Dialogue  April-June, 2011, Volume 12 No. 4

Language Education in India Policy and Practice

Rajendra Dixit*

As linguists define it, language is an arbitrary system of vocal and graphic symbols with which the members of a community cooperate and interact. Thus, language is an instrument of expressing one’s thoughts and feelings and seeking agreement and support, of revealing one’s need and soliciting its fulfillment, of sharing information, knowledge and wisdom and of spreading the norms of behaviour in all walks of life, personal, social and national. It is also a tool of an individual of talking to himself, at times, in his most private moments. His vocal or silent soliloquies require a language too. It is generally believed that the clarity of a person’s spoken or written expression is an unmistakable evidence of the clarity of his thought process. A good hold on language gives even a child the capacity not only to process information but also to understand, reflect and internalise and develop insight. 

Obviously, therefore, language is a social phenomenon, both impacting the society and being shaped by it in a bilateral mode. Its discreet and effective use helps form a palpable collective opinion and mood and facilitate positive behavioural initiatives within a social group. Emotive cohesion among the users of a particular language happens to be a crucial factor behind some religio-cultural and socio-political movements that may or may not always be very conducive to the human society’s welfare taken together. In a multilingual country, therefore, it is important to ensure that this emotional bonding of different language groups does not run counter to the interests and welfare of one another and the country does not suffer because of any interlingual conflicts. This would require a healthy and friendly attitude of mutual respect for others’ languages and a desire to learn some of them depending upon the individual capacity and the opportunity available.

All human beings, linguists believe, are born with an innate system of language which develops with age. With proper and adequate education this innate language structure can be developed to any level of proficiency and sophistication in a normally endowed person. But nature blesses a human being with the seed structure of only one language which in popular terms is known as the Mother Tongue or the First language. Any other language has to be implanted in the learner’s mind from outside and needs adequate nurturance in a sustained manner. This makes it necessary to have a sound policy of language education in the over all educational system of a country and a suitable action plan in the educational programme to be implemented with connection and sincerity.

In the Indian context, as in most other countries, language education occupies a prominent place in the over all educational policy. The various commissions and committees related to education in India have unequivocally laid stress on the need for providing quality language education to all the learners. All the educationists agree that the mother tongue needs to be given top priority in the system right from the first day of education and that must be the medium of instruction in subsequent years if education is expected to help the learner maximally to grow in the physical, intellectual and spiritual domains of life. We need to promote the study a second language in order to communicate outside our own language group for any practical purpose like business, tourism, cultural exchange, administration and social work. It would also bind together the citizens of a nation. But that is not enough. Human beings cannot exist as islands in themselves; they have to transcend the geographical boundaries of states and countries goaded on by their personal, cultural or business needs. For them it is imperative to learn a foreign language of their choice.

Based on these considerations, the leading educationists of India forged a Three Language Formula which was also accepted by the Indian Parliament. The government policy, the National Policy on Education (1986/92) endorses that formula and puts emphasis on its acceptance in the educational scenario of the country. The National Curriculum Frameworks prescribed the Three Language Formula in 1968, 1975-76, 1988, 2000 and 2005. In theory, even now educational forums resound with the praise of this Formula and a resolve to implement it. However, in reality even about five decades after the formulation of the ‘Three language Formula’ it is yet to be effectively implemented in its original spirit. In spite of all the changes in the socio-economic scenario, market pressures and the behaviour pattern of the Indian youth, the Formula still remains relevant.          

The Formula  

          l   The First language to be studied by a child must be the mother-   tongue or the regional language.

          l   The second language –

                   (i)   in Hindi speaking states should be some other Modern Indian language (MIL) or English, and

                  (ii)   in non-Hindi speaking states should be Hindi or English.

          l   The Third language –

                   (i)   in Hindi speaking states will be English or a Modern Indian Language (MIL) not studied as the Second language, and

                  (ii)   in non-Hindi speaking states will be English or Hindi not studied as the Second language.       

The basic objective behind the ‘Three Language Formula’ was, and still is, national unity and easy intra-state, inter-state and international communication. This necessitated that adherence to it must be ensured by the State/ Union Territory governments and the Central Government of India. Minor modifications in the Formula and its implementation in complex linguistic situation, as in some north-eastern states, for example, could, however, be permitted as per the needs and discretion of these states and within the over all spirit of the Formula.

Every child’s mother tongue or regional language has to be taught right from the first standard. In the cases where the children’s home language is different from the school language or the regional languages as is the case with dialects or tribal languages, gradual and smooth transition to the regional language is to be effected within a reasonable time at the primary stage itself. In states where the official or the associate official language of India has been accepted as the state language or first language because of the plurality of regional languages, it will have to be taught from the first standard. Provision for the teaching of mother tongue would be made for children from linguistic minorities wherever they are in adequate numbers.

As per the 1988 Curriculum Framework, “if resources are available for teaching the Second language in primary schools, the study of the second language may be introduced in a suitable grade/class at the primary stage.” This suggestion is quite valid even now. On the other hand, in states / Union Territories or organisations where only the first language is studied at the primary stage, the study of the second language must be introduced in the first year of the upper primary stage. In this context, however, what the Kothari Commission recommended still remains the best piece of counsel. It says, “The stage at which Hindi or English should be introduced on a compulsory basis as a second language and the period for which it should be taught will depend on local motivation and need, and should be left to the discretion of each state.” {(8.33(5)}.

The National Curriculum Framework (2000) recommends that during the first two years of the primary level, children have to be specially helped to get the basic language skills of listening, speaking, reading, writing and thinking. Special attention must be paid to the process of standardisation of pronunciation according to the prevailing norms. In the same manner, the skill of good handwriting, correct spelling and the habit of silent reading with comprehension are also to be developed besides nurturing in the children the ability for creative self expression.

At the upper level, learners’ competence in both the languages has to be strengthened further so that they are able to acquire real life skills for their day-to-day life. In their first languages, they have to be introduced to the various forms of literature. They should cultivate enough competence to react in speech and in writing to whatever they read and listen to. Balanced emphasis on both the applied side and the metaphorical aspects of the language will have to be laid. The ability to think creatively on one’s own and express these thoughts effectively ought to be encouraged and nurtured through language teaching. The oral form of language should be adequately taken care of. At this stage, applied or practical grammar should be given so that it may develop the students’ insight into the nature, structure and functions of the language.

The study of the third language should also begin at the upper primary stage. However, the states or organisations should decide for themselves the particular class / grade in which it is to be introduced. The study of all the three languages must continue upto the end of the secondary stage, i.e. class X.

At the secondary stage, i.e., in classes IX and X, full control over the applied form of the first language and good acquaintance with its literary form should be the target. Learners have to achieve maturity in oral and written expression in response to what they listen to or read. Understanding and appreciating the depth and diversities of human mind through literary texts in prose and poetry ought to be secured among the students. Learning of grammar is to be systematically strengthened to facilitate the understanding and use of the subtle usages of language. Desirable attitudes and values ought to be inculcated through carefully selected language materials. This, high order communication skills in the first language, with grammatical accuracy and appropriateness of style must be suitably emphasised as the central objectives of first language learning at this stage.

In English, Hindi and other modern Indian language studied as Second language in secondary classes, the capacity to use the language in speech and writing whenever needed in life, and read it with reasonable speed for information and pleasure would be the most important objective. Grammar is not to be taught as a theoretical paper for its own sake. It should be taught as practical or functional grammar in context with the minimum of theory.

In this way, more and more aural and oral skills of language are to be emphasised at the primary stage; all the skills of reading writing, thinking, listening and speaking are to be given in a balanced manner by the end of the upper primary stage, and slightly more attention is to be paid to the skills of reading and writing at the secondary stage. The most crucial and ultimate task of language education as all these levels remains to prepare the learners to use the languages effectively in speech and writing whenever and wherever required in their life situations of all sorts.

The Study of Sanskrit

The national policy on education (1986/92) lays emphasis on the study of Sanskrit as it is still inextricably linked with the life, rituals, ceremonies and festivals of vast Indian masses. It is a window on the rich cultural, philosophical, artistic and scientific past of India.

Though Sanskrit should not be introduced as an independent subject under the ‘Three Language Formula’, it may be introduced as part of a composite course of Hindi and the regional languages as mother tongue at a suitable point of the primary or the upper primary stage. It is to be so planned that the study of Sanskrit may not be ignored. At the secondary stage, Sanskrit may be offered as an additional option and at the higher secondary stage suitable elective courses in Sanskrit may be made available to all those students who wish to study it. Open school courses for Sanskrit may also be designed for learners at all levels. A major shift in designing Sanskrit courses and transacting curriculum in the subject is that the language is to be treated not as a ‘classical’ language but as a living phenomenon which is still relevant to the general life needs of the people of India.

Foreign Language

In the globalised world of today, because of the fast increasing cooperation and interaction in educational, cultural, socio-political and economic matters, the need for learning more and more foreign languages like French, German, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Persian and Spanish has been felt. These languages cannot be learnt under the Three Language Formula. However if there is a pressing demand for the provision of instruction of them and the schools have the requisite resources available with them, these foreign languages may be offered as additional options at the secondary stage.

Emphasis on effective language teaching has been laid in our educational policy not to provide meaningful learning in the concerned languages alone but also to ensure the learners’ emotional, cognitive and social development. The Three Language Formula was originally meant to promote national integration and facilitate inter-state and international communication. Subsequently, in order to assuage the anti-Hindi feelings in the south it was suggested as a matter of policy that under the ‘Three Language Formula’ students from the Hindi speaking areas would study one of the south Indian languages while the southern states would make their students learn Hindi as the second or the third language.

The Present Scenario              

Although the policy recommendations in the foregoing paragraphs, majorly borrowed from the National Policy on Education (1986/92) and the National Curriculum Framwork for School Education (2000), are still relevant in principle, the ground realities in the field of language education are for from being in conformity with these. The weakening emotion of nationalism in the glare of globalisation, political prejudices and imaginary fears, the vested interests and the blitz of westernised modernity have all conspired to ignore the true spirit of the Three Language Formula and the other recommendations.

The most callous violation of the policy directive is the practice of making English the medium of instruction right from the play school stage. The mother tongue or first language has been thrown into the dustbin, especially by the so-called ‘good’ schools and the craze of making English the school language has reached even the remote villages. This is gradually creating a ‘languageless’ society around us as while the mother tongue is criminally neglected, English is not being learnt well enough to empower the learner in any sense.

Not all states are providing education in three languages up to the secondary stage. Some states stick to their political decision of giving education only in two languages, the state language and English. In the Hindi speaking states the spirit of the ‘Three Language Formula’ is diluted by providing for the study of Sanskrit in the place of any other modern Indian language. Some prestigious Boards of School Education allow students to pass the secondary school examination with only English and a foreign language like French, German or Spanish. These students avoid learning Hindi or any regional language.

Then, despite the fact that the spoken form of languages has increasingly become very important from the employment point of view and for success in the field of business and management, the traditional concept of content ridden, formal and bookish language teaching reigns in most of the schools throughout India. Although they talk a lot about communicative competence and functional language teaching in academic gatherings, the language class rooms generally witness conventional teacher centered and text-book based teaching. Language courses are mainly dominated by history of literature and routine literary texts. Spoken language skills are neither taught nor examined as facilities for these are generally non-existent in both the average and the ‘good’ schools. These days since science and technology, engineering and medicine are at the centre of most of our educational endeavours, language education is not getting adequate attention of educational planners, administrators and managers. All these factors are responsible for the rather unsatisfactory status of language education in this country.

There are also certain issues and challenges of a genuine nature that need educationists’ immediate attention. Our language classrooms are not capable of coping with the fast changing language forms today. The language of the SMSs and emails is sometimes shockingly anomalous and defy all orthographic and structural norms of the language as we generally know. Is our language teaching expected to cater to the demands of this twisted format of the new language? Is the vocabulary and structure going to sustain the load of the unrestricted borrowings from whatever is happening in our surroundings? Are we going to treat the norms of practical grammar at all? Our language planners will have to struggle hard and find answers to some of these questions.

All this does not suggest that we should be extremely rigid followers of the policies and norms. As already stated, necessary modifications in the system may be introduced after due consideration. The basic principles behind the policy, however, must be honoured and our practices may be tailored suitably to these changing needs of the times.       


*   Rajendra Dixit, Retd. Professor and Head of the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities, N.C.E.R.T., New Delhi.  



Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati