English Language Pedagogy for India and the National Education Policy 2020: Challenges for the Language Teachers

Do I need to go to an English medium school to learn English well? Not necessarily. The National Education Policy 2020 is quite unequivocal  in this regard: “a language does not need to be the medium of instruction for it to be taught and learned well.” (Page 13). You may not learn English well even after attending an English medium school for years together but you may learn English quite well even in a regional medium school. @Terms and Conditions apply!

Whatever may be the medium of instruction of the school in which the children are learning English, the primary objective of an English teacher is to help these children to acquire the desired competency in the target language. The most important question in language education in India today is the degree of the learners’ competence in the target language, not the medium through which that language is being taught.

Whether we teach in an English medium school or a non-English medium school, we should be aware of the process of language acquisition. Don’t we  all acquire language the same way as pointed by Stephen Krashen ? Ref: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiTsduRreug

 English language teachers are often so obsessed with the theories of language acquisition or language learning that they forget their personal experience of learning a new language. Our children studying in non-English medium schools do not get an adequate exposure to English, they are tormented during their ‘silent period’ of language acquisition in their English class, their ‘affective filter’ goes up in the English class and instead of becoming a vehicle for thought and expression, the target language becomes a means of  suppressing  their voices and critical thinking. The following observation by Rutherford is quite significant, “There is at least one characteristic that is common to every successful language-learning experience we have ever known, and that is that the learner is exposed one way or another to an adequate amount of the data of the language to be learned” (Rutherford, William E. 1987. Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. London; New York: Longman.p.18)

Be it the mother tongue or any other language (second, third or fourth), language acquisition presupposes adequate language input, meaningful interaction in the target language and  natural communication in an anxiety free environment in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and interpreting. Can we create this ideal situation in the English classrooms of our regional medium schools? The question raised by the NCF Position Paper on Teaching English in 2005 is relevant till today: “Can the English-language classroom replicate the universal success in the acquisition of basic spoken language proficiency that a child spontaneously achieves outside the classroom, for the languages in its environment? If so, how?” Ref:  https://ncert.nic.in/pdf/focus-group/english.pdf   It is really unfortunate that non-English medium schools teaching English across India have largely failed to address this basic question and consequently, a large number of our children studying English in these schools fail to attain the desired competency in English.

 While I look at the English language pedagogy in our non-English medium schools, I am reminded of the famous speech in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar: “The faultdear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141). “The fault, dear friends, is not in the medium of instruction/ but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

As the new National Education Policy 2020 aims at overhauling the education system in India, it can be presumed that the language pedagogy used in our schools will also undergo a drastic change. As the policy document states: “All curriculum and pedagogy, from the foundational stage onwards, will be redesigned to be strongly rooted in the Indian and local context and ethos in terms of culture, traditions, heritage, customs, language, philosophy, geography, ancient and contemporary knowledge, societal and scientific needs, indigenous and traditional ways of learning etc. – in order to ensure that education is maximally relatable, relevant, interesting, and effective for our students.”  The draft National Education Policy 2019 also stated that “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.” (Page 81 of the Draft NEP 2019)

The National Policy on Education 2020 points out   that the teaching of languages will be based on experiential-learning pedagogy.  “The teaching of all languages will be enhanced through innovative and experiential methods, including through gamification and apps, by weaving in the cultural aspects of the languages – such as films, theatre, storytelling, poetry, and music – and by drawing connections with various relevant subjects and with real-life experiences”

In Section 22.7, the National Education Policy laments  the severe scarcity of skilled language teachers in India and declares that  “Language-teaching too must be improved to be more experiential and to focus on the ability to converse and interact in the language and not just on the literature, vocabulary, and grammar of the language. Languages must be used more extensively for conversation and for teaching-learning.”  

It is quite significant  to note that the  National Policy on Education 2020 has repeatedly highlighted  the importance of high quality  language teaching in our schools. To quote from the said document: “All languages will be taught with high quality to all students.”( section 4.11).  Again, the section   4.20 of  the NPE 2020 states: “ In addition to high quality offerings in Indian languages and English, foreign languages, such as Korean, Japanese, Thai, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian, will also be offered at the secondary level”

How can we ensure the high quality of language pedagogy in our English classrooms? Neither  by mechanical drills  nor by the practices used in the monolingual English class rooms  of the English speaking world. A multilingual pedagogy in which the child is empowered to converse and interact in all the target languages can alone make the language classrooms interesting to the child. The artificial barrier between the mother tongue class room and the other language classrooms should be removed during the initial years of learning languages. Just as a normal child living in a multilingual society picks up more than one language spontaneously, let the child in our regional medium schools acquire equal proficiency in more than one language in an unobtrusive manner in the same Language class (Language with a capital L). The same teacher should facilitate the acquisition of all the three languages by the child. One language classroom, One language teacher but multiple languages…….. can’t it be the norm in a flexible language approach   advocated by the draft NEP 2019.(4.5.2, page 80)?