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Cover Story: Language Imperialism

Language in education: There's power in multilingualism

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-

In a classroom of a school in Ajmer, Rajasthan. What NEP 2020, like most earlier policies, does not appreciate is the fact that each child arrives in school with her unique verbal repertoire and all classes are by default multilingual with a diversity of languages and language varieties represented in them.

To address the issue of language in education, we first need to abandon the elite concept of a ‘pure and standard’ language. All languages are equally systematic and fluid, and we should be able to talk of Sanskrit and Santali in the same breath and with the same respect.

One important part of the National Educational Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) focusses on ‘Multilingualism and the power of language’ (sections 4.11 to 4.22). It is not clear, however, what it understands either by multilingualism or the power of language or the relation between them. In fact, the policy celebrates the status quo with some rhetoric added. It is substantially a repetition of the NEPs of 1968 and 1986 (revised 1992) so far as the issues of mother tongue, three-language formula, regional languages, and such languages of power as Hindi and English are concerned. It refuses to look at the National Curriculum Framework (2005) and trivialises both multilingualism and the power of language. As Papia Sengupta (2021, EPW, 56.43, pp. 45-52) has argued, because of its definitional problems, the languages of minorities and those of the Northeast, in particular, are completely marginalised; it should therefore come as no surprise that the dropout rate in these regions is the highest at the primary and secondary levels. We need to work on a theoretically grounded pedagogy that treats the languages of learners as a resource and uses them as a platform for acquiring methods of scientific enquiry; we also need to ensure high levels of proficiency in the languages of extant knowledge in a way that leaners are encouraged to not only translate that knowledge into their own languages but also bring to light knowledge systems encoded in their own languages and enrich others with refreshing creativity.

‘Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat’

A substantial part of NEP 2020 is a celebration of the Ek Bharat shreshtha Bharat [One India, supreme India] programme and the Sanskrit language. Every student of the country is to participate in this meta-narrative of ‘glorious India’ with a ‘fun project/activity’ so that a ‘common spirit of understanding resonates throughout the country’. The remarkable unity of the country is also noticed in ‘most of the major Indian languages, their common phonetic and scientifically arranged alphabets and scripts, their common grammatical structures, their origins and sources of vocabulary from Sanskrit and other classical languages …’ (4.16).

A linguistic and sociolinguistic area

India is indeed a linguistic and sociolinguistic area; there are structural and sociolinguistic features that are shared across languages and cultures; but this is true not just of ‘major Indian languages’ but of all Indian languages. For example, except for Khasi, they are all, unlike English, verb-final; most Indian languages also use full or partial word reduplication such as ghar-ghar (every house, distributive meaning) and chay-vay (tea and snacks, etcetera meaning). At the sociolinguistic level, communities across India share politeness strategies such as the use of honorific pronouns. India has become a linguistic and sociolinguistic area because of the fluidity of its languages and cultures. In spite of this, almost every language has its unique properties too. The grass-roots level shreshtha bharat is located in multilinguality, which celebrates the human faculty of language and respects all its diverse manifestations and their fluidity. To privilege one language or one text in a country which is so fundamentally multilingual, multicultural and multi-religious would be a grave error.

Also read: Hindi card for a Hindu Rashtra

NEP 2020’s concept of multilingualism seems to be linear and additive. Multilingualism at the grass-roots level in India, as elsewhere, is not of the type L1+L2+L3, and so on. It, in fact, has two features which may appear superficially contradictory. It has domain specificity, that is, there is a functional separation between dominant languages to be used in given domains; Sanskrit may be the language of worship, birth, matrimony and death, and English the language of higher education and social mobility. But there are also several domains that are marked by language fluidity and mixing, as for example among friends and in the street. Also note that ‘Sanskrit’ and ‘English’ or other languages are our constructs; in reality they also exist(ed) as multilinguality.

Multiplicity of borrowings

There is no doubt that several languages of North India are closely related to Sanskrit; it is also true that many languages have borrowed extensively from Sanskrit. But we should not forget that the prosperity of Sanskrit, Panini’s grammar and Vedic literature is only indicative of the multiplicity of languages that must have been present at that point of time. India has several officially recognised classical languages, including Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Odia. Tolkappiyam is a Tamil grammar that is as systematic and well-organised as Panini’s Ashtadhyayi. The interaction between Dravidian and Indo-Aryan languages is one of the oldest demonstrations of Indian multilingualism and conceptualising language as multilinguality. It is indeed true, as NEP 2020 says, that Dravidian languages have borrowed lexical items from Sanskrit. But it is equally true that Sanskrit and the modern Indo-Aryan languages owe several phonological and grammatical features to the Dravidian languages. Indo-Aryan owes the retroflex consonantal series (the T-varg that is) to Dravidian. We need to abandon the elite concept of a ‘pure and standard’ language; all languages are equally systematic and all are equally fluid to be defined as multilinguality. We should be able to talk of Sanskrit and Santali in the same breath and with the same respect. Given this, there is no reason to suggest that Indian languages ‘are among the richest, most scientific, most beautiful, and most expressive in the world’. An educated person needs to understand what language is about, and that all languages of the world are equally scientific, beautiful and expressive. Santali remains ‘poor’ because we unjustly believe that there are things that cannot be done in Santali. There was a time when people thought the same about English and many writers like John Milton (1608-74) felt they should write their best work in Latin. It is time we stop looking at language issues in education through the prism of Sanskrit, Hindi, English and the Eighth Schedule alone. When languages brought into the classroom by learners are used as data for scientific analysis, teachers and students will automatically appreciate the systematic nature of all languages.

Language as democracy

Linguistically speaking, it is in the world of languages that true democracy obtains; it is here, as Sapir observed in his characteristic manner, “when it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam”. And yet our attention is drawn to the “importance, relevance and beauty” of Sanskrit, which “possesses a classical literature that is greater in volume than that of Latin and Greek put together” and hence Sanskrit language and knowledge systems will be “offered at all levels of school and higher education” (4.17). At least two years between Grade 6 and 12 will be spent in the study of a classical language. Other languages are largely “also languages”, for which modules will be offered online (4.18). Foreign languages will be offered at the secondary level so that students can “learn about the cultures of the world” and enhance their global knowledge and mobility across the world (4.20). These languages include “Korean, Japanese, Thai, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian”, but for obvious reasons exclude widely spoken languages like Arabic and Chinese.

Use of mother tongue

The most significant part of the language section is its recommendations about the use of ‘mother tongue’ (4.11), but as is the case with most earlier policies, it fails to address the real issue. NEP 2020 hits the nail on the head when it says that non-trivial concepts are best understood in the mother tongue/home language/language spoken by local community (mark the use of slashes; these could in many cases be different languages).

‘Non-trivial concepts’ get increasingly complex as students move to higher classes; it should follow that the medium of education will be language(s) they understand well. But NEP 2020, like most earlier policies, has an important rider of “wherever possible”, in addition to other riders of “until at least Grade 5”, “but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond” and here regional language is added to the list of slashed languages.

It is also suggested that “teachers will be encouraged to use a bilingual approach”; there is not even an awareness that in contemporary sociology of language ‘bilingualism’ and ‘multilingualism’ are used interchangeably. What is also not appreciated is the fact that each child arrives in school with her unique verbal repertoire and all classes are by default multilingual with a diversity of languages and language varieties represented in them.

It has now become possible to work with a pedagogy that is rooted in multilinguality, that is, treat the classroom as a space where every student can use her language and reflect over it in addition to ensuring that students gain high levels of proficiency in one or two languages in which materials are currently available. Our education system must ensure high levels of proficiency in such languages as English, Hindi and regional languages of different States, irrespective of whether the so-called three language formula is followed or not.

Also read: 'All our languages are losing linguistic prowess'

Our schools are always in a hurry to teach English; we end up with students with abysmally low levels of proficiency in all the languages they know. Research has shown that cognitively oriented language proficiency, which ensures properties of cohesion and coherence in a discourse, is transferable to other languages. We must focus on the languages known to learners. Absence of materials is generally the reason given to avoid these languages. But all the material that is needed is there with the learners. We need to find ways to use it in such a way that students gain high levels of proficiency in their languages first. That is the only way to ensure that the languages of the learners are empowered while also ensuring the much-needed high levels of proficiency in English. Underprivileged students will then be able to seek spaces of subversion equipped with both the language of the oppressor and their own languages.

Notice that in this kind of pedagogy, languages of the learners are treated as a resource; the data they collect themselves is critically examined in peer groups, as they engage in cognitively challenging scientific analysis. Their languages are not dismissed as boli s, dialects or dehati but treated with the same respect and dignity as the ‘major languages’. Code-mixing, translation and translanguaging are treated not as exceptions but norms of human linguistic behaviour.

What students learn in different domains of knowledge at school, they will be able to translate in their languages at home, just as they will bring to school knowledge systems encoded in their languages. That is the relationship between multilingualism and power; respect for multilingualism ensures that epistemic power is not appropriated and monopolised by a handful of languages.

Three-language formula

In spite of its dismal failure across the country, NEP 2020 again recommends the implementation of the three-language formula. This formula was originally conceptualised in terms of a South-North divide wherein the solution proposed was that every North Indian would learn a South Indian language and South Indians would learn Hindi; the East, West and in particular the Northeast were short-changed in this whole debate. In actual fact, in general, North Indians opted for Sanskrit as a third language (in addition to Hindi and English) whereas South Indians decided to manage with their regional languages and English. Why should one try to impose such a failed straitjacket proposal on a country with enormous linguistic and cultural diversity? If we really wish to respect the languages learners bring to school, we must opt, as suggested above, for a pedagogy rooted in multilinguality.

Nothing unique about India

Given that language is constitutive of being human and the fact that it structures our thought, knowledge and creativity, one expected a more nuanced treatment of language in NEP 2020, standing as it does on the shoulders of other policy documents and NCF 2005. As Noam Chomsky (2016, page 6) says, language is “typically innovative without bounds, appropriate to circumstances but not caused by them ” (italics mine). And yet all our thinking, policies, curriculum and pedagogies about language are rooted in the communication model constructed in terms of ‘a language’. All societies are essentially multilingual. This is as much true of the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Germany as it is of India. It is true that Western social engineering creates the mirage of ‘monolinguality’, ignoring hundreds of languages available in each one of these countries.

Also read: The myth of ‘Hindi heartland’

Language as represented in the human brain has no name; it is an abstraction that structures and constrains all its manifestations. In its manifestations, it declares its fluidity through mixing, switching and translanguaging. Social groups are more like South Africa (14 national languages) or the proverbial Papua New Guinea (851 languages). Or, in fact, they are more like India. The Census of 2011 counts 19,569 claimed mother tongues which have been rationalised into 1,369 languages. If we wish to sustain such diversity and respect the ‘mother tongue’ slogan in spirit, we must think about pedagogies that respect the languages of learners. Let us counter the task of subsuming even major languages under the name of, say, Hindi. Hindi subsumes over 55 different languages; not just languages spoken by a few thousand people but well-established languages spoken by millions of people. Some of these languages are a part of our great heritage. Why would one want to subsume, say, Brajbhasha (the language of Surdas, Khusrau and Gurudas) and Awadhi (the language of Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas ) under Hindi? Mothers of Hindi should not be seen as its dialects. Such is the damage power can do in the domain of language.

Rama Kan t Agnihotri retired as Professor and Head, Department of Linguistics, University of Delhi, and is currently Professor Emeritus, Vidya Bhawan Society, Udaipur.

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