According to linguist anthropologist Chaise LaDousa, “the ‘mother tongue’ emerges as something to be upheld and praised as Indian in opposition to the language of the school which emerges as something to be dismissed” (Ladousa 2010, 603). This is strongly resonant of Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s argument about the disharmony in a child’s mind while studying in a ‘foreign’ tongue at school, a language that is culturally unfamiliar from the spoken language at their home: “Learning, for a colonial child, became a cerebral activity and not an emotionally felt experience” (Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo 1986, 17).
It is ostensibly to resolve this postcolonial dilemma that India’s National Education Policy (NEP), approved in July 2020, focuses on the power of Indian languages and multilingualism in education. In their words, the objective of the Policy is the “preservation and promotion of India’s cultural wealth” (Government of India 2020, 54). The Policy encourages ‘mother tongue education’ in schools until Class 5 and beyond wherever possible, and intends to develop resources for multilingual curricula, learning resources and teacher training in the languages. According to the NEP, “it is through the development of a strong sense and knowledge of their own cultural history, arts, languages and traditions that children can build a positive cultural identity and self-esteem. Thus, cultural awareness and expression are important contributors both to individual as well as societal well-being (sic)” (53).
Is this a crucial moment of decolonisation in our education system or does the nativism go too far? On International Mother Language Day, this piece explores the language-related questions raised by NEP 2020 and its implications, especially in context of the ‘mother tongue education’ provision in the Policy.
What is a ‘mother tongue’?
In India, there has been an ongoing effort to define the term ‘mother tongue’, especially since the first population census conducted in the 19th century. In the Census of India, the definition of ‘mother tongue’ has evolved from ‘language spoken by the individual from the cradle’ in 1881, to ‘parent language’ in 1901, to ‘language ordinarily used’ in 1921 (Pattanayak quoted in Ladousa 2010). In the 2011 Census, the word ‘language’ is used when there are more than 10,000 speakers. The NEP uses the terms ‘mother tongue’ and ‘home language’ (even ‘local language’ and ‘regional language’) interchangeably, without providing satisfactory definitions. This leads to the first question: is a child’s ‘mother tongue’ the language they learn first, the language they know best, the language they use most, or the language of the state or nation they belong to (Ladousa 2010, 602)?
While a national policy can guide or influence the functioning of the education system in all states, it is the state governments that take decisions on matters related to education. The Three-Language Formula (TLF), first presented in 1956, laid out that schools must teach a student’s ‘mother tongue’ or regional language for ten years; an official language of the country (Hindi or English) for six years; and a third modern Indian or foreign language for three years. This had led to resistance towards the promotion of Hindi as India’s ‘national’ language, especially in the southern states. NEP 2020 attempts to provide a slightly different solution to this by proposing that schools must still teach three languages, of which at least two must be “native” to India. Of course, these options are limited to the 22 languages recognised by the Eighth Schedule in the Constitution of India, a list that does not encompass the 121 languages, 1369 ‘rationalised mother tongues’ and over 19,500 unidentified mother tongues spoken by various populations around the country (Press Trust of India 2018).
At the same time, the medium-of-instruction question has been under scrutiny for decades now, and had also culminated in the National Curriculum Framework (2005) by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) that proposed teaching in the ‘mother tongue’ until Class 5, almost as a precursor to the NEP. The new Policy encourages schools to continue teaching in the mother tongue, until Class 5 and even beyond that wherever possible. It also suggests the use of the student’s ‘home language’ in informal classroom interactions by teachers, whether or not it is the official medium of instruction, to ensure that students from all linguistic backgrounds feel included in classroom discussions. They have also suggested establishing an Indian Institute of Translation and Interpretation (IITI) in order to translate and produce high-quality learning materials in various Indian languages.
What about “minoritised languages”?
Borrowing from Cynthia Groff, this section acknowledges that languages are not a minority, but ‘minoritised’ through active processes of standardisation, nationalisation and legitimisation (Groff 2017). A minoritised language could refer to a tribal language, a language without sufficient number of speakers for it to be recognised by the Census, or a language spoken by a majority of the population but in a different state. What will a student migrating from Tamil Nadu to New Delhi do when they are taught in Hindi (Singh 2020)? What if a student’s ‘mother tongue’ differs from the state’s chosen ‘mother tongue’? How does a school choose this ‘mother tongue’, without the danger of minimising other tongues spoken widely in the state? How will this impact the existence and social status of these other languages and communities?
“It is speakers of tribal languages […] who suffer the worst disadvantages because their languages are the most quickly dispensed with as a medium of instruction in school” (Ladousa 2010, 605). While the Indian Constitution protects linguistic minorities, it is also important to observe that there is no actual provision to safeguard minoritised languages within the formal structure of education. Having said that, Odisha, Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh have been collaborating with state NGOs and developing schools that focus on mother tongue education for tribal minorities, and this has shown positive results. It is worth considering how other states too can propose a more inclusive manner of ‘mother tongue’ selection for their schools and ensure that children belonging to minority communities do not feel alienated in school as it will adversely affect their learning experience, and also lead to a higher rate of drop-out amongst these communities.
Why is English-language education missing from the text?
Policies related to English-language education are glaringly absent in the NEP 2020. The entire Policy document is self-admittedly guided by its focus on “the rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought” (4). In its attempts to nativise the medium of instruction as well as school curriculum and resources, there is a blanket dismissal of all the benefits brought about through decades of English-language education in the country. As Mohamed Zeeshan puts it, “for years, India has seen a long-running battle against English on misplaced sentimental grounds, including national pride and anti-colonial fury” (Zeeshan 2020).
While it is important for students to learn in their mother tongues at a young age since it helps them absorb the learning material better, it also means that these students will start learning English at a later age when it will become more difficult for them to absorb. This will easily lead to a greater economic divide between those who can afford English-medium schools, and those who cannot, and ultimately the latter will lose out in terms of high paying employment opportunities in the future. Discrimination based on language will become even more rampant, in a country where not knowing English is almost seen to index a lack of intelligence and capability. According to Alok Rai, the problem with English today is not that it is an alien language, but that it is an Indian language, imbued with class and caste privileges (Rai 2010). It is this position of English in the social hierarchy that will become even more fraught given the divide between the English-speaking, “elite” groups, and those who do not have easy access to the language and hence will remain at an economic disadvantage.
The role of English-language education, especially in the last thirty years since the liberalisation of India’s economy, cannot be overlooked. The boost in the job market due to BPOs, call centre jobs and the IT sector, are all linked to English-speaking skills amongst service professionals in the country. While it is crucial to encourage young students at the primary level to engage with their culture and languages, it need not be accompanied with a dismissal of the social and economic power wielded by the English language on a global stage today. In a country of extremes where some schools punish their students for using their ‘mother tongue’ in class, in favour of English, we need to seek a healthy multilingual balance, and the NEP could have been a useful guide to suggest a method of finding that equilibrium.
Is the Policy ideologically motivated?
While languages such as Rajasthani have been fighting for a place on the recognised languages list for years now, the classical language Sanskrit is taught as one of three ‘modern Indian’ languages across most northern Hindi-speaking states under the TLF. In fact, Sanskrit has also been accorded a special importance in the NEP since it “possesses a classical literature greater in volume than that of Latin and Greek put together” (14), according to them. Many analyses have pointed to an RSS agenda behind the language-related provisions in the Policy. BBC News Hindi references a quote by RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat in relation to this policy: “India cannot be strengthened as a nation if we keep its ancient knowledge tradition in a corner” (Singh 2020, original quote in Hindi).
There is only a brief mention of the need for awareness of classical languages like Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Odia and Kannada; and the intention to revive institutions of learning for Pali, Persian and Prakrit. While there is no doubt about the vastness and richness of Sanskrit literature, there is no justification for its supremacy over the other classical languages. It is important to remain conscious of the resistance this could be met with, especially amongst language groups in the South. Last year, the incumbent government spent 22 more times on Sanskrit than five other classical languages combined (The Wire Staff 2020). It is therefore difficult not to view this mainstreaming of Sanskrit as an ideologically motivated move, reinforced by the Policy.
It cannot be denied that the Constitution of India makes significant efforts to safeguard linguistic diversity and protect diverse linguistic minorities. And while the language problem is an unwieldy issue for any one government or policy to resolve, it is important to not allow ourselves to deepen old linguistic fault lines.
One of the recommendations in NEP 2020 is to encourage students in Classes 6 to 8 to participate in a project called ‘Languages of India’ and learn phrases from every (recognised) language in the country and learn more about their geographical distribution. More useful than learning token crumbs of other Indian languages may have been an introduction to the richness of literature amongst various Indian languages, which could also lead to a much-needed boost in direct translations between Indian languages without using English texts as a bridge. The revised NEP was a great opportunity to solve for some of the age-old questions around language the country has been navigating since Independence, and adapt the answers to suit the modern world. While it may be important to encourage students to engage with their culture and languages from a young age, it is equally important not to lose sight of the challenges the Policy could lead to—be it giving preference to some ‘mother tongues’ over others; increasing the economic divide between the English-speaking population and non-English speaking populations; or the mainstreaming of certain classical languages over others in order to further the ideological agenda of a single political party.
Government of India, Ministry of Human Resource Development. 2020. “New Education Policy 2020.”
Groff, C. 2017. “Language and Language-in-Education Planning in Multilingual India: A Linguistic Minority Perspective.” Language Policy 16 (2). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10993-015-9397-4.
Ladousa, Chaise. 2010. “On Mother and Other Tongues: Sociolinguistics, Schools, and Language Ideology in Northern India.” Edited by Chaise Ladousa. Language Sciences 32 (6): 602–14.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo. 1986. Decolonising the Mind : The Politics of Language in African Literature. Studies in African Literature. London : Portsmouth, N.H.: J. Currey.
Press Trust of India. 2018. “More than 19,500 Mother Tongues Are Spoken in India, Says Report.” Business Standard, January 7, 2018. https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/more-than-19-5....
Rai, Alok. 2010. “Must We Dream of India in English?” Outlook India, no. Special Issue: The Mobile Republic (August). http://www.outlookindia.com/article/Must-We-Dream-Of-India-In-English/26....
Singh, Suraj. 2020. “नई शिक्षा नीति 2020 में सबसे काम की बातें कौन सी हैं? [What is the most useful highlight of the New Education Policy 2020?].” BBC News Hindi, July 30, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/hindi/india-53593928.
The Wire Staff. 2020. “Centre Spent 22 Times More on Promoting Sanskrit Than Other 5 Classical Languages Combined.” The Wire.In, February 17, 2020. https://thewire.in/government/sanskrit-language-promotion.
Zeeshan, Mohamed. 2020. “English Phobia Will Ruin India’s Economic Prospects.” Freedom Gazette (blog). July 30, 2020. https://www.freedomgazette.in/2020/07/english-phobia-will-ruin-indias-ec....
Author information: Mohini Gupta is a DPhil Student at the Faculty of Oriental Studies. Her research work is centred around the politics of language in South Asia, with a focus on sociolinguistic hierarchies between English and Indian languages.
Suggested Citation: Mohini Gupta. 2021. 'The Implications of ‘Mother Tongue Education’: India’s National Education Policy 2020', Think Pieces Series No. 11. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.web.ox.ac.uk/).