The three-language formula is a bad idea
On June 3, an expert panel submitted the draft New Education Policy (NEP) to the human resource development (HRD) ministry. The draft required students from non-Hindi states to study Hindi and English apart from the regional languages. This move led to a controversy, with several political parties from the south and Maharashtra protesting the move.
A day later, the Centre tweaked the draft to say: “In keeping with the principle of flexibility, students who wish to change one or more of the three languages they are studying may do so in Grade 6 or Grade 7, so long as they are able to still demonstrate proficiency in three languages (one language at the literature level) in their modular Board Examinations some time during secondary school”. However, this tweak has not addressed the basic flaws in the proposed policy.
In an interview, Dhir Jhingran, founder director of Language and Learning Foundation, and a former IAS officer who worked as director in the ministry of HRD, and principal secretary, education, Government of Assam, explains why the three-language formula (which has become politically controversial) is a bad idea in the present form with regard to children actually acquiring language skills.
HT: How is the three-language formula proposed in the Draft NEP 2019 different from the earlier formulation of the 1968 and 1986 education policies?
DJ: The draft NEP 2019 has suggested that children should learn three languages from the foundational stage (early childhood education) so that they are able to develop speaking proficiency and reading ability in all the three languages by grade 3, i.e. age 8 or 9. Earlier policies did not stipulate learning of three languages in early primary grades and the third language was often introduced much later, say in middle school. Of course, it has also revived the three-language approach, which had almost been shelved in practice.
HT: Is the proposed three-language formula based on sound language learning principles?
DJ: The basis for the three-language formula used in the draft policy is flawed. The draft NEP argues that children between two and eight years of age learn languages quickly, and therefore, should be immersed in three languages from the foundational stage so that they can learn to read in all three languages by Grade 3 (P4.5.3). There are at least three major problems in this argument:
First, the drafting committee seems to have confused language acquisition and language learning. There is considerable research evidence to show that young children can acquire multiple languages when there is adequate and appropriate exposure to them through natural and meaningful communication of the type that happens at home when they acquire their first language. There is no evidence to show that young children have a strong facility of ‘learning’ additional and unfamiliar languages that are taught formally in school through textbooks and teacher-led instruction with examinations. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that older children, ages 10 and above, are better equipped to learn additional languages through classroom instruction.
Second, it is widely recognised that children should first develop oral proficiency in communication while learning additional and unfamiliar languages and learning of new scripts should be postponed until much later. Under the revised three-language formula suggested by NEP 2019, children will be expected, in most cases, to learn three different scripts within the first three years of joining school, e.g. in a state where Hindi is the medium of instruction, a child will be learning Devanagari for Hindi, a different one for another Indian language and the Roman script for English.
This will be a very heavy cognitive burden on a young child of five to seven years as each of the Indian languages has a very large number of visual units (aksharas) between 400 and 700, to be mastered in two to three years’ time. This formulation is developmentally inappropriate for young children and cannot be allowed to form part of the final policy.
Several surveys, like ASER, have shown that a vast majority of children are failing to learn to read with comprehension even in one language and script by Grade 3. It is completely unrealistic to expect children to acquire oral fluency and reading skills in three different languages by Grade 3.
Third, the draft rightly recognises (Section 4.5) the importance and recommends using children’s home languages or local languages as medium of instruction in the early years. How does the proposed three-language formula dovetail with the recommendation of starting early childhood and primary education in the local language?
For example, we know very well that standard Hindi used in school texts is not the mother tongue of most children in the ‘so-called’ Hindi-speaking states. This would imply four languages being taught in the first three years of school education, viz. a local language, Hindi, another Indian language and English (in Hindi-speaking states)!
HT: Is it feasible to implement such a policy throughout the country?
DJ: We know very well that the earlier three-language formula was not implemented properly in most parts of the country. Certain states in South India did not include Hindi and most ‘Hindi-speaking’ states did not include other regional languages in their state curriculums. To expect that this will now happen in early childhood and Grades 1 to 3 of primary education is beyond the realm of possibility. It is bound to fail again.
HT: What is your opinion about making Hindi compulsory as one of the three languages in South India?
DJ: The focus in primary education should be on using the children’s home language, ensuring that they develop strong oral and reading and writing proficiency in the language used as the medium of instruction (the state language) and some oral understanding and limited speaking skills in English.
While introducing English in Grade 1 is not ideal, it is here to stay.
A third or fourth language should not be formally introduced at the primary stage, given the completely inappropriate way languages are taught formally in our classrooms. For such a language, the target could be for developing some oral proficiency through exposure to natural and communication-oriented exposure to the language in Grade 6 or later.
Also, this additional language should not be a mandatory requirement and the choice should depend on the child or parent or the school. In that context, it is inappropriate to make teaching-learning of Hindi compulsory in states that do not see it as a necessary for children to succeed during or after school or are opposed to it on other grounds. If anything, Hindi could be one option among other languages for developing oral communication proficiency in middle or secondary school.
HT: So, what do you think is an appropriate formulation for the language policy?
DJ: We should begin by oral language development in the language the child understands well, viz. the home or local language, during early childhood education and early primary grades. Then build strong reading and writing skills (by Grade 3) in the language used as medium of instruction in the State. English should, initially, be taught only in an oral, communicative manner until Grade 3. Additional languages could be introduced from middle school as options by giving choice to students, parents and schools.