The brick and mortar school buildings lining the winding mountain roads in Attappady, Kerala, are testimony to the new-found enthusiasm with which education is being brought as close as it's possible to the doorsteps of tribal children in the region. Yet, Shaji, who uses only his first name and lives 7 km away from the school, isn't enamoured of the shiny buildings where his future is supposedly being shaped. For, the 11-year-old boy is unable to follow much of what's being taught in the classroom.

Shaji speaks a dialect without a script, which blends the state language Malayalam with Tamil from neighbouring Tamilnadu. None of the teachers in his school are able to speak or understand the language, a travesty that has forced many of the children to drop out of the education system itself. As Sindhu Rajan, a teacher at the Vocational Higher Secondary School at Agali, Attappady, says, "Their language is completely different from Malayalam, so it's difficult for us to communicate with the children… Very few students make it to the secondary level."

Hundreds of miles away in Melghat, Maharashtra, children from the Korku tribal community are facing a similar problem. The students speak Korku, but the lessons are taught in the state's official language Marathi. "Had they been learning in their mother tongue, their pass percentages would have been higher," says Sanjay Ingle, president of a non-government organisation called People's Rural Education Movement, which works in the area.

In an education system riddled with inequities, language can also be an obstacle that comes in the way of learning. Educationists agree that it's best to teach in the child's mother tongue, but the issue is a complex and emotive one, given the diverse number of languages and dialects in the country and the attendant linguistic chauvinism that politicians are eager to exploit for their own gains. English, considered the passport to social mobility, is meanwhile becoming the preferred language of instruction among parents, many of who even put their children in unrecognised schools only because their signboards say 'English-medium'.

The three-language formula

The National Curriculum Framework 2005, which lays down broad guidelines for teaching and learning, sums up the views of experts when it says: "A renewed effort should be made to implement the three-language formula, emphasising recognition of children's home language(s) or mother tongue(s) as the best medium of instruction. These include tribal languages." The framework recommends that English should find a place with other Indian languages.

The National Policy on Education framed in 1968 and later in 1986 also recommends the three-language formula, says educationist A K Jalaluddin, who has developed several innovate learning models and is also the founder-trustee of Network of Enterprising Educational Ventures. "The Centre has largely been flexible in allowing states to decide the first language," he says. Three Indian states, Mizoram, Manipur and Jammu and Kashmir, use English as a medium of instruction while all other states use the regional language as the medium, he explains. "English and Hindi are the second and third languages, with Hindi being the second language for children who are non-Hindi speaking," says Jalaluddin. In Tamilnadu, however, Hindi is an optional language.

The three-language formula helps in fostering bilingualism and multilingualism, traits that improve "cognitive growth, social tolerance, divergent thinking and scholastic achievement", according to the National Curriculum Framework.

The complexity of the issue is addressed by a paper on multilingual education brought out by UNESCO in 2003, which looks at the "contrasting and deeply felt positions" that the choice of language of instruction evokes in people. "Questions of identity, nationhood and power are closely linked to the use of specific languages in the classroom. Language itself, moreover, possesses its own dynamics and is constantly undergoing processes of both continuity and change, impacting upon the communication modes of different societies as it evolves," says the introduction to the paper. The document says that political changes have led to new language policies in post-colonial countries; many languages have disappeared while others are endangered; the Internet has "dramatically affected" the way in which languages are used for communication and learning; and globalisation "increasingly challenges the continued existence of small, local identities frequently based on language". The paper supports multilingual education, and points to a resolution adopted by UNESCO in 1999, which says that the "specific needs of particular, culturally and linguistically distinct communities can only be addressed by multilingual education".

Mind your language

Udaya Narayana Singh, director of Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, says that internationally, experiments by experts have pointed to the fact that one learns best through one's mother tongue. "This is also the basis of UNESCO's recommendations on multi-lingual education. My choice would be to educate the child through her mother tongue keeping a strong component of English side by side. There are numerous examples to show that a child can handle several languages — three easily, but two with great dexterity — at least until she is 13 years old," he says. Apprehensions that having to learn a number of languages could prove to be too heavy a burden on children are misplaced, he adds.

Students learning in regional languages do not have the kind of resources they need, as English books [for instance, on Physics] are not translated into their mother tongue, says Ravi Kumar of the Council for Social Development.

"Knowledge is available only to those who understand English, and initiatives have not come from regional languages for translation," he adds.

Jalaluddin feels that while children may find it difficult to grasp concepts in a language other than their mother tongue at the primary level, they do manage to adapt. Maya Sukumaran, principal of the English-medium Geetanjali School in Hyderabad, concurs. "We have seen that children are able to learn languages very fast. English is a common language — some of our students are from other states and may not know Telugu, while those in some South Indian states don't know Hindi. But many students in the school, who didn't know Telugu when they joined, picked it up soon," she says.

However, Singh cautions that when English is the medium of instruction, many children could get "thrown out of the system" if they have not been exposed to the language in domains such as homes or playgrounds. He points to a study conducted in Nepal by Nepalese Scholar K P Malla on the high dropout rates in higher secondary schools. "There are as many as 124 languages in Nepal, many of which are far removed from Nepalese; English is itself a foreign language there," says Singh. According to the study, English as a medium of instruction was in itself such a frightening prospect for many of the students that they chose to drop out of schools. Closer home in Hyderabad, pass percentages in areas dominated by the Muslim community (such as Old City) point to the fact that many of the children — who are more conversant in Urdu — drop out because the medium of instruction is Telugu.

While state governments can decide the standard in which English should be introduced, many have chosen to start teaching English from class one itself. Ideally, the second and third languages should be introduced from class three and above, says Jalaluddin. The idea is that by the time children complete their secondary education, they should know three languages.

Jalaluddin notes that if children learn in English, they are often not exposed to the literature in their mother tongue. "A major part of the linguistic experience comes from literature," he emphasises. One way of tackling this problem is to teach English as a subject well, he says, giving the example of Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Delhi, where Hindi is the medium of instruction till class six. "English is taught very well as a subject at the same time, so the students' Hindi and English skills are strong by the time they are in class six," he explains.

Some of the Kendriya Vidyalayas use a similar strategy, with social sciences being taught in Hindi and Maths and Science being taught in English, along with English as a subject, says Jalaluddin. As the teachers and children use certain technical terms in Social Sciences in both English and Hindi (Parliament for Sansad or vice versa), the students become skilled in both the languages, he adds.

Jalaluddin is currently working on a transfer theory, which looks at the fact that about 500 to 600 words are the same in English and in Indian languages (examples being bus or tram). "Transferring knowledge from one language to another should be easy. Children can be taught the common bilingual vocabulary and be made aware of the structural differences in the languages without going into grammar directly," he says.

The NCF report stresses that multilingualism should be made use of in the classroom. For instance, it says, "Language teaching needs to be bilingual not only in terms of number of languages offered to children but also in terms of evolving strategies that would use the multilingual classroom as a resource."

Words don't mean action

Ramesh Sekhar Reddy, programme director of Mahita, a non-government organisation that works in the area of education in Hyderabad, agrees that children should learn in both English and their mother tongue. But the government has failed to provide quality education in regional languages, he points out. "How many of the experts and government officials who tout the benefits of learning in the mother tongue send their children to these schools?" he wonders.

Reddy points to shocking statistics pertaining to Urdu-medium schools in Andhra Pradesh; for every 351 students enrolled in Urdu-medium schools, 305 drop out before they reach class ten. Among other things, the reasons for this include poor standards and shortage of teaching staff.

Udaya Narayana Singh, director of Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, says that internationally, experiments by experts have pointed to the fact that one learns best through one's mother tongue.

"My choice would be to educate the child through her mother tongue keeping a strong component of English side by side. There are numerous examples to show that a child can handle several languages — three easily, but two with great dexterity — at least until she is 13 years old," he says.