On instruction in mother tongue

There is a general consensus these days that children should be taught in mother tongue at least in their initial years of education. The rationale is that children can comprehend better if they are taught in a language that they already speak at home. It seems intuitively reasonable argument but not without contradictions:

  1. Most scholars who advocate mother tongue instruction send their kids only to English medium schools.
  2. It may argued that mother tongue instruction rationale is only for 1st generation kids. But, there are examples where 1st generation learners learnt to cope up, even when taught in English.
  3. There’s an emerging trend in US to teach 2 languages to children.
  4. There’s also research suggesting that bilingualism is advantageous, though people differ on the extent of advantage.

Most of all, the mother tongue instruction doesn’t align with the aspirational parents, who see English as a symbol of emancipation. Surely, one shouldn’t be denying some the benefits of English, while sending one’s own kids to English medium schools.

It is thus important to understand the ‘mother tongue’ issue in detail to address these contradictions.

Simplifying a bit, a child’s learning in classroom depends on three inter-related things

  1. Ease of learning the language
  2. Teacher’s capacity
  3. Child’s perseverance

In high end private schools, children use English at home too, making it easy for them to pick it up (1). Personal attention of teachers (2) and better support structures at home (3) help students in case if they fall back.

In case of government schools, where students don’t speak the language of instruction at home, the foreign language adds extra burden. Usually, such burden has to be addressed by teachers and support structures at home. In cases, when both the support structures at home and school are weak, learning in foreign language is relatively difficult as compared to mother tongue.

The results of studies showing better outcomes when taught in mother tongue should be understood in this context, acknowledging that teacher capacity and support structures at home are also crucial factors determining learning, not just students' ability.

The appropriate inference from such studies combined with examples of such students picking up English is that the difficulty in learning through English is not necessarily because students can’t learn in English, it’s because we can’t teach in English and provide adequate support.

Merely saying that teaching in English leads to poor outcomes puts the blame unfairly on students.

The question thus is not — whether students can learn — it is — whether we can teach. Taught in appropriate manner, children can learn all languages.

From a policy perspective, it thus becomes an issue of whether we have the capacity to teach and the time it takes tobuild such capacity.

We can’t have teachers who don’t know English teaching students who don’t know English, in English.

Similarly, we can’t deny English education just because we can’t build teacher capacity. English is too important to be left out of education. Words of a Telangana bureaucrat leading 268 social medium schools illustrate this

English is a language of emancipation. The poor are scared of those who speak English. They feel like slaves. We wanted to bust that stereotype. The parents feel like they have been excluded from the language for 2,000 years, and want their children to occupy that space, which has only been the domain of the ‘elite’.

The appropriate path is to make children proficient in mother tongue reading and writing by 3rd or 4th grade and introduce English before 5th grade and aim to make them proficient in English too by 6th to 7th grade maximum. This is under current capacity. In future we should able to do this even quicker.

Overall, we must find a way to make students acquire fluency in English by the time they leave school. Restricting them to vernaculars due to our incapacity and later denying them access to quality higher education by conducting entrance exams only in English and higher education only in English, is an unacceptable sin.

Finally, we must note that students are taught in their mother tongue in majority of government schools. Outcomes are pathetic even there. So, one must just keep in mind that there are deeper issues than language of instruction plaguing our system. Merely changing language of instruction may not help much.