Speaking in tongues

In a diverse country, mandating a language is a losing proposition. Teachers, parents should decide

The language skirmishes are likely to erupt again, this time over the language toddlers are taught in. While English is seen as the key to social mobility and success in India, and many parents and schools consider its acquisition paramount to a good education, state policy has refused to acknowledge that reality. The women and child development ministry, while drafting an early childhood care and education policy, has laid renewed stress on teaching in the "mother tongue". While English is not precluded, the idea is that the primary language of instruction for a child under six should be the language she speaks at home.

This is technically in line with the Constitution's assurance of linguistic rights, and successive education policy documents have suggested a three language formula. The National Curriculum Framework of 2005 says "a renewed effort should be made to implement the three-language formula, emphasising recognition of the children's home language or mother tongue as the best medium of instruction", while including English among other Indian languages. But the question is still contentious — right now, a Constitution Bench in the Supreme Court is trying to balance the government's right to mandate a language and the right of parents and students to choose their language of instruction.

There are good arguments on both sides. There is evidence that initial learning in a familiar tongue can boost cognitive capacities, even make it easier to absorb the same concepts in a different language like English. But while this may be of significant help in a place where one language is predominant, it doesn't account for other, more complicated contexts. For instance, if a child is living in an area where the language spoken is different from the one she speaks at home, should she have to grapple with a new language at this early, critical level, or learn in English, which is emerging as a common language of aspiration? In metropolitan schools, children speak a babble of "mother tongues" at home, but teachers and parents may be most comfortable with them learning in English. In a country as variegated as ours, mandating a language is a losing proposition — schools and instructors should have the flexibility to use what comes easiest, and makes most sense in their environment.

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