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 people 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.
  5. 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 important to understand the ‘mother tongue’ issue a bit in detail to address these contradictions.

In simple words, child’s learning in classroom depends on three things
  1. Ease of learning the language
  2. Child’s perseverance
  3. Teacher’s capacity

In high end private schools, children also use English at home, making it easy for them to pick it up. Also, such students have better support systems to help them when they fall back.

This isn’t the case with government schools. Students often don’t have support systems, increasing their probability of falling back and losing interest in studies. Teachers don’t have enough capacity to address this situation. In such context, teaching in non-mother tongue language only increases the difficulty in instruction.

Theoretically, one can address this situation by enhancing any of the three factors listed above. However, the second, child perseverance isn’t in our hands. The lack of support systems at home should only be compensated by teacher. So, ease of language taught and teacher capacity are the only remaining instruments.

The current approach is to deal the situation by changing the language of instruction. There are two issues with this approach.

One, such advocacy has now resulted in perceptions that one should never be taught in foreign language, which is not true, as seen above. One can teach in English (foreign language), if the challenges are compensated by the teachers’ efforts.

The other response of completely changing the language of instruction to English and thinking that the problem is solved, is also an issue. The situation may be worse in such case because it adds another layer of challenge to teachers without adequate capacity.

Two, such approach completely ignores the teacher aspect. One can escape this problem temporarily by changing language of instruction without addressing teacher capacity issues. But, one can’t do this longer because teacher capacity is needed for teaching higher order concepts even in mother tongue, not just for simple concepts in foreign language. There’s no escaping from that.

From a policy perspective, it may make sense to currently teach only in mother tongue, as enhancing teacher capacity takes time. But along side efforts should also be made to enhance teacher capacity and one should aim to teach English alongside mother tongue, few years down the line. We can’t keep denying the privilege English for long hiding behind mandating mother tongue instruction or changing language of instruction to English on paper. Such changes are meaningless without efforts to improve 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’.

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