The Catch 22 of Jagan Reddy's English Policy

Evidence from other countries suggests that use of a non-indigenous language – that is not employed on an everyday basis for communication – results in large educational failures.

The move to replace Telugu, and introduce English, as the medium of instruction in all government schools in Andhra Pradesh for grades I-VI from the next academic year has re-ignited the language debate. The Jagan Mohan Reddy government has promoted the switch to English as the panacea for the inefficiencies ailing the government schools.

It is claimed to be a game-changing decision that will result in the common citizen acquiring knowledge and learning the prestigious English language – breaking down social barriers and opening the pathways to white-collar jobs.

The opposition camp, and the promoters of Telugu, have pointed out that the switch is hasty and unplanned, could adversely affect poor children by increasing dropouts, and have argued that it was doing an ‘injustice’ to our language and culture.

The response to the English naysayers, including from individuals like YSRCP Rajya Sabha MP Vijayasai Reddy, has been to point out that the individuals singing the virtues of Telugu and Indian culture are the first ones to send their children to English medium schools. They have openly challenged proponents of Telugu – including the leader of the opposition and a critic of the English medium policy, Chandrababu Naidu – to send their grandchildren to Telugu schools, if they are such believers in the virtues of schooling in indigenous languages.

The great chasm between the actions and words of the supporters of indigenous language schooling leaves the common citizen with no other option, but to see every English educated individual, who promotes indigenous language schooling, as wanting to ensure their privileged position in society. The people defending local language instructions hence should not be surprised that this reasoning seems very plausible to the common citizens, especially since a small affluent section of society is armed with the knowledge of English, which is also ostensibly the key to their achievement and exudes enormous economic and social power in the ‘new’ India.

Evidence from history also suggests these fears might be justified; one of the motivations of the Bantu education act of 1953, passed by the apartheid government in South Africa, was to deny English language schooling to indigenous Black populations as a means to restrict their upward socioeconomic mobility. The current proposal thus certainly appears attractive to the common citizen, at least in the terms being portrayed by the cheerleaders of English, including the current Andhra Pradesh government, as being the great leveller.

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At this point, it might be reasonable to ask two important questions, one, how far is the current educational system capable of taking on the added burden of teaching in a foreign language like English, and whether or not it is likely to make the situation even worse? Two, what are the other options to level the playing field, which do not impose such large costs on the majority of the population, through the course of leaving them with no other course of action but to acquire education in an alien language?

When it comes to the first, according to the 2018 Annual State of Education Report (ASER), in the state of Andhra Pradesh, only 40% of children between the ages of 14 and 16 could answer correctly a question that asked how many hours a girl, who goes to bed at 10.30 pm, and wakes up at 5.30 am the next day, sleeps for.

Only 15% could answer what would be the final price they would be required to pay for a shirt that cost Rs 200 and has a 10% discount. Nationwide, still, almost 30% of children in Grade VIII cannot read at the level of Grade II. On average, around 15% of the time teachers were completely absent when the ASER team made its visits to schools. Thus, the education system seems to be largely churning out individuals who gain little useful knowledge and skills, even when taught in their first language.

Additionally, the bulk of existing evidence from other countries seems to suggest that the use of a non-indigenous language, especially when it is not employed on an everyday basis for societal communication, and is very different from the languages locally spoken, results in large educational failures.

Most parts of sub-Saharan Africa have gone the path of using the world languages – English, French, Spanish and Portuguese – as a medium of instruction, and have arguably had even worse learning outcomes than India. This should act as a cautionary tale to the English promoters that changing the medium of instruction is not going to be the solution to the systemic ailments facing the education system.

Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy. Photo: PTI

Looking outward, every European country ranging from a Slovenia with a population of 20 lakhs (per capita income $ 26,000 compared to $2,700 in India) to countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Austria, all with populations less than half that of Delhi (and per capita incomes of around $50,000), to Germany with a population of 8 crores (per capita income $48,000), employ the majority spoken indigenous language as the medium of instruction. If these small countries can organise education and institutions in an indigenous language, be globally connected and prosperous, why do we need to switch to English as the medium of schooling?

Closer home, evidence from India shows that before the 1956 linguistic reorganisation of Indian states, individuals who were resident in areas where schooling was not available in the mother tongue, had around 20% lower college graduation rates, a shortfall they made up after gaining access to mother tongue schooling, albeit only by 1991.

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My previous work has shown that second-generation migrants in India, who reside in states whose language is closer to their mother tongue, have more years of education, as well as better occupational outcomes. Ironically, even in South Africa, evidence shows that people, who were forcefully educated in the Bantu languages due to the apartheid-era law, ultimately have better English speaking skills and earn higher wages.

The current system is not producing learning outcomes, and a switch to English is not going to improve it, and most probably will make it worse. If a system comprising teachers trained and educated, as well as teaching, using their first language, are producing 85% of children between the ages of 14 and 16 who cannot do simple calculations to manage a tiller in a shop, how is it going to suddenly be churning out English speaking Aryabhattas, when the added burden of an unfamiliar language is introduced in this hasty and unplanned manner?

The government, whether in Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka, which announced a similar policy last year, has decided to not bother with debate or evidence-based decision making. At the very least, before the fate of 10 crore people, who number more than the combined population of the all above mentioned European countries, is thrown into dark waters, we deserve a carefully conducted study using the best available methods.

The existing international evidence suggests government should be directing efforts in improving teaching of English as a foreign language; estimates suggest that around 22% of Indians can speak English (note, not read and write) compared to more than 85% in Denmark and Sweden, 70 in Finland, 61 in Switzerland and 56 in Germany.

A growing body of pedagogical evidence strongly contradicts the stance that the best way to learn English is through using it as a medium of schooling. A more viable path for the government to achieve its objective of equalising opportunity seems to lie in designing teacher-training programs, drawing from the experiences and lessons of countries, which have been successful in teaching English as a foreign language.

This should be combined with piloting multiple of the most promising approaches identified to understand the importance of local contexts. These can also be complemented with pilots, which also test using English as a medium of schooling, as proposed by some state governments, to generate evidence-based debate before engineering such an enormous change in the education system. Despite a lot of searching including pending RTIs, I have been unable to locate a single study undertaken by the current government that suggests that the proposed policy has been well thought through and is not a political gimmick.

This, however, does not answer the second question of what should the common citizen do to level the playing field? The catch-22 seems to be a choice between dismal educational outcomes in an indigenous language, resulting in barriers to socioeconomic mobility, which ostensibly arise from the lack of English skills rather than dismal overall learning.

The other option is a faith-based leap into the proposed system of English medium schooling, which most likely will fail, but at least holds the glimmer of a lottery prize. I want to propose a third option; one that I believe would be not only a more efficient but also a more equitable way to equalize opportunity.

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The government should concentrate its energies on improving accountability of the system, improving teacher training including curriculum design, and improving the teaching of English as a foreign language. It should allow all private schools to choose their medium of instruction. However, the law should require that all school-leaving exams conducted by the central or state government will have to fulfil the criteria that, at least, two of the five school leaving exams have to be written in the student’s choice of any one of the 22 recognized indigenous languages – Hindi, Kannada, Telugu etc.

Tying the requirement of having to complete at least two of the school-leaving exams in any one of the 22 indigenous languages to access any universities funded by the public exchequer, will imply that private schools would need to necessarily pay attention to providing quality education in the indigenous language as it becomes crucial for academic advancement.

The requirement that the children of elites become fluent (not just their ability to speak but to read, write and debate) in any one of the 22 languages would be commensurate with the requirement that the common citizen attain fluency in English; in other words, a more equitable solution. This would also ascribe economic value to the indigenous languages and generate both a cultural and an economic basis for promoting Indian culture and languages.

This would mean that subverting the government policy is detrimental to the interests of the elites as finally they will have to possess competence in at least one indigenous language to achieve academic success. Sticking to learning only English will not be a viable option. The policy needs to be gradually phased in a manner that in a decade or so we have all children emerging from the education system with competence in indigenous languages, as well as English.

The policy also speaks to the problem of the growing linguistic divide in our society. The current scenario seems to be evolving into one where the affluent sections of the population increasingly attain education exclusively through the medium of English, and emerge with their ability to read, write or debate critically in any of the indigenous languages being seriously compromised.

This has resulted in an echo chamber comprising the ability of even well-meaning elites to galvanise popular ground support. Finally, not resolving this linguistic gulf will be a serious problem to the nation-building process, and creating an empowered source of indigenous identity that we yearned for at the ‘stroke of midnight’.

Also read: Language Policy: Education in English Must Not Be the Prerogative of Only the Elites

Now, I would say is an opportunity to ‘walk the talk’ about the grand claims of levelling the playing field. The people should demand that the elites share the linguistic burden and become citizens of the nation state by becoming fluent in any one of the 22 regional languages, rather than the proposed scheme that shoves the burden onto the heads of the common citizen.

In 1917, in the first-ever Gujarat Political Conference, after Gandhi asked Jinnah to speak in their shared mother tongue, “Jinnah made a brave show of stammering out his speech in Gujarati.’ Gandhi thanked him, while (somewhat patronisingly) adding that he should practice speaking in the mother tongue.”

Or later in a letter in 1919 written to Jinnah, Gandhi added, “And, of course I have your promise that you would take up Gujarati and Hindi as quickly as possible. May I then suggest that like Macaulay you learn at least one of these languages on your return voyage [from England].” Well, maybe is exactly what we need to ask of our elite denizens today. What say you, chief minister Reddy?

Rajesh Ramachandran is a postdoctoral scholar at Heidelberg University working on issues related to economic development in general, and language policy in particular.