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?

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