The role of home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language and the National Education Policy 2020

While addressing the people of the State in his Independence Day address, the Education Minister of Assam stated that in keeping with the spirit of the   National Education Policy 2020 teaching in vernacular languages up to class five would   be made compulsory in all the schools of the State. As published in the local media, “Even English medium schools shall have to teach either in Assamese, Tiwa, Rabha, Missing, or Bodo up to class five.” (https://www.sentinelassam.com/north-east-india-news/assam-news/english-medium-schools-must-teach-kids-in-mother-tongue-till-class-5-himanta-biswa-sarma-495663). In order to appreciate the implications of this announcement regarding teaching the early graders through home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language in all the schools  irrespective of the medium of the schools, we have to go to the section 4.11 of the National Education Policy 2020 entitled “Multilingualism and the power of language.”

Advocating multilingualism and the power of language quite emphatically the National Education Policy 2020  states that “Wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language. Thereafter, the home/local language shall continue to be taught as a language wherever possible. This will be followed by both public and private schools.”

While discussing the question of home language/mother tongue as medium of instruction, the draft National Education Policy 2019, however, did not use the expression “Where possible”, it  was   “When possible”. To quote the actual sentence from the draft National Education Policy 2019: “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 language.” It is significant to note that the draft NEP 2019 spoke of three options, home language, mother tongue, local language only but  the final NEP 2020 spoke of four options, home language, mother tongue, local language, regional language. The sentence “This will be followed by both public and private schools.” is not found in the draft Education Policy 2019 but occurs in the final policy document called National Education Policy 2020.

The suggestions and the directions given in NEP 2020 are based on  research finding on the benefits of imparting early education through the medium of home language or the mother tongue of children. It has been proved beyond doubt that there are multiple  benefits associated with an education that takes into account children’s mother tongues: (a) Children learn better and faster in a language they can understand, (b) A child’s first encounter with the world around her takes place through her first language, (c) Children  enjoy school more, they feel more at home at schools and the transition from the home environment to school environment takes place in an unobtrusive manner when the  formal schooling is done through the language known to the child, (d) Children tend to show increased self-esteem when their  home language is accepted and  honoured in the schools.

Explaining the rationale of using mother tongue/home language, the draft NEP 2019 points out. “It is well-understood that young children learn and grasp nontrivial concepts most quickly in their home language/mother tongue. The Policy further recognises the large numbers of students going to school to classes that are being conducted in a language that they do not understand, causing them to fall behind before they even start learning”

The emphasis given on the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language in NEP 2020 is in consonance with the design of the Foundational stage of education outlined in the policy document.  The five years of the Foundational Stage consists of two parts:  3 years of pre-primary school and Grades 1, 2.  Thus, the Foundational Stage, as stated in the policy document,  will consist of five years of flexible, multilevel, “play/activity-based learning.”  The aim of this stage will be “to lay the general groundwork across subjects, including reading, writing, speaking, physical education, art, languages, science, and mathematics, so that students are prepared to delve deeper into learning areas through specialised subjects and subject teachers in the stages that follow.” As indicated in the document, the emphasis will be  on interactive classroom learning.

Those  who are obsessed with English medium education or those who wonder how an existing English medium school can use  the child’s mother tongue or home language at the Foundational stage as envisaged in the NEP 2020 should study the philosophy of the Foundational stage and its objectives  outlined in the National Education Policy 2020 policy along with the detailed discussion incorporated in the Draft National Education Policy 2019. The learning in the Preparatory Class will  be based primarily on “play-based learning with a focus on developing cognitive, affective, and psychomotor abilities and early literacy and numeracy.”  The objective of schooling at this stage is not rote learning or parrot like recitation  of English nursery rhymes. If we are to build up a child’s “innate abilities and all-important lifelong skills of cooperation, teamwork,  social interaction, compassion, equity, inclusiveness, communication, cultural appreciation, playfulness, curiosity, creativity, as well as the ability to successfully and respectfully interact with teachers, fellow students, staff, and others”  during this stage it has to be done through the language already known to the child.  Do we teach these skills at home through the medium of English or a foreign language? Which language does an Indian child use to play indoor or outdoor games at her home or in her immediate neighbourhood? Is it English?  The Foundational stage is an extension of the stage enjoyed by a child in her comfort zone. Therefore, we should not cause any dislocation in the cognitive or the affective domain of the child during the Foundational stage by  teaching her  the basic life skills in a language that is alien  and incomprehensible to her.

The NEP 2020 read with the draft NEP 2019 does point out the importance of English. To quote from the draft document: “taking into account the enhanced abilities of young children to learn languages, and 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.” But we should not confuse the proficiency in English with the schooling through English medium. It is an established fact that in order to teach and learn a language well, it need not be the medium of instruction. (Section 4.12, National Education Policy 2020.)

A student can get excellent command in English even in a vernacular medium school “ if it is taught well”. We do not teach English well in our vernacular medium schools and blame the medium!

The implementation of the policy on the use of home/mother tongue till class V in all the schools as advocated by the new National Education Policy 2020 needs careful planning. Take the example of Assam. We have children speaking Assamese, Bodo, Bengali, Mising, Tiwa, Lalung, Karbi, Dimasa, Hmar, Thado, Bishnupriya Manipuri and a few others in our schools. We have to cater to the needs of the all the children. The Policy document clearly specifies that “All efforts will be made early on to ensure that any gaps that exist between the language spoken by the child and the medium of teaching are bridged. In cases where home language/mother tongue textbook material is not available, the language of transaction between teachers and students will still remain the home language/mother tongue wherever possible. Teachers will be encouraged to use a bilingual approach, including bilingual teaching-learning materials, with those students whose home language may be different from the medium of instruction.” The transaction between the teachers and the children should be the home/ mother tongue of the children even when the textbooks are not in the mother tongue of the children. A very practical suggestion. How can you communicate with a child of three or four years in a language unknown to the child? You should know the child’s mother tongue to a make the child feel comfortable during the Foundational stage. Multilingual pedagogy is the need of the hour for an inclusive education. Are we ready?

National Education Policy 2020 and “Re-establishing” the teachers

My father passed the Matriculation examination of the Calcutta university with star marks in 1924 but instead of going for higher education to a distant place he started teaching in a school. I still remember a group photograph of my father hanging on the wall. It was the photograph of my father  along with other trainees attending a short in-service teacher training programme in the fifties of the  last century. Like many other teachers of his period my father died as a teacher without any pension, provident fund or gratuity. Before his death he lamented saying that “thakur”, (the cook) “chakor”( the domestic  help) and “mastor” (the teacher)  are doomed to be  poor. (I was impressed by the rhyming words!). I saw him going to the money lenders to borrow money during financial emergencies, I saw him suffer silently before the local land lords and the rich, illiterate members of the school “Managing Committees”. The corruption, nepotism and the politics of the then School Board office affected him adversely but he continued teaching for the joy of teaching and paved the way for our higher education.

No body envies the life of a school teacher in India. A teacher is expected to be meek and  submissive. He or she must be at the receiving end. The curriculum is handed over to the teacher, textbooks are prescribed for him  and the methodology is dictated.  Any deviation from the prescribed norms of teaching is sure to invite the wrath of his higher ups. He  should not forget that his primary duty is to obey, not to raise difficult questions. He is a transmitter of knowledge received by him from his teachers or collected by him from books. Any inadvertent criticism of the established knowledge or the established order may jeopardise his career.   He has to maintain the status quo and not to cross the “Lakshman Rekha”.

The memory of my father as a teacher flashed before my mind’s eye when I read the new National Education Policy 2020. After so many years of independence, a policy document has now underlined very emphatically the importance of “re-establishing the  teacher” and has reminded the nation  that the teachers  are “the most respected and established members of our society.” The policy document suggests that we must “do everything to empower teachers.”  The relevant section of the NEP 2020 is as follows: “The teacher must be at the centre of the fundamental reforms in the education system. The new education policy must help re-establish teachers, at all levels, as the most respected and essential members of our society, because they truly shape our next generation of citizens. It must do everything to empower teachers and help them to do their job as effectively as possible. The new education policy must help recruit the very best and brightest to enter the teaching profession at all levels, by ensuring livelihood, respect, dignity, and autonomy, while also instilling in the system basic methods of quality control and accountability.” The four words “livelihood”, “respect” “dignity” and autonomy” are very crucial in the life of teacher.

The draft National Education Policy 2019 remarked that teachers “must be valued, supported, respected – happy teachers and students make for excellent teaching and learning! In particular, the everyday working environment of teachers and students must be safe, comfortable, and inviting.” A very significant observation. “Happy Teachers.”  Teaching is not a mechanical exercise and therefore, a teacher who is  not happy with his profession can not do justice to his profession. We cannot force someone to feel happy, we can create the conducive atmosphere in which a teacher feels happy without any official order.

The  draft National Education Policy 2019  points out that one significant “factor in the learning crisis that cannot be overlooked relates to the health and nutrition of children.” What about the “health and nutrition”  of thousand of teachers who find it difficult to make both ends meet?  Has any body ever cared to find out how retired teachers who were once the nation builders suffer without adequate health care during their old age?

The respect and dignity enjoyed by the teachers in the Indian Gurukul system were jettisoned during the colonial rule and successive Governments after the independence did little to put the teachers back on a high pedestal. The very mechanism of teacher recruitment lowers a teacher’s self-esteem. A teacher who belongs to the lower economic strata of the society, a teacher whose knowledge and competence in the 21st century skills are too abysmal, a teacher who considers teaching as the last resort for  survival can hardly live a dignified life.  The barefoot village teacher, the economically oppressed teacher, the teacher who is  considered  an appendix by the affluent section of the society bears the brunt of social apathy and humiliation.  When teaching becomes a drudgery, teachers suffer in misery.

Autonomy is a word that does not exist in the dictionary of an Indian teacher. He or she is a cog in a machine.  Teachers who want to be innovative are ridiculed by their higher ups.  Any deviation from the prescribed norms of pedagogy can make a teacher’s life miserable. I know many young teachers who tried formative assessment in their classes to understand the level of each child’s proficiency in different subjects, they prepared individual port folios for each child  but their colleagues and heads of the institutions discouraged them and advised them to follow the establish practice and not to go against the flow. “Why is your class so noisy?” a young teacher is reprimanded when she makes her language class participatory and interactive.

The new education policy calls for a drastic change  in the field of education. But this change is possible only when it gets the support of all the stakeholders working in the field of education. It also depends on the whole heated support of the society.

It is good to note that the NEP 2020 calls for “quality control and accountability.” Academic supervision and guidance must be an integral part of school administration. We have education officers at different levels, they visit schools just to inspect non-academic matters like  teachers’ attendance, expenditure for midday meals, construction of toilets and buildings. They avoid the classrooms. Teachers are islands in their schools and the DIETs are ineffectual angels so far as academic supervision and guidance are concerned. The practice of classroom observation, giving feedback, monitoring the teacher’s professional growth and the mechanism for  quality control should be streamlined if we are to make the teachers energetic and  their  teaching result oriented. There is a correlation between  livelihood, respect, dignity  and autonomy on the one hand and  quality and accountability on the other. Hope the proper implementation of the National Educational Policy 2020 will  put equal emphasis on  livelihood, respect, dignity, autonomy, quality control and accountability  as specified in the document.

To conclude, I would like to quote the following recommendation of  the draft National Education Policy 2019. “The structure of teacher education, recruitment, deployment, service conditions, professional development, and career management must be completely overhauled in order to restore the high status of the teaching profession, and to ensure that teachers are maximally productive and effective in their efforts.”  A  complete overhaul of the teaching profession on the basis of the guidelines of NEP 2020  can do  away with the frustration  of millions of teachers across the country and “re-establish” them with due respect and honour.