The Draft National Education Policy 2019 and the Teaching of English in India

Taking note of the child’s innate ability to acquire languages spontaneously and effortlessly at a very tender age, the draft National Education Policy (NEP)   of 2019  has  proclaimed that “children will be immersed in three  languages early on, from the Foundational Stage.” (page 80)    As a language teacher   working in the field of English language teaching for decades , I do welcome the decision. Our everyday experience tells us how children acquire multiple languages spontaneously without any inhibition. The ‘untutored multilingualism‘ of our children may be the cause of envy for an adult learner who struggles with a new language. All normal children pick up the languages spoken in their immediate neighbourhood without being asked to do so by the adult members of their society. They do it quite normally, innocently and joyfully.

The proposed exposure to three languages at the Foundational stage as envisaged in the draft NEP 2019 is a revolutionary step no doubt, but there is apprehension regarding its implementation. For learning any language, an ‘input rich environment’ is a must and our children, as envisaged in the said document, will learn three languages from the day 1 of their formal schooling as they will be “immersed” in three languages and one of them, in all probability, will be English.  How many of our teachers in the vernacular medium primary schools of India are capable of providing the required input rich environment for learning three languages and creating the atmosphere of “immersion” for the child? Hope the Government will take appropriate  action to remove the mismatch between the “intention” and “implementation.”

A comparative study of the “approaches” to English language teaching  as articulated in the Position Paper on ELT  of National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005 and the latest draft National Education Policy 2019 makes it clear that the architects of the NEP 2019 are  more straight forward in asserting their views  than the architects of the Position Paper on ELT, NCF  2005. Avoiding the debate on the introduction of English at an early stage in  the  Indian context, the said Position Paper of NCF 2005 made a carefully crafted statement:  “The level of introduction of English has now become a matter of political response to people’s aspirations, rendering almost irrelevant an academic debate on the merits of a very early introduction.”   Referring to English, the National Education Policy 2019 states “    ……there has been an unfortunate trend in schools and society towards English as a medium of instruction and as a medium of conversation. Logically speaking, of course, English has no advantage over other languages in expressing thoughts……..” A very straightforward statement. Yes, for “expressing thoughts” English has no advantage over “other languages.” All languages are rich enough for expressing the thoughts of the speakers of the respective languages, whether it is included in the 8th schedule or not. Why, then, is this bonhomie with English ?

Citing Graddol (1997), the Position Paper on ELT 2005 claimed that  “by 2010, a surge in English-language learning will include a third of the world’s people” but the draft NEP 2019 categorically states that  “We further observe that English has not become the international language that it was expected to become back in the 1960s.”

While the Position Paper on ELT 2005 eulogises English and opines that “Its colonial origins now forgotten or irrelevant”, the draft NEP 2019  calls English a tool  in the hands of  the  “elites”  and thinks that our attitude to English has  “resulted in the marginalisation of large sections of society based on language, keeping them out of higher-paying jobs and the higher socio-economic strata.”

In spite of pointing out the evil effects of using English  in our society, the drafy NEP 2019  made two  significant policy statements. According to this draft document  we need English  for  two  reasons:

 (1) We need English  “to help break the current divide between the economic elite and the rest of the country, in addition to teaching languages native to India, English must also be available and taught in a high quality manner at all government and non-government schools. The emphasis should be on functionality and fluency. Functionality, fluency and quality are the three key words which should be taken seriously by the teachers teaching English in all Government and private institutions.

(2) We need English as it has become an international language in certain realms such as science and technology research.  By the end of Grade 10, students should be able to speak about science  in English too. To quote from NEP 2019,   “by the end of Grade 10 they can speak about science both in their home language and English”.( p.84.) The document also states that  “it is also important for children (especially those who intend to pursue scientific subjects at a postgraduate level) to become bilingual in science and to be able to communicate science fluently both in their home/local language and in English.”

While the Position  Paper on English Language Teaching, NCF  2005  had declared that the “aim of English teaching is the creation of multilinguals who can enrich all our languages”, the National Education Policy 2019 has restricted English for pursuing scientific subjects  and recommends it for “functionality and fluency.” We don’t need English to “enrich our languages.”

Again, the Position Paper on English Language Teaching of NCF 2005  had suggested that English in India  “needs to find its place along with other Indian languages,” but the draft National Education Policy 2019   has recommended  that  “ interactions between people within India be conducted in languages native to India” (page 83) .  It calls upon the elites and the educated “to make increased use of languages native to India.” (page 82). As English is not native to India, it should not try to find its place “along with other Indian languages.”

English is an international language in certain realms only, remarks the draft National Education Policy. On page 81 of the document, it is stated that “English has not become the international language that it was expected to become back in the 1960s” but on page 82 of the document it is stated that “Of course, English has become an international common language in certain realms”. This positioning of English in NEP 2019 is quite different from that of the Position Paper on ELT of NCF 2005. This paradigm shift has significant implications for ELT pedagogy too.

It is also significant to note that unlike the 2005 NCF document on ELT, the draft NEP 2019 makes a strong plea for equity, quality, functionality and fluency in the domain of English language teaching. Hope no child in India will be deprived of quality English language teaching any more.

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