Published: 20th February 2023
International Mother Language Day, February 21: On undermining India's linguistic diversity and push for English-medium education
Recognising the need to mainstream mother tongue education, UNESCO has identified “multilingual education — a necessity to transform education” as the theme of the 2023 edition
Every year since 2000, February 21 is observed all over the world as International Mother Language Day (IMLD). In 1999, UNESCO announced it as a special day to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. UNESCO’s announcement was in acknowledgement of the martyrdom of students of the University of Dhaka who in 1952 sacrificed their lives demanding the recognition of their mother language, Bangla, as one of the national languages of East Pakistan, in addition to Urdu.
The deaths of students in police firing provoked widespread civil unrest, and after years of strife, the official language issue was finally settled in 1956 with the amendment of the Constitution of Pakistan to recognize “Urdu and Bengali” as “the state languages of Pakistan.” However, the government’s continued efforts to promote Urdu as the sole national language led first to the demand for East Pakistan to be renamed Bangladesh and eventually to the Bangladesh Liberation War. The rest is well-known history.
A similar insensitivity towards language diversity and a misguided belief in the one nation, one language policy plagued another neighbouring country. In Sri Lanka, the implementation of the Official Language Act of 1956 (known as the Sinhala Only Act) led to discrimination against Tamil, the language of nearly 30% of the country’s population, and eventually became the root cause of the island nation’s three-decade-long civil war.
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It would be instructive to contrast India’s attitude towards the plurality of languages. When the Indian Constitution was adopted in 1950, 14 languages were included in the VIII Schedule giving all of them official status, and no language was given the status of a national language. Four years later when the Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters, was established by the Government of India, it was mandated to “foster and co-ordinate literary activities in all the Indian languages.” The message is clear: plurality is India’s strength, and uniformity can never bring unity.
However, neither the guiding spirit of the Constitution nor the lessons of recent history seems to deter attempts to obscure and undermine the linguistic diversity of the country. While categorizing all languages with less than 10,000 speakers as ‘others’ by the Census of 1971 was an early warning sign of the policy direction, the grouping of more than 50 ‘mother tongues’ (some of them spoken by over five crore people) under the Hindi ‘language’ in the 2011 Census is a recent example of the effort to skew the data to project Hindi as the most acceptable claimant to the national language status.
Employing an arbitrary and retrograde classificatory system, the Census of India makes artificial distinctions between mother tongue and language, and language and dialect. As a result, according to the Census of 2011, India has only 121 languages and 270 mother tongues. In contrast, more than a century ago, the Irish linguist George Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India described 179 languages and 544 dialects while the more recent People’s Linguistic Survey of India identified 780 living languages in India.
Education is another domain where the spirit of the Constitution is flagrantly violated. Article 350A of the Indian Constitution enjoins all states and local authorities “to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother-tongue at the primary stage of education to children.” Further, the Right to Education Act of 2009 (Section 29 (f) of Chapter V) clearly states that the “medium of instruction shall, as far as practicable, be in child’s mother tongue.”There is enough research to show that education in the mother tongue enhances inclusion, and improves learning, academic performance, and socio-emotional development. A series of educational policy documents, including the recent National Education Policy 2020, endorse this.
While all evidence is in favour of mother tongue education and multilingualism, all practice, however, has been towards other tongue education and monolingualism. Instead of exploiting the rich multilingual resource of the country and using mother tongue education to bridge inequalities of access to knowledge, competitive populism has led to the implementation of an English-only policy. Parental and societal demand for English-medium education is used by governments as an explanation to conceal their failure to create awareness and livelihood opportunities and to cloak the ulterior motive of reaping quick political gains.
A poorly funded education system with inadequate human resources is hardly equipped to meet the demands of the indiscriminate push for English-medium education. The likely consequences of rote learning and the enervation of mother tongues will undermine the very objectives of meaningful education — creativity and critical thinking.
Recognising the need to mainstream mother tongue education, UNESCO has identified “multilingual education — a necessity to transform education” as the theme of the 2023 edition of International Mother Language Day. It further states that “transforming education through multilingual education based on mother tongue is a necessity in our fast-evolving global contexts.” Let us hope that IMLD 2023 will not become an occasion to display the brawn of the dominant languages but an opportunity to explore the possibility of using the transformative power of mother tongue-based multilingual education to create a knowledge society.
Vijay Kumar Tadakamalla
(The author currently teaches at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad)