Common sense and straight talk seems to be the current Karnataka chief minister's forte. This has been visible in ample measure in his stand and statements on the matter of using English as the medium of instruction (MoI) in public (government) schools.
The gist of what he has said is that everyone wants their child to learn English in this country as it is important for social and economic mobility. When public schools do not respond to this acute need, people send their children to private schools. Poor families do not have this option. Thus, by not offering good education in English in public schools, it is the most disadvantaged who are suffering and being discriminated against. Implicit in his message also is that teaching English as one of many subjects is insufficient. It doesn't lead to fluency in the language, as the linguistic milieu for the child is that of Kannada (or other local languages).
Most people would acknowledge the truth in what he has said. Our recent research study, School Choice In Low Information Environments (Field Studies, Azim Premji University), merely reaffirms the veracity of his statements, like other similar studies. It is quite clear that across the country parents want their children to study in English-medium schools. Also most private schools that claim to be English-medium are anything but that in reality.
The surprise in all this is that the Karnataka chief minister has made these statements publicly and continues to do so in the face of attack from an influential section of the intelligentsia in Karnataka. His attackers contend that switching to English as the MoI will weaken the Kannada language and its vibrant culture. While there is a faint element of truth in these claims, their overall assessment of this matter is too alarmist.
Such overreaction gives the appearance that the stakes are unimaginably high. In fact, when students are driven towards bad private schools by the present policy, the damage to Kannada could be just as bad. Instead, a balanced policy may address both matters. Also, the state has many other tools to promote Kannada. School education is not and cannot be the only, or even the primary, tool to maintain a vibrant linguistic culture. The situation has become more fraught, because the chief minister has gone ahead with his plain speaking, calling out the “duplicity” of most of those who are attacking him, by pointing that most of them have sent their children to English-medium schools.
We do not know how this episode will conclude, but as it unfolds it makes for a riveting example of how education has to satisfy conflicting demands, each with some reasonable justification. How do people making education policies decide between such contesting claims? Starting with two basic educational questions focused on the child is useful. How do children learn? What should children learn?
In the context of learning of languages, the answers to these questions are not difficult. Young children learning reading and writing for the first time learn most effectively when their home language is used. This age maps to classes I-III. During the same period, and extending up to class VIII, children also have the innate capacity to learn multiple languages, with relative ease. Languages of their sociocultural milieu are learnt easiest, those which are not of this milieu require more effort and avenues, but even then are easier to learn at this age if taught systematically.
As to what languages should children learn, again the answer is not hard. They should learn as many as possible. The practical usefulness of knowing multiple languages (especially English) in our country and the ever integrating world is obvious. In addition, over the last few decades, there is research evidence of other kinds of positive effects of multilingual ability on development of cognitive and social capacities.
The implication of all this is the need to change the rigid notion of MoI and to adopt a more flexible approach. In classes I-III, the curriculum should be designed and the teacher supported to use the home languages of the children to develop basic reading and writing capacities in multiple languages. As, in India, the dominant regional language (for example, Kannada or Hindi) is often not the home language of the child (say, Tulu and Urdu or Bhili and Mewari), this would require re-imagining the curricular approach and leveraging what many teachers already practise. In higher classes, multiple languages can continue as subjects, while making MoI flexible even at that stage. For example, history could be learnt in one language and geography in another, which would work in tandem with these languages being studied as subjects in themselves.
Adopting this approach in Karnataka will respond to the widespread social need to learn English, without reducing the importance of Kannada. The Karnataka government does seem to be considering an imaginative approach. In fact the “three-language-formula” of the National Policy on Education, 1968, could be made effective with this flexible MoI approach across the country.
It is possible to resolve the most contentious of educational matters if education is dealt with for what it is, as education for the child, and not as a political or sociological project or theatre.
Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd