Education in Mother Languages Improves Student Learning and Sustains Heterogeneous Traditions

Though India’s Constitution and educational policies promise to provide education in mother languages, limited efforts have been made to fulfil the promise.


With over 19,500 languages or dialects, India is among four countries, including Nigeria, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, that have the highest number of “living languages.” Languages play a vital role in ensuring that cultural and social practices are preserved, developed and sustained. Globally, however, the United Nations found that about 43% of languages spoken are vulnerable to extinction. 

Boa Sr, who belonged to the Bo tribe native to the Andaman islands, was the last person who could speak Bo. In 2010, she passed away, “breaking a 65,000-year link to one of the world's oldest cultures.” The extinction of the Bo language and her death drew criticism from linguists and activists who felt that the government had not done enough to preserve the languages of the native Andamanese. 

A sustainable way that languages can be preserved and developed is through a transformation of education programmes that currently prioritise English and Hindi. Research establishes that providing education in mother tongues not only reduces dropout rates, but it also improves students’ learning and performance levels. 

This reading list examines the government's multiple efforts to provide education in mother languages. 

Institutional Barriers
Prabhat K Singh identifies that the use of dominant language in educational programmes pose a formidable barrier for students to attend and perform well. Most of  Jharkhand’s 32 Scheduled Tribes (STs) and several ethnic groups have their own language. Singh recognises that although the Constitution requires the government to provide education for students from linguistic minority communities, Adivasi students are usually taught in dominant regional languages and English. 

One major reason for children’s low attendance and poor performance in school is the problem of comprehension, since the language in which they are taught (Hindi) is foreign to them. This language barrier leads to a high dropout rate among tribal children, and by Class 5, 50% of them leave school, and by Class 10, 80% drop out. According to some statistics, out of 100 tribal children, only 20 manage to appear in high school examinations and only eight of them pass. 

Multilingual Education in Practice 
Seemita Mohanty writes that the aggregate literacy level of Odias are far higher than the Adivasis of the state. This indicates a pattern of systematic discrimination and deprivation tribals have been made to experience in other states as well. Education, Mohanty argues, can offer a way to challenge this discrimination and make progress towards equity among residents of Odisha. Mohanty offers multiple insights based on her qualitative study in Sundargarh district in Odisha (with STs comprising half the population of the state) of a “Mother tongue-based multilingual education (MTB MLE)” programme. She found that 

… by Class III, students were all seen to be becoming well-versed in Odia, irrespective of whether an MLE teacher was appointed to the school/class or not. The presence of a MLE teacher itself made the path to learn a new language relatively smooth for the children—wherever the programme was functioning well. Otherwise, with the help of local teachers, senior students, matrons and cooks of the hostels, the headmasters try to ease the language problems faced by the student(s) in their initial period of stay. Hence within two to three years, as perceived by the teachers, students become well-versed in the regional language and develop the ability and capabilities required to further progress into the more senior classes. 

Educational Material and Multiple Languages in a Single Classroom 
Ayesha Kidwai writes that education researchers were pleased to notice that the Draft National Policy on Education (DNEP), 2016 proposed “that the medium of instruction be the mother tongue or regional language up to class 5 as a mandatory provision.” However, Kidwai noticed that there was scant information on how this goal would be achieved. A systematic plan must be made, she emphasises, given that instructional materials up to Class 5 need to be made, and several languages do not have a script. Moreover, given that there can be multiple mother tongues in the same classroom, the DNEP is silent on how the students would be taught. 

By not envisaging mechanisms with clear goals enabling choice of language of instruction and the generation, standardisation, and training of teachers in instructional material, the report is guilty of having the same unworkability for which it has critiqued earlier NPEs [National Policy of Education]. 

Mother Languages in Higher Education 
Kidwai also adds that the DNEP 2016 does not offer a systematic plan to encourage the use of mother languages at the level of higher education. This is important since content production, teachers’ education, formulation of pedagogy and methods of evaluation all often take place at the level of higher education. A group of Delhi-based university teachers identified these lapses and offered suggestions to the government. One suggestion involved individual universities supporting translation activities. 

Any research student who receives full financial assistance/fellowship from the university/the UGC may be required, as part of the conditions of availing the fellowship, to produce a translation of a research article into or from English (or any other language) every year in his/her chosen area of research.  

“Othering” Urdu  
Ather Farouqui points out that with the rise of the Hindu revivalist movement in the late 19th century, Urdu was increasingly seen as exclusively the language of Muslims. Farouqui recognises that with the rise of discrimination against Muslims, Urdu “more or less become a means of religious education.” He adds that, in North India, this is largely because the public education system has denied offering opportunities to learn Urdu. 

Academically, we can devise a formula for the survival of Urdu by introducing it in school education, and this too can be an ideal position, but we fail when the question of implementation comes before us. Survival of Urdu is a political question and demands political will and strategy to address it. One cannot but see government agencies as the greatest obstacle shamelessly devising new policies to systematically eliminate this language. 

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