Forcing children to learn languages is criminal

Irrespective of the merits of the decision about German, one should be grateful to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) for turning the attention of the country to the issue of language; an issue so central to human existence and so trivially treated by the Union government and the academia. At least, people should begin to think who would decide how many and which languages children would learn at different stages of their education.

Is the language faculty of children a relevant consideration? Does it matter what the parents and children want? Does it matter what languages they need in their lives? Do we wish to know whether multilingualism is an advantage or a curse? Does it correlate positively with academic achievement and social tolerance? Is the level of language proficiency an important consideration?

Do we wish to revisit the concept of ‘a pure standard language’ and examine whether code-mixing, code-switching or what is today called translanguaging or multilinguality is a positive phenomena?

What are the facts of the matter about language policy in India? Actually, we do not have a carefully formulated national language policy that would reflect the multilingual and multicultural nature of the Indian society. Belonging to five distinct language families, we have over 1652 languages, many of which subsume highly advanced systems of knowledge and cultural traditions.

We have rarely, if ever, reflected on the linguistic and cultural knowledge that children bring to school; we have never thought of the different ways in which these can be used as resources in our teaching materials and methods.

There are indeed some important provisions about language in the Constitution of India but the so-called three language formula has nothing to do with the Constitution or the Eighth Schedule in it. According to Article 343, Hindi will be the official language of the Union and English the Associate Official language. There are also special directives given for the promotion of Hindi: “to promote the spread of Hindi language, to develop it so that it may serve as the medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India” (Article 351).

A special directive was included for the development of Hindi; it was to be enriched by maintaining its essential genius and borrowing from other Indian languages, ‘and drawing, whenever necessary or desirable, for its vocabulary, primarily on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages’. Unfortunately, what really captured the imagination of the Hindi protagonists and the various agencies associated with the promotion of Hindi was the phrase ‘primarily on Sanskrit’. That was to miss the whole spirit of what was intended by the composite culture.

Perhaps, many may not know that the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution is not called ‘Regional, National or Indian’ languages; it is simple called ‘Languages’. It is an open Schedule which started with only 14 languages but now has 22 and will soon have more. All the provisions concerning language in the Constitution are therefore healthy and sane; at least, there was an awareness that getting into anything more than this is asking for trouble. Can we make similar claims about our interventions into the language policy of India?

Denial of multiplicity
The first thing that we did was to sanitise Hindustani moving towards a highly Sanskritised code which alienated a large number of people. Then we privileged English so much that all the states in India felt forced to introduce English from Class 1 without any materials and teachers!

Following the path of consensual democracy and marginalisation of several minorities including the dalits and the disabled, the Chief Ministers arrived at a three language formula that was encoded in the Kothari Commission and wishfully expected that all North Indians would learn a South Indian language and vice versa (the North East was indeed not in the frame).

All this was to deny the multiplicity of languages and cultures that exist in India.
Now that the CBSE in its wisdom tried to break away from a technical reading of a formula and listened to children, their parents and schools, the MHRD suddenly noticed a threat to Sanskrit.

The CBSE said you must study at least 3 languages up to Class 8 of which two must be Hindi and English; then for 2 years you could choose any language from a long list which among other Indian languages included ‘Lepcha, Limbu, Bhutia, Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Nepali, Tibetan and Mizo’.

All these languages were included not because there was an attempt to sabotage the cause of Sanskrit or other Indian languages but because that’s what some of the CBSE schools asked for. Recent research has conclusively established that multilingualism correlates positively with language proficiency, scholastic achievement, cognitive growth and social tolerance.

Sanskrit must be studied in India as the Indian scholarly and cultural tradition is encoded in it; as my friend Anand Bhalla puts it, it should be regarded as a basic requirement for any Indian academic worth her salt.

But to force millions of children to rote-learn some Sanskrit couplets and a few nominal and verbal declensions and conjugations is criminal; most of our school graduates hardly gain any significant proficiency levels in any language.

A focus on the languages of children and English is indeed crucial. But classical and foreign languages need to be studied in their own right. They introduce children to new grammatical forms and open up avenues of cognitive growth and exposure to cultures otherwise inaccessible.

We, therefore, need to strengthen the knowledge of neighbourhood languages of children; they also need to learn English. This must be followed by the study of Classical and ‘Foreign’ languages. The choice then is not Sanskrit or German but something on the lines of what CBSE has been trying to do.
(The writer is a retired professor of Delhi University)

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