A child’s interaction with the world around her starts with an inborn urge for enquiry. She starts making sense of the world around her through her language which happens to be either her mother tongue or her home language. From learning to naming an object and to talking about the object is a complex journey that a child undertakes. Based on her perception, the child makes a mental representation of the objects, processes her mental representation and tries to make a verbal representation of that mental representation. Over a period of time the child does not work on her mental representation all alone, others members of her immediate neighbourhood also work on it and facilitate the process of making verbal as well as non-verbal representation by the child. When a child expresses something, her mother or other elders, add/ modify / correct the linguistic or non-linguistic outputs of the child in an unobtrusive manner thereby prompting her to work on her mental representations. During this untutored period of early childhood, the linguistic repertories of the child need two mediums: the Medium of Perception (MP) and the Medium of Facilitation (MF).
Does a child need a language as a medium of instruction during the untutored period of early childhood? She is an active constructor of knowledge based on her very limited world view, she is a natural language learner who can acquire a number of languages available to her at home or in her immediate neighbourhood with apparent ease and fluency.
The language used by a child and her caregiver is the language of facilitation, not a language of instruction. But the scenario changes abruptly as soon as the child comes to school for formal education. The language of facilitation masquerading as the medium of instruction forces the child to be at the receiving end and she starts viewing the language ( the medium) of instruction as an imposition on her natural process of self-expression, exploration and creativity.
Traditionally speaking, the medium of instruction in schools is the language used by teachers to impart education to their pupils. It is the language used by the more knowledgeable others to instruct the less knowledgeable learners. The choice of a medium of ‘instruction’ appears to be problematic if the objective of education is knowledge creation and not the transmission of the facts, figures and the philosophy from one generation to another. The changed role of teachers as facilitators should prompt us to consider if we are to continue the outdated notion of a medium of instruction (MI) in our schools or to go for identifying the medium of facilitation (MF) for supporting critical thinking and knowledge creation by the learners.
The selection of a particular language as a medium of instruction is based on the assumption that language is a central vehicle for concept formation and it is the only medium through which all learnings take place. “Language is not only inevitable practically for interpersonal relations and social interaction, but is also the medium through which all intrapersonal and interpersonal experiences of the people are structured, levelled and manipulated. Language instruction is , therefore, a basic requirement for all types and levels of Education”( Chaturvedi and Mohale, 1976: 7).
There is no denying the fact that language is crucial in the domain of education, but the pertinent question is: who selects that language which performs the crucial role in the life of a child? What are the criteria for the selection of that language which is elevated to the status of a medium of instruction? Does the selection of the medium of instruction take into consideration the broader objectives of education or is the selection is subservient to social and political exigencies of the day?
The banking concept of education ( Freire, 1968) where the learners simply store the information relayed to them by the instructor in a particular language in a “banking” type of environment makes the medium of instruction a powerful tool of authority and oppression. This concept of education presupposes the use of a dominant language as the medium of instruction in a formal setting. A medium of instruction used by the instructors to force the learners to “receive, memorize and repeat” negates education and knowledge as processes of enquiry.”
Mother tongue as a Medium of instruction:
The importance of using the mother tongue of the children during the initial years of schooling got an impetus in the UNESCO document of 1951 which states,“ …it is important that every effort should be made to provide education in the mother tongue……. On educational grounds we recommend that the use of the mother tongue be extended to as late a stage in education as possible. In particular, pupils should begin their schooling through the medium of the mother tongue, because they understand it best and because to begin their school life in the mother tongue will make the break between home and school as small as possible.”
In India, the Education Commission (1964-1966), the National Curriculum Framework (1975), the National Education Policy ( GOI 1986), the Programme of Action (GOI 1992), the National Curriculum Framework (2005) and the Draft National Education Policy (2019) have advocated the use of the mother tongue of the child in the primary schools of the country as it is believed that the use of the child’s mother tongue at the primary level would lead to the harmonious personal development of the child and contribute to a pedagogically sound high level of formal education.
But the official definition of a mother tongue is fraught with dangerous pedagogical implications. What do we mean by a mother tongue? According to Collins COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary, the mother tongue is the ‘language that you learn from your parents when you are a baby.’ According to Cambridge dictionary, your mother tongue is the language that you learn from your parents when you are a baby. But these two lexical definitions of mother tongue do not take into consideration the political, social and emotional connotation of ‘mother tongue which is often considered to be an ancestral property. When a child comes to school she gets a mother tongue either on the basis of her assigned ethnicity or on the declaration made by her parents. Again, even when the first language acquired by a child is a distinct variety of a standard official language, that distinct and related variety is not recorded as the mother tongue of the child. Let us take two examples. A child whose first language experience is the dialect spoken in the Barpeta district of Assam, for example, is deemed to be a speaker of the standard variety of Assamese even though the variety spoken by the child as her fist language is significantly different from the standard variety. Similarly, a child speaking an eastern dialect of Bengali in the Barak Valley of Assam as her home language gets the standard Bengali as her mother tongue though the related variety happens to be an alien tongue to her both phonetically as well as morphologically. When such a child comes to school and is required to use another variety of her ‘assigned mother tongue’ she is simply baffled by the danger of losing her ‘first language.’ When she is asked not to use the deviant form of the ‘standard language’ and is castigated for using her mother tongue ‘wrongly’ her self esteem is threatened irreparably. Language standardization may be an interesting topic for the linguists, but it is not so interesting to a young child who is expected to have a transition from the home language to the school language. The so called corrupted or degenerate form of standardized languages are stigmatised in the classrooms though research has shown that the use of the stigmatized variety in formal education has ‘a positive rather than a negative effect on the acquisition of the standard’(Siegel, 199:701).
Minority Languages and the medium of instruction:
A country of more than one billion population having 428 languages spread across 28 States and 7 Union territories has 400 odd minority languages. The education of the children of these speakers minority languages is a cause of concern for the policy makers as well as educational administrators. Except for a few privileged minority language communities these children of the marginalised groups are deprived of the benefit of getting their primary education through their mother tongues. These linguistic minority communities have no other option but to get their education through the languages of the dominant language groups of their respective States. In an article entitled India’s Language Debates and Education of Linguistic Minorities published in the Economic and Political Weekly in January 2008, Rao (2008:64) has stated the plight of the linguistic minority children as follows:
“The linguistic minority communities had to opt for the language of the school which is usually the dominant language of the area or the state in which the school is located. For instance, a Gond in Andhra Pradesh gets education in Telugu and a Gond in Chattisgarh gets education in Hindi or those in Maharastra in Marathi…… The situation is precarious for the tribal communities such as Gonds, Santals, etc. who are promised instruction in Gondi or in Ol Chiki (Santali), but are seldom taught in that language. What is worse is that the children who speak Gondi and nothing else are taught by a teacher who knows anything but Gondi, the language of the Gonds.”
Medium of Instruction and the Draft National Policy of Education
The solution to the vexed question of Medium of Instruction may be found in the recently published draft National Policy of Education, 2019. Recognising the paramount importance of imparting education in the home language/mother tongue of the children, the draft NPE 2019 makes the following recommendations:
- When possible, the medium of instruction -at least until Grade 5 but preferably till at least Grade 8 will be the home language/ mother tongue/ local languages.
- High quality textbooks will be made available in home languages.
- In cases where such textbook material is not available, the language of transaction between teachers and students will still remain the home language when possible even if textbooks are, e.g. in the State/regional language. (emphasis used)
The assertion that the home language of the students should be the language of transaction even when the textbooks are in the State/Regional languages implies that the Medium of Facilitation (MF) should be the home language of the learners. If this paradigm shift takes place in the pedagogical processes used in schools, the hallowed Medium of Instruction (MI) will be replaced by the Medium of Facilitation (MF).
The use of a Medium of Facilitation (MF) presupposes a multilingual pedagogy which will give equal respect to all the languages available to a learner in her immediate neighbourhood. It will also ensure equity and inclusion in the society by introducing the children of minority and disadvantaged groups to the predominant linguistic groups of the State and the region. By respecting the child’s language as a Medium of Facilitation in the classroom even when it is different from the State/regional languages we will imbibe the spirit of multilinguality among the children which is a must for a multilingual country like India. Once this kind of a paradigm shift takes place in the school curriculum with the help of a multilingual pedagogy, a smooth transition from the home language to the State or the regional language is bound to take place without any linguistic animosity among the different linguistic groups residing in a State or a region.
Chaturvedi, M.G and Mohale, B. V. (1976) Position of Languages in School Curriculum in India, New Delhi: NCERT.
Govt. of India.(2019) Draft National Education Policy, 2019.
Laitin, D. (1989) Language Policy and Political Strategy, Policy Sciences, Vol.22, pp. 415-36.
Meganathan, R.(2011) ‘Language Policy in Education and the role of English in India: From library language to language of empowerment’ in Coleman, H(ed) Dream and Realities: Developing Countries and the English Language, British Council: London.
Rao, S. (2008) India’s Language Debates and Education of Linguistic Minorities, Economic and Political Weekly. September, 2008, pp. 63-69.
Siegel, J. (1999) Stigmatized and Standardized Varieties in the Classroom: Interference or Separation, TESOL QUARTERLY Vol. 33, No. 4, Winter 1999, 701- 728.
UNESCO. (1951) The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education: the Report of the UNESCO Meeting of Specialists. Reprinted in Joshua A Fishman (ed), 1968, Readings in the Sociology of Language (pp. 688-716). The Hague: Mouton.