Beyond the Language Tussle

Posted by Tejaswini Niranjana at Dec 10, 2014 02:08 PM |
It might be more productive to see the ongoing Sanskrit versus German controversy as a welcome opportunity to discuss the real and persistent problems of our education system, not all of which have to do with which languages children get to learn.

The Op-ed was published in the Hindu on December 6, 2014.


The ongoing Sanskrit vs. German controversy is being seen by some as the sign of a sinister conspiracy to change educational options, and by others as a much-needed corrective to bring back “Indian culture” into the schools. It might be more productive to see it instead as a welcome opportunity to discuss the real and persistent problems of our education system, not all of which have to do with which languages children get to learn. The attempt to implement the teaching of Sanskrit in schools seems to be supported by a remarkably uninformed view about what sort of language policy we require today. And this is not to say that previous governments had any greater insight into how to handle either the medium of instruction problem or the issue of how many languages to teach and at what level.

Education budget cut

Far more disturbing than the Sanskrit-German debate was the news last week that the new Central government has decided to cut Rs.11,000 crore from the Education budget (The Hindu, “Social sector funds slashed,” Nov. 27). The favouring of physical infrastructure over “the social sector” (health, education, social security, nutrition, etc.) disregards the intangible factors that go into strengthening knowledge bases and the setting up of infrastructure in the first place. One of the implicit casualties of the massive cut in the Education budget is a proposed 12th Plan programme to revitalise Indian language resources in higher education. The rationale for this programme was that generation of knowledge in Indian languages would not only create new intellectual resources but transform the teaching-learning process in positive ways. The access-equity-quality triangle emphasised by policymakers could effectively be strengthened through a focus on Indian languages. Since the default medium of instruction at the tertiary level was actually a local language rather than the “mandatory” English, the deliberate blindness of successive governments to this fact was depriving students across disciplines of good quality resources. This linguistic divide affects the majority of tertiary students in the country. Thus, investing in Indian language materials at the basic and advanced levels is a sustainable (not to mention cost-effective) way by which Indian higher education could be strengthened.

The long-term objective should be to make the student bilingually proficient, so that he is able to bridge effectively the conceptual worlds of the local and the global.

We should note here that the emphasis is not on how many languages the student learns but on whether s/he is developing cognitive capabilities. This too has been a serious blind spot in modern Indian education over the decades, right up to the recent May 2014 Supreme Court judgment on the non-enforceability of mother-tongue instruction. The Court invoked the right to freedom of speech and expression in this instance to say that children and parents could choose the language in which the child wanted to be educated. With all respect to the learned judges, one wonders if they sought expert opinion in the matter or merely relied on their common sense. If they had done the former, they might have found out that worldwide research has proved that the most effective teaching and learning happens through the use of the mother tongue. If exposing a child to English at a very young age is dictated by opportunism and a skewed sense of what makes social mobility possible, this choice flies in the face of language and education research as well as the most enlightened pedagogic practices available. If mother tongue or Indian language education is not practical today, it’s because of the enormous lack of good educational resources in those languages, another need that state initiatives have failed to address adequately.

Parallel with China

Since, these days, China is the favourite country of comparison for us, we should pay attention to the fact that students in China start learning English in the fourth standard and for the most part study all their subjects in Mandarin. In my experience, the English fluency of the average Chinese undergraduate ranges from functional knowledge of English to complete proficiency, with an emphasis on reading and writing rather than speaking. Even those with functional knowledge are far more capable of dealing with the world of higher education today than most students I encounter in India. The single most important variable here would have to be that of mother tongue instruction combined with later exposure to a language that gives students access to resources not so readily available in Chinese. It’s a different matter that Internet use is so heavily policed in China. However, every person I know inside and outside the university has figured out how exactly to access the resources they want, which is much more than can be said of Indian students who don’t experience government-imposed firewalls. So, again, is the ability to navigate the digital domain related to language skills or critical skills?

Lack of clarity

The inability to create a systematic curricular exposure to language and critical skills is perhaps what prompts periodic outbursts like the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) directive to replace German in Kendriya Vidyalaya schools with Sanskrit. Combined with this lack of application is what can only be seen as the extraordinarily resilient prejudices about what constitutes “Indian culture.” We routinely tend to forget that this is a modern concept, mobilised by colonialist as well as nationalist perspectives on our society. Lack of clarity about what education is for leads to muddled thinking about what should be done in the space of education. We should not confusedly believe that the primary task of education is to pass on ways of living — we do that in almost every domain of social engagement. The task of education is to foster and strengthen cognitive capacities that can equip students to produce original knowledge on their own terms, for which we are likely to need bilingual and trilingual education. Debating whether we should learn Sanskrit instead of German is a distraction from the real tasks that lie ahead. We need to reorient the language debate to focus not on learning the language (any language) but learning how to think.

Language use analysis

The CBSE circular of June 30, 2014, instructing its affiliated schools to observe ‘Sanskrit Week’, introduced the topic by stating that “Sanskrit and Indian culture are intertwined as most of the indigenous knowledge is available in this language.” It’s shocking to see that people in the business of education are unaware about the fundamental histories of language use in our country, and that mere assertion can pass for accurate information. Apart from the facile collapsing of “culture” onto “knowledge,” the circular’s statement about Sanskrit as the language of indigenous knowledge appears as a sweeping generalisation when you look at it from the point of view of medical, artisanal or performing arts knowledge forms. Even if we stay with just one example, that of indigenous medicine, and even if we stay with the venerable Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and its Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL), a quick overview of the books listed would show that the languages of indigenous knowledge include Persian, Arabic, Urdu and Tamil in addition to Sanskrit. The library currently lists 137 Tamil books on Siddha, for example, with 157 Sanskrit books on Ayurveda. Some of this knowledge is also available in Malayalam, like the important works on vishavaidyam.

Coming to contemporary language use in India, it would be important to note that just as modern Kannada, Marathi or Telugu for example have drawn on Sanskrit to build their vocabulary, they have equally strongly drawn on other languages. Here are some sample Kannada words that reveal the original language coiled inside the present day usage: adalat, vakila, javabu, ambari, gulabi, sipayi, taakathhu, firyadu, bunadi, najooku (Persian/Urdu). This kind of sampling could be replicated for any contemporary Indian language, and an exhaustive mapping exercise might reveal fascinating borrowings and transformations that gesture well beyond language use.

Most of our languages cannot sustain teaching and research in the context of the modern university and its disciplines. We need to create critical vocabularies across several conceptual domains. Students need to learn the ability to distinguish between levels of meaning, to contextualise/translate, and to create new concepts that capture the life of our societies and our institutions. And in doing this, they have to learn to draw on multiple linguistic resources.

Ensuring the entry of Indian language resources into the mainstream of our higher education system is a long-delayed project. By bringing these resources into a national educational structure, we will be (a) expanding the analytical abilities of these languages, and (b) making the curriculum more relevant to the society we live in. The long-term objective should be to make the student bilingually proficient, so that he is able to bridge effectively the conceptual worlds of the local and the global.


(Tejaswini Niranjana is with the Centre for Indian Languages in Higher Education at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Internet and Society)

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