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.

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.

In general, schools using regional languages as the medium of instruction have come to be associated with poor quality, mainly because most are government run and hence not held accountable. "These are also schools that have little by way of infrastructure," says Singh, adding that English-medium schools, on the other hand, are far better off in terms of funds and facilities. As a result, government schools using regional languages are seen as the resort of those with no other options, mostly children hailing from poor families.

Ravi Kumar, associate fellow at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, who has studied and written on education extensively, says that parents, in both rural and urban areas, prefer English-medium schools. "What I have seen in villages in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh or Bihar is that though the schools may be shabby and the children wearing unclean clothes, they will all be wearing a tie. That's indicative of the aspirations of their families, of their desire to be integrated into the larger global order," he adds.

Little wonder then that all schools have to do is add 'English' to their names for parents to admit their wards there. "Private schools are making huge profits out of the government's failure by luring children by providing English as a medium of instruction," says Reddy. "Our experiences with the children studying in English-medium private schools have revealed that they don't get proper education either in English or in their mother tongue. The reasons for this vary from school to school, district to district. But in most of the cases, unqualified teachers and unfriendly teaching methods are responsible for this state of affairs." Singh adds that even the English teachers he met in various schools were unclear on the concepts.

Shailendra Kumar Sharma of the non-government organisation Pratham, which makes use of a learning technique based on phonetics to teach children to read, says that their teaching method involves using storytelling sessions and games. On the other hand, having seen teachers in Delhi's municipal schools, Sharma says that even teaching English as a subject is a "nightmare" for many of them. However, Pratham's all-India survey on reading and arithmetic skills of children pointed to no major differences between the learning levels of children in private schools (mostly English-medium) and government ones (mostly in regional languages), he adds.

Future imperfect

While the government pays lip service to the idea of teaching and learning in the mother tongue, the truth is that most students have to know English to do well in higher education. Says Kumar, "I agree with educationists that the child understands better in the mother tongue, but they don't do well later. As a counterpoint, some people will say that people from Bihar, who are taught in Hindi, do well in the civil services examinations. But the exception cannot be taken as the rule." Kumar explains that while a student may perform well in a Hindi medium school, he or she may be at a disadvantage later. "How does that student compare to, say, someone from DPS [Delhi Public School]?" he wonders. It's not just about the language; the resources available to a student in Hindi medium are likely to be less as well. "In the Jawaharlal Nehru University, a sociology student will learn Subaltern Studies. In Rajasthan, even the teachers wouldn't have heard of the subject," rues Kumar.

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

Jalaluddin points out that while some higher education courses are available in regional languages, the demand for these is less. "For instance, there is B Ed (Bachelor of Education) in Hindi and in English. Students who have done the course in English get jobs easily, but not those who have studied in Hindi," he says. The lack of translation of texts is also a major problem. "In the late 1950s, the Government of India kept aside a fund of one crore rupees in each state for translation but it's not known how that fund was used. There is no grant for translating textbooks or literature," he adds.

Singh, however, says that the Central Government is seriously considering a recommendation of the National Knowledge Commission, a body constituted to "sharpen India's knowledge edge", to set up a National Translation Mission. "There has been a significant rise in the use of English in each discipline in the last 50 years. Most advanced countries have invested tremendously in ensuring that this knowledge is available in their regional languages too," he says.

That this is a lesson India would do well to emulate is clear from the high drop-out rates in Urdu-medium schools. Take the situation in Hyderabad, for instance. As Jalaluddin says, "The Nizams spent a lot of money in nurturing Urdu as a medium. Translations of Urdu monographs are available in the Osmania University, where even a post-graduate course could be done in Urdu at one time. But instead of making use of that, Urdu as a language was neglected. In Urdu-medium schools, vacancies of teachers are not filled and textbooks don't reach on time."

To script a success story

Given the multitude of problems and the diversity of languages, the medium of instruction remains a topic of impassioned debate. Language is seen as a factor fuelling nationalistic pride; in Tamilnadu, for instance, the government introduced a rule in 2000 saying the mother tongue should be the sole medium of instruction, which the high court later struck down.

Despite governments trying to kindle linguistic pride, the fact remains that many parents still see English as the language that could help their wards find employment. The tendency to dismiss other languages is worrying experts, who are unsure about the success of multilingualism in India. Common questions include whether the mother tongue is being neglected and English unduly favoured; whether the literature and culture in regional languages are being forgotten in schools; and whether today's students lack strong foundations in at least one language, be it English or a regional language. Such questions cannot be tackled in isolation — for, as experts point out, better knowledge of a language can come only with better teachers and teaching methods.

The National Curriculum Framework seems to have made its position clear regarding the vexed problem of deciding whether the mother tongue should be used to teach children who use a different dialect or language. Knowledge has to be made available in tribal languages, says the framework, a recommendation that was seconded in a workshop conducted by the Central Institute of Indian Languages on the subject last year. Another demand is that the teachers should hail from the tribal communities.

Yet, all this is easier said than done. As Jalaluddin points out, "A large number of students speak dialects other than their mother tongue. The Santhals, for instance, are spread across several states such as West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar. But the Santhali language doesn't follow a single script and instead uses Bengali, Devanagari or Ol Chiki. It's not feasible to have textbooks in different scripts as translations will take a long time."

Singh, however, feels that unnecessary fuss is being made about the lack of a script in certain languages. Any script can be extended to present the sounds of a language without a written form, he says. Many languages in the north-east use the Assamese script, so if there is no psychological clash with the language, there are ways in which the sounds of a particular language can be presented in an existing script, he adds.