The decision of the Karnataka government to introduce English as a medium of instruction in some select government primary schools has led to debates and discussions in the media and the public. According to the government, the introduction of English medium would be the panacea for ‘declining enrolment’ in government primary schools as well as deteriorating quality of education.
Why is there a huge debate every time when it comes to medium of instruction in government primary schools? Is it sheer ‘Kannada pride’? Is there a hidden agenda of limiting access to English medium education to only a few in the society? Why should the burden of preserving culture and language only be on the government schools and why doesn’t this apply to English medium private schools? Or is it just to ‘quick-fix’ the problem of enrollment that English medium is pushed?
As we see it, the matter is complex. Any decision has its pros and cons, but if we think from the perspective of a child and her learning and education, we realise that the central issue is that of ‘quality education’, irrespective of medium of instruction.
Let us pause and think: what is education? One can clearly see that equating education to English language proficiency would be misinterpreting education completely. Secondly, education is for the development of head, heart and hand, as described by Gandhiji.
It cannot be narrowly judged by the kinds of jobs that one gets at the end of schooling or by fluency in English. Every child has immense potential to grow in varied ways to develop into a rational, productive, ethical human being. Limiting education to narrow purposes of securing jobs and proficiency in English is a dis-service to human kind.
Any person who has sound knowledge, skills and attitude would definitely find his/her ways of economic independence too. Pushing all the children to follow the same rut spoils their childhood and destroys their zeal to learn. We seem to have no confidence in our education system — that it would enable our children to explore their path and drive their passion. Why is there such a low confidence on schools today? Why is there no trust that after the 12 years of school education, my child would be able to make informed choice, will do something productive and meaningful in life? Hence, the question to think and address is ‘why is there no trust?’
The second issue is the role of language in facilitating learning. One can learn anything new only in relation to his/her prior experiences. Social/cultural life, which also includes language, is a foundation on which further learning builds.
Children need time and opportunities to use language for a variety of purposes like writing, reading, appreciating, critiquing and evaluating through which they enrich their language and their understanding about their world. Language becomes the part and parcel of child’s thought, her response to the experiences around her, in fact, her overall being.
Education in mother tongue enables learning the concepts better and to use the rich experiences to learn other languages as well. For example, if a child gets sufficient exposure to Kannada language at home and at school, she develops a competence that enables higher order thinking.
This becomes the basis for learning other languages/subjects and more importantly a critical engagement with the different disciplines becomes possible. If we impose English medium, it comes with a two-layered challenge for the children. They have to acquire the language that is foreign to their context as it is not part of their natural environment, second they have to start thinking in a new language, which they haven’t so far.
Those who vouch for English medium need to be aware that we have the responsibility to provide an English language rich environment for our children before switching the medium of instruction to English. Otherwise, children will not develop their thinking abilities in either of the languages and their language capability will get stunted.
A policy on medium of instruction as English without giving weight to these aspects will hamper rather help develop a child’s whole being. The underlying assumption of such policies is ‘language is a medium of communication’.
Children have to just change the labels as the language changes. To look at words just as names and not as concepts which are acquired through engagement, cognitive and emotional, have serious implications!
Generally, there is always tremendous pressure on governments to announce pro-people policies. When it comes to educational decisions, a state’s effort to align its policies with the aspirations of the citizens should find ways to embed these aspirations in the larger ethos of education focusing on childhood, learning and development of human potential and social development.
It cannot ride only on perception of parents’ aspirations. This proposal of starting English medium schools can be enticing to parents, but in long run, it can contribute to potentially serious issues: stress among young children, joyless learning, parental anxiety that passes on to children, malpractices in the examination, inability to cope up with failure and alienation from one’s own cultural and geographical life.
We need to respond to the question of quality of education. We need to empower teachers to think and help children think, help them understand acquisition and learning of a language and appreciate the role of language in understanding. We need to engage with the communities so that they provide space for thinking and exploring language/s.
A community that engages in conversations, dialogues, debates, reads and enjoys literature will be able to contribute in children’s learning. Schools can become the anchors for building such communities. In the present context where children are made to rote memorise ‘a’ for ‘apple’ there is a long way to go!
(Naik leads professional development programmes in education and Butoliya is a Visiting Faculty, at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)