Home language instruction important during early years

Why home language instruction is important during early years of learning

Adopting English as the medium of instruction in poor and substandard teaching learning environments will do more harm than good

Representative image. Credit: iStock

India’s linguistic diversity has always been in the proverbial eye of the storm. From benign debate topics to more toxic identity politics, it has a way of stealing the headlines. Through the seven decades and more of our country’s independent, democratic history many great minds have considered the question of unity in diversity through the lens of our myriad languages. It would be contentious to say we have achieved much more than to agree to disagree and let the sleeping dogs lie.  

However recently, this debate received another shot in the arm when the Ministry of Human Resources Development announced the New Education Policy and highlighted the intent to have early, primary years, and possibly even middle school education conducted in the mother tongue, home language or the regional language as appropriate. 

The details of how the policy will be implemented or even what this intent really means is yet to be clearly stated, however fierce and passionate reactions have started pouring in on social media. The history as well as ease of exploitation of language identity for political mileage has further encouraged some to take a rigid, and mostly hasty, stance on this issue. However, once the question of medium of instruction for early and primary years education is stripped of vested interests of all except the child who is to be educated and brought up, we can begin to appreciate the arguments more fairly. 

The home language advantage

UNESCO and several other reputable bodies support the need for a wholesome and holistic development of the child focussing on social, emotional, cognitive and physical development as the fundamental purpose of education during early and primary years in a child’s life. The key aim of a well-researched and thought out education system during these years is to build a foundation for lifelong learning. Respect and caring, thinking, inquiry and open mindedness, participating and risk taking are some of the approaches to life that are best learnt during these formative years. An enabling environment for the learning of these key skills for children needs them to first be comfortable and confident in their immediate setting. 

Only a little more than ten percent of Indians can claim to have a working knowledge of English in India and only a fraction of these use it at home as their first language. It is little wonder then that when children from these homes are forced into English medium schools it does not result in the intended learning outcomes, wasting precious time and opportunity for the children and resources for the parent, school or the state.  

The second argument for adopting home language as medium of instruction is less about the individual child and more about the symbiotic relationship between individuals and communities. We invest in our children’s education so that they grow up to create and maintain this world equitably and sustainably. In the beginning of their life, a child’s world may not mean the entire planet, country or even their city or street; their idea of the world is restricted to their familiar surroundings starting from their home and immediate neighbourhood which they grow up in and learn to associate with home. How can we expect our children to own, feel connected and responsible towards their home if we separate them from the very first thing they learn and experience here? Do we really believe we can educate children without earning their trust first, helping them make connections and acknowledging and respecting their idea of home? 

Confidence in exploring and learning in their home language gives children the rootedness and identity which is indispensable at both individual and community level. Starting with language, children grow to appreciate their culture, arts, traditions, heritage and everything else that humans need to lead happy, meaningful lives. 

We need our children to begin with the language and as they grow, take ownership and stay invested in creating, sustaining and developing their home which as they grow, may grow with them becoming a neighbourhood, village or town, country or even the planet. Charity begins at home, however, as we have seen, generations brought up on English medium education system risk losing sight of the immediate problems in the backyard of their own homes. In absence of strong connections with a place they call home, our children who are supposed to grow up into problem solvers, risk becoming part of the problem for themselves as well as the social world they occupy. 

The right approach to learning English

Having argued why home language should probably be the default choice of medium of instruction for children at least upto primary school if not the middle school, we also need to ensure that we do not deprive our children of any advantages that English language has to offer. A key question being asked today is about the options for children whose families may migrate to other locations within the country making their home language different from the prevalent regional language of their domicile. They should most certainly have the option and flexibility to study in a multilingual environment if possible or adapt and learn the regional language if the family expects to stay in that location for long. 

However English or even Hindi medium schools for such children in all major cities, where these children and families are most likely to stay, is always going to be an available option as the current policy does not mandate doing away with English medium schools but strongly recommends setting up schools that teach in home language. The provision of flexibility in regard to medium of instruction is also a reflection of the widespread multilinguistic practices prevalent across the country.  

The second argument being made to reject the idea of education in home language for young children is the notion that Indians will somehow lose their edge in the globalised economy if we do not start teaching our children in English right from when they begin their learning journey at school. This notion remarkably fails to identify the separation between English learnt as a language and English as a medium of instruction. 

The Multilinguism and Multiliteracy Project, a study conducted by University of Cambridge and other reputable partners over 2016-2020 in India, found a strong positive correlation between the use of home language of students at school and their cognitive skills. The same study also recommends using children’s home language at school to improve their learning and development. If taught by professionally trained and certified teachers using standardised learning material, a non native learner at beginner level as per Common European Framework of Reference, can become a confident and independent user of the language in about eight hundred hours of lessons covering all four areas of language learning namely: Speaking, listening, reading and writing. 

The key here is the trained teacher. It is no secret that a majority of English medium schools in our country have substandard language teachers. Therefore, to maintain and further develop our edge in the global economy we need to invest in teacher training and infrastructure that enables language learning to match international standards. 

The only way to navigate the complex multilingual space of school education in India is to stay firmly focussed on the purpose of education. It is not to be able to speak English. While it is important for all children to grow up and be able to become economically independent, it is not the primary purpose of school education to make our children ready for the employment market either. Early years and primary years education is meant to help children learn the essential skills that will shape their personalities and guide their learning journeys for life. Adopting English as the medium of instruction in poor and substandard teaching learning environments will do more harm than good. English can be and should be taught as a language but not at the cost of creating the best, most conducive learning environments for our young children. 

(Charu Sapra is a language and literature expert for young learners. She specialises in developing reading programmes for children)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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