 1500 mother tongues have become ‘medium of instruction’ in schools in  India. This is because a language should reach a sufficient degree of advancement and produce substantial literature and scientific curriculum in order to become suitable as a ‘medium of instruction’.

English medium is the most preferred: So, if the goal is to educate every child in his own ‘mother tongue’, that goal would be readily frustrated. By the way, English is today, the second most preferred ‘medium of instruction’ in primary education in India next only to Hindi. However, Hindi as a medium of instruction is not really representative of a national trend as it is largely confined to the three large Hindi States and three more states carved out therefrom – Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In the result, English is more representative of the trend in India and all these six States are rapidly shifting to English medium. So, you should now ask – how does English which is not even considered as the mother tongue of even 1 out of 1000 citizens of India emerge as the most preferred medium of instruction in India. The answer is self-evident – parents want English medium for their children. Period. From a practical perspective, how then can the Constitution that is the will of the people and any State Government act against the choice of an overwhelming majority of the parents in this country? They cannot.

Let’s look at some data now:

According to data published under the authority of the Government of India, English has emerged as the second most preferred medium of instruction in primary education when considered nationally. English medium instruction in primary education is therefore, the current national trend and is by no means, an evil that should be legislated away.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Development under the Government of India has implemented a school data collection project and has called it as ‘District Information System for Education’ (DISE). [Website: - www.dise.in]. The National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, in collaboration with various other bodies and all the constituent 29 States and 7 Union Territories in the country coordinates in collection of school data for the country.

A comprehensive annual report called as the ‘State Report Card’ is published for every academic year in respect of elementary education by DISE. Elementary education, for the purpose of this data and various other programs of the Government of India covers education between Standard I and Standard VIII. Let us consider the data available for the recent academic year, 2009-10 for the purpose of assessing the preference for English medium instruction in primary education across all the then 28 States and 7 Union territories in India: (by gathering composite data from the labels: ‘Primary only’ + ‘Primary + Upper Primary’ + ‘Primary + Upper Primary + Secondary/Higher Secondary’.)

Sl. No. State / Union Territory Position of English as the ‘medium of instruction’. [‘No.1’ Means the most preferred medium, No.2 means the second most preferred medium and so on]
  1. 1               
Andaman & Nicobar Islands (UT) English is No.1 medium of instruction
  1. 2.                 
Arunachal Pradesh -Do-
  1. 3.                 
Chandigarh (UT) -Do-
  1. 4.                 
Goa -Do-
  1. 5.                 
Jammu & Kashmir -Do-
  1. 6.                 
Manipur -Do-
  1. 7.                 
Meghalaya -Do-
  1. 8.                 
Mizoram -Do-
  1. 9.                 
Nagaland -Do-
  1. 10.            
Sikkim -Do-
  1. 11.              
Andhra Pradesh English is No.2 medium of instruction
  1. 12.             
Chhattisgarh -Do-
  1. 13.             
Dadra & Nagar Haveli (UT) -Do-
  1. 14.             
Daman & Diu (UT) -Do-
  1. 15.             
Delhi (UT) -Do-
  1. 16.             
Gujarat -Do-
  1. 17.             
Haryana -Do-
  1. 18.             
Himachal Pradesh -Do-
  1. 19.             
Karnataka -Do-
  1. 20.           
Kerala -Do-
  1. 21.             
Lakshadweep (UT) -Do-
  1. 22.           
Madhya Pradesh -Do-
  1. 23.            
Maharashtra -Do-
  1. 24.            
Puducherry (UT) -Do-
  1. 25.            
Punjab -Do-
  1. 26.           
Rajasthan -Do-
  1. 27.            
Tamil Nadu -Do-
  1. 28.           
Tripura -Do-
  1. 29.           
Assam English is No.3 medium of instruction
  1. 30.           
Orissa -Do-
  1. 31.             
Uttarakhand -Do-
  1. 32.            
West Bengal -Do-
  1. 33.            
Bihar English is No.4 or later preferred medium of instruction
  1. 34.            
Jharkhand -Do-
  1. 35.            
Uttar Pradesh -Do-

Also, DISE has also published for the Academic year 2010-11, a summary of enrollment in various language mediums of instruction. It is published at http://www.dise.in/Downloads/provisional_enrolment_by_med_of_instructions_all_india_2010-11.pdf. Although labelled as provisional, it could still be relied upon to accurately represent the broad preference though it may not be accurate enough with respect to the actual numbers. Accordingly, the national ranking of various languages as medium of instruction for primary education is as under:

Language Enrollment National Rank
Hindi 6,62,31,904 1
English 1,36,18,280 2
Bengali 1,04,62,343 3
Marathi 79,18,420 4
Guajarati 51,59,916 5
Telugu 47,71,981 6
Oriya 39,82,338 7
Kannada 37,40,803 8
Tamil 36,50,278 9
Assamese 31,54,842 10
Urdu 26,70,761 11
Punjabi 16,81,322 12
Malayalam 14,14,912 13
Khasi 1,84,042 14
Bodo 1,61,722 15
Garo 1,38,660 16
Mizo 69,633 17
Manipuri 68,651 18
Nepali 67,684 19
Konkani 36,786 20
Sanskrit 22,303 21
Sindhi 2199 22
Mising 444 23
Bhutia 409 24
French 237 25
Kashmiri 189 26

Further, the enrollment in Hindi medium of instruction should be seen in light of the fact that the three States of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar together with the newly carved out States therefrom, the States of Uttaranchal, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand account for a large part of Hindi medium enrollment in primary education as under:

Uttar Pradesh: 2,00,93,138 + 26,57,962 + 2,26,238 = 2,29,77,338
Uttarakhand: 8,51,411 + 1,15,196 + 49,887 = 10,16,494
Madhya Pradesh: 76,76,711 + 26,33,409 + 5,33,301 = 1,08,43,421
Chhattisgarh: 24,76,611 + 3,26,665 + 90,939 = 28,94,215
Bihar: 67,18,295 + 1,08,888,04 + 46,729 = 1,76,53,828
Jharkhand: 19,70,947 + 34,12,273 + 3,56,249 = 57,39,469
Total:   6,11,24,765

To other things: And, there is substantial scientific evidence to say that if a child is not taught a certain language during his formative years, that is, the time during which he receives primary education, he would find it very difficult to acquire it in later years of his life. Of course, with will-power one could override this finding . Also, there is substantial scientific evidence to say that no particular language is coded in the human genes – a language should only be acquired from the external environment. So, the fact that parents who themselves cannot speak English comfortably is never a disability for their child to learn or master English in school.

Irreconcilable contradiction is bound to be there in any language policy: Let us see more closely at Karnataka Government’s language policy. It had said that the medium of instruction of a child should be his ‘mother tongue’ or Kannada. But then, only 8 languages were recognized by Karnataka Government as ‘mother tongue’. For instance, Bengali, the second most widely spoken language in India after Hindi was not so recognized. And, a Bengali child was to compulsorily take ‘Kannada’ as his medium of instruction in Karnataka. Bengali speakers would consider it to be very unfair – just as Kannada speakers would consider it equally unfair had they been forced in such a manner in West Bengal. With hundreds of language speakers in Karnataka and only 8 languages as ‘medium of instruction’, it was constitutionally impermissible to have a compulsory medium of instruction. And, if you wanted Kannada as a compulsory medium of instruction even upon non-Kannada speakers, you have already conceded that those children are not harmed when they are not imparted in their own mother tongue. How then can you make any argument to support ‘mother tongue’ as a medium of instruction? Equally, how can you object to English medium instruction instead?

And then, what if the mother and father speak different languages? Mother’s tongue is the native language of the mother or the father? If father’s language should be considered as the ‘mother tongue’, what does one do when the mother divorces and reverts to her parents’ home or remarries a different language person? What if the mother’s tongue is a language without an established script such as Tulu, Konkani or Kodava – the indigenous languages of Karnataka? These issues simply make the ‘mother tongue’ as a compulsory medium of instruction simply impracticable.

Regional feelings are hurt only when ignorance rules - our native languages are all truly great: Finally, if your question is whether a State Government should not have the authority to impose its administrative language as a compulsory medium of instruction in its territory, the answer is a clear ‘No’. On 15-Aug-1947, India became free from British occupation and in 1956, the boundaries of a number of our States were redrawn on linguistic basis. Still, nothing else was changed in our Constitution in 1956 to reflect reorganization of States on linguistic grounds. So, the fact that the State of Karnataka was redrawn in 1956 with Kannada as its official language does not give any power to the Karnataka Government to impose Kannada as the compulsory medium of instruction. Also, we are all aware of the greatness of our native languages. Who isn't? You might not be so aware but I certainly am aware. Let's take Kannada, a language that is at least 1500 years old. For a moment, let us assume that the whole world would agree upon Kannada being the greatest language in the world - hypothetically. Will such global consensus allow the Karnataka Government to impose Kannada as the compulsory medium of instruction? No. Not at all. When a Constitutional court says that Kannada cannot be imposed as a compulsory medium of instruction, it does not pass any judgment on the greatness of Kannada language simply because to do so is not the function of any court. Similarly, when a court takes note of English as the most preferred medium of instruction in Indian schools, it does not impliedly declare English to be in any manner superior to native languages of India. We have to remember these things; we tend to forget and confuse ourselves on these aspects. When a Court strikes down Kannada as a compulsory medium of instruction, it does not pass any judgment to say that English is somehow superior to Kannada. Our politicians do not seem to understand this. They treat such a judgment as a disapproval of Kannada language. They are terribly wrong.

I don't approve of exploitative English medium schools here: Of course, I understand that there is considerable unhappiness in our society at several English medium schools not being in a position to teach good English to their pupils but exploit parents by charging unreasonable and exorbitant fees. I do not support such schools and this article should not be treated as an endorsement of such schools.

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