By Saurov Hazarika
“I dream of an English
Full of the words of my language” – Meena Kandasamy
Flashy newsroom, rockstar anchor, dashing panellists. Debate topics range from medium of instruction to their newly-found-love for government run schools, night after night. There are striking similarities between everyone sitting inside that newsroom. Most of them have Hindu upper caste names, a heteronormative group of cis-gendered men, mainly coming from the socially and economically resourceful backgrounds, mostly from the cities. The lack of their empathy and original ideas are as noticeably visible as the lack of the diversity in that newsroom. Outside the newsroom, one of the panellists, a right-leaning dude, condescendingly writes on social media: “Why the students from village need to dream of becoming Scientists and think about making scientific breakthroughs anyways?” I read, I cringed. I looked at my reading desk. I saw Francis Crick’s What Mad Pursuit lying there. On its side, dozens of scientific research papers discussing the cutting-edge new discoveries in science. On the other desk right next to it, on the bookshelf, hundreds of more books, written by scientists, historian, fiction writers, poets, philosophers and more. The image of my younger self popped up in front of me, who was delusional enough, despite being from a village and despite going to a government-run Assamese medium school, to dream about becoming a scientist. I saw my little sister, who has just started her PhD in Mathematics, right next to me. I wanted to go back in time, hold her hands again, and tell her, “It’s okay. Don’t listen to them. You keep dreaming.”
Which language should be the medium of instruction in schools? How many languages can and should a child learn in Schools? What role does a language play in the future of a young kid in the context of India? These are all complicated questions. Perhaps they don’t have a yes or no answer. But one thing we all will agree that language plays a pivotal role in our life. While discussing the importance and the role a language plays in our life, we need to analyze it both from the point of view of basic science, i.e., neurobiology and from the point of view of social science. Also, we need to pay attention as how it takes shape, in a multi-layered fashion, in the context of India.
What is the correct age to learn a language? Can one learn a new language with similar effectiveness at any stage in life? Neurobiologists have been trying to provide a concrete answer to this question for a long time. The landmark study by Johnson and Newport in 1989, where they have studied the ability of native speakers of Korean learning English as a second language, was the first major study to that was done to answer this question. The result was in contrary to the common experience of human learning. This study first conclusively established the inverse proportionality between the age and the learning ability of a new language. As Patricia K Kuhl, a researcher at Washington University, summarized the findings of Johnson and Newport’s study: “In the domain of language, infants and young children are superior learners when compared to adults, in spite of adult’s cognitive superiority.”
In psychology, there is a term called ‘critical period’ or ‘sensitive period’. Charlotte Nickerson from Harvard university in an article “Critical Period in Brain Development and Childhood Learning” defined ‘Critical period’ as “Critical period is an ethnological term which refers to a fixed and critical time during the early development of an organism when it is able to learn things which are essential to survival.” In neurobiology, as Patricia Kuhl wrote, language is one of the classic examples of “critical” or “sensitive” period. What it signifies, in simple language, is the importance of learning a language at a certain age to master it without much hardships.
Over the years, several research groups across the globe have done the study in different settings, using different statistical models to analyze the data, with different assumptions and including different parameters. Exact nature of the Graph between the ability to learn a new language and one’s age may vary experiment to experiment and it’s still debated. But one thing most of the researcher agree on is that with age the ability to learn a new language decreases. For many years now, Scientists have been trying to provide an explanation to this result. Lenneberg’s hypothesis of “the development of the corpus callosum affected language” or Newport’s “less is more” hypothesis are among the most accepted ones. Patricia Kuhl provided the hypothesis of neural commitment that argues “neural circuitry and overall architecture develops early in infancy to detect the phonetic and prosodic patterns of speech.”
How many languages can a child learn? Should a kid learn only one language, or they can safely handle the burden of learning multiple languages? Studies (Bialystok in 1999; Wang, Kuhl, Chen, & Dong in 2009) have conclusively shown that bilingual school children show stronger specific cognitive abilities compared to monolingual school children. They have shown that cognitive flexibility increases when a group of young school children have short-term or long-term exposure to more than one language. The data also showed other benefits of having exposure to more than one language, such as tasks that require the ability to “reverse the rules” and think flexibly. On the top of that, bilingual or multilingual children develop a cognitive flexibility to remain open to language experience longer than their monolingual counterparts.
Now coming to the heart of this article: what does it say for the young students in India? From the linguistic point of view, India is situated at a very unique position. Although only 10% of the country’s population know how to speak in English, India’s higher education is mostly in English. The service sector in the country, which contributes most to its economy, is highly dominated by skilled labor force for whom the proficiency in English is of utmost importance. This makes English in India an extremely necessary skill for students to have if they want to go for higher education or they have an ambition of getting into job markets where English is a necessary requirement.
We need to be careful about while discussing the medium of instruction in India. Most of the studies that was done to check the usefulness of mother tongue in schools often ignore one very fundamental fact that becomes extremely important in case of India. Most of these studies are short term studies, meaning they were done in the span of one to three years or at most five years. Within that span of time, one can study whether the education received by the kid is active or passive, which is very important. But it doesn’t say anything about the future trajectory of that particular kid, whether the school made her ready for the world or not. An active education in school doesn’t mean anything if the kid loses all her confidence immediately after her school. I have seen several such examples personally during my college years – people losing confidence, getting depressed, feeling isolated and alienated and eventually leaving higher studies.
The elites of the country have already whole heartedly adopted English as a medium of instruction for their children. The medium of instruction in private schools are mostly in English. In schools, funded by the Central Government like Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya and Kendriya Vidyalaya, the medium of instruction is mostly English. But the medium of instruction in schools funded by different state government is mostly vernacular.
This difference in medium of instruction in their schools, can work as a huge dividing line when they go to college where the medium of instruction is mostly in English. It immediately puts one group in an advantageous position while leaving the other in a state of helplessness. In India this demarcation is so pronounced that, at times, for many that division turns out to be fatal. In general, in every country, students from various disadvantaged backgrounds, be it socio-economic, caste, gender or sexual orientation, face isolation and marginalization. In India, language gives it another dimension. Mostly, people from disadvantaged backgrounds go to state run schools, where the medium of instruction is vernacular. The addition of that linguistic dimension to the students from disadvantaged backgrounds makes them more disadvantaged compared to their counterparts in many other countries. It can severely affect them psychologically and professionally. Mental trauma, sense of isolation, loosing self-confidence, etc. are very common in this group of students.
In IITs, where the medium of instruction is English, spoken English classes are conducted for those who come from a vernacular background to improve their communication skills. That’s a healthy way to try to bring them to a level playing ground. But there is another dimension to it. Extra classes take extra time. Already they are losing time due to their psychological and mental trauma. That means the students who have learnt the language in their schools can spend more time in their engineering courses compared to the other group of students, without having that extra burden. That will eventually be reflected in their semester results, where exams are same for all and grades are mostly done in a relative fashion. The plight of students coming from vernacular backgrounds in elite Indian institutions is very well known.
What should be the medium of instruction in state run schools? In several studies, it has been shown that the use of mother tongue as the medium of instruction works best for a child. But it has been shown that even at a rural place in Kenya, schools students flourish in a multilingual school system. Considering the importance of English in India, in its job market and in its higher education system, ignoring English would be proven dangerous for the future of many young students. Dual medium could be a possible solution. But the question arises about the competence of the teachers, that is, if they are competent enough to provide the education. If not, it’s the duty of a state to provide them with necessary training and other avenues to get the required skills so that they can properly train the new generation.
Recently in Assam, the cabinet has approved an option for dual medium of instruction in government run schools. The decision has generated mixed reactions. As expected, most of the opposition come from the elite section of the society, most of whom are Hindu upper caste men. They often mock and make fun of those socially and economically disadvantaged people who ask for linguistic equity in this country. This same privileged group of people is supported by newspapers that more often than not only publish articles coming from this privileged Hindu upper caste section of the society. This response is not limited to Assam only. The same opposition can be heard in West Bengal, in Tamil Nadu, in Gujrat and in other Indian states.
Considering the case in Assam, people who are worried can be further divided into two groups. One group is worried about the possible shortcomings of this decision, such as inadequate infrastructure, incompetence of the teachers in teaching their students in a language which is almost foreign to them. This is a very valid fear. Most of these kids come from a lower-middle class or poor background. The only source of their knowledge is school. Nobody in their families or in their villages speak in English. In such a scenario, how beneficial it would be to introduce English as a medium of instruction is a matter of valid concern. There is evidence when a student is taught in a language that’s foreign to them their learning becomes passive. In my view, while dealing with rural places, the move should be slow. From what I learnt from newspapers, the changes of the medium of instruction to English is optional and it’s not enforced forcefully. Also, at first a few model schools will be selected, and the move will be tested in these schools before enforcing it to others. That also provides a window of time for the state to arrange required training and infrastructure necessary for this move.
But then the other worry has nothing to do with the future of the student, but with the Assamese language itself. There is a danger to this unsubstantiated fear and anxiety. The job of a school is to nourish a young student, preparing her with necessary intellect and skills to face the world, boosting her self-confidence and provide her an avenue where she can be happy. Once these criteria are checked, the remaining attention can be divided between other aspects like saving the language or something else. Putting Assamese language before the student is an unjust call to these young kids.
When a child is born, the immediate concern of her parents is her safety and her happiness. That is a universal human trait. The elites of the society, who have social and economic resources, have already sent their kids to private English medium schools. There is a reason for that. They know the importance of the language. The poorer section of the society doesn’t have the luxury of social and economic resources. They have to rely on the state for the future of their children. This is where things get complicated. Now it’s not one young student. They are a part of a group. While deciding their future, the nexus of elites and politicians doesn’t work the same way as when they think about the future of their own children. In a scenario like this, politicians resort to politics around the language and the elites of the society try to quell their anxiety by putting the burden of language on the shoulders of those poor children, while ignoring their personal growth and happiness. It will eventually form an uneven society. Many of those students will be angry, and rightly so, and we’ll miss a generation. A student’s job isn’t only to save their mother tongue. Their dreams are not limited to the narrow landscape of becoming an “Assamese writer.” Some of them might want to become scientists and discover the cure for cancer, while others might want to fight climate change. They have different talents and aspirations. Everyone may not have an innate linguistic ability to jump over the bridge. And neurologically some might have a shorter period of language learning age-band. Reactionary rhetoric like “Assamese culture is in danger” or “The English invasion” will discourage and demoralize all those young students who may fall into any those above-mentioned groups. We need more ‘imagination’ and ‘empathy’ while dealing with young students.
English has already proved to be a very strong ally for Dalit liberation movements. Several Dalit-Shudra intellectuals around the country have openly been writing about the importance of the language. English is no longer an imperial language but a language of emancipation. Prof. Kancha Ilaiah writes: “Over time English has become the common language of the global Science and Technology market and the overall economy. As government schools do not teach in English medium, those who study in them are denied the opportunities given to their richer counterparts in English medium schools. Students in regional language schools therefore can’t think of achieving anything in globalized economy.”
Education is the most important aspect of any modern society. While deciding about the education system in the state or in the country, we need to first place the young student in the center and all of our decisions must be directed in a way that makes her life happier and more meaningful. There can’t be any other way. Any items that can impede their ambition, confidence and happiness, must be neglected, no-matter how nostalgic we feel for those items. If we want to save our language, save our culture, there are hundred other ways. Sacrificing the future of a poor child from a small village isn’t an option.
In one of my discussions with a friend at my university, who is doing his post-doc and who comes from a socially and economically disadvantaged background, I asked him what he thinks about the government schools not teaching English to its students while the medium of all the elite private schools is in English. His reply was: “They are afraid of competition from someone like me.” Although on the surface it seems like the elites of the society want to try to save the language at the cost of a disadvantaged child’s career, it’s actually more insidious and more sinister than that. Going from the comment of that right-leaning dude on newsroom debate, what they want to do is to crush one of the most fundamental capitals we have to cling to amidst all the hopelessness – our dreams. They want to obliterate our dreams before they take a shape and terminate any possible competition their progenies might face from us.
Saurov Hazarika is a Research Scholar in the Department of Chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. He has completed MSc in Chemistry from IIT Kanpur. When he doesn’t do science, he writes essays and short stories. Apart from science, he has a keen interest in economics, literature, and movies.
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