A tentative view on primary language education policy in India

As finally I take my leave of India I continue to struggle with formulating a view on language policy in the early years of primary schooling here. In my first blog I referred to the 700 languages of India. In reality, people talk of the 22 ‘scheduled’ languages listed in the Constitution of India, with English officially identified as an ‘assistant’ language. The many other languages of India seem to be variously identified as dialects, tribal languages, minority languages, ‘non-scheduled’ languages, according to their perceived status within particular linguistic communities at particular points in history. As for the primary school language education policy – like most aspects of education at the moment, the picture is difficult to pin down, given the lack of government support for education. Confirming this, the political economist, Jean Drèze, commented on the newly announced budget (The Hindu, 5.3.15) bemoaning the continued focus on infrastructure investment (mainly road and rail), claiming that it reflects a return to the policies of Nehru (the first prime minister of India after independence) when investment for development was a priority. Drèze argues that it is time for investment in human capital, prioritizing health and education as key factors that will contribute to significant growth. In a climate where education is not perceived as a priority it seems likely that any concerns with provision for quality language education will certainly be silenced.

My final interview for this research visit proved invaluable in my further understanding of context for primary language education in India. As luck would have it I was able to make contact with Prof. Krishna Kumar from the Central Institute of Education at Delhi University. His distinguished scholarship in the sociology of education (together with an early background related to children’s language education) contributed just the combination of expertise that I have been in need of. He offered an incisive (and no doubt controversial) analysis of the context. In essence, it amounted to a proposal that the elite groupings of India can be identified as highly influential in all aspects of education, including language education. Since education is divided between two sectors – public and private; similarly languages in education can be divided into two groupings – English and Indian languages. He proposed that a macro-analysis of the contexts essentially presents private education as linked to English, while public education is linked to Indian languages. In this analysis he suggested that the immediate future would see continued growth in the demand for private, English-medium schools, alongside growth of many small-scale initiatives for multilingual curriculum development. However, he predicted that the systemic picture of India (where English is perceived as an essential tool for both employment and prestige) would not change because it is so well fitted to the social structure of the nation.

So, there you have it. Within primary education, particularly through growth in the private sector, English may already be perceived as a basic skill. However, I tread cautiously on whether this is really the end of the story. In sociolinguistics, language usage rarely stands still for long!

I sign off from this final blog with some words of thanks – firstly to the excellent colleagues at the Dept of Linguistics, University of Delhi who so generously welcomed me into their midst and secondly to the Nordic Centre in Delhi who have given me a place to rest my head and an excellent wifi connection. Most importantly though, my sincere thanks are due to the schools, the children, the academics and various government officials who guided me in attempting to understand the world of languages in Indian primary schools.

Celebrating Holi at Delhi University 

Holi Day at Delhi uni

I say goodbye to India (for now), signing off with a happy picture from Friday’s Holi celebrations at Delhi University – a celebration of colours, when people daub themselves with a brilliant array of colours (hopefully the colourful powder will wash off easily!!).

2 Kommentarer
  1. Kiflemariam says:

    An excellent exposé of the status quo in Indian language education policy.

    I have though a question in the sense of your description of education as private/public. To what extent do parents participate in the formulation of the policy?

  2. Janet Enever says:

    Dear Colleague, Thank you for your positive comments on my blog. Its good to know you found it fairly representative on the current situation. Re your question on parents participating in formulation of policy – a very interesting question! In one sense it would be fair to say that parents are now participating quite substantially in policy formation in some regions of India. As an increasing number of parents are now choosing to send their children to private schools which advertise themselves as ’English medium’ this puts pressure on government schools to consider advertising themselves similarly. Notably, in the state of Tamil Nadu the State authorities have now adopted a policy of encouraging government schools to become English-medium in the hope that this might result in parents choosing to keep their children within the (free) government schooling system (also limiting the further growth of private schools some of which may be of questionable quality). In this sense, parents are increasingly formulating policy – a process known as parentocracy.


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