For Schools in Rural India, the Appropriate Language of Instruction Remains a Conundrum

The challenges faced by English medium students in rural areas go way beyond the quality of teachers.

The difficulty of deciding which language should be the medium of instruction has caused problems in the delivery of quality education in India.

Parents, even in rural areas, know about the huge importance of English in the present day globalised world. The failure of government schools to respond effectively to the aspirations of parents and students has given opportunities to private schools to thrive. For example, in Uttar Pradesh, the enrolment in rural government schools at elementary level has declined from 17.2 million in 2002-03 to 15.9 million in 2015-16. The enrolment in rural private schools has increased from 2.7 million to 13.8 million in the same time period. Both vernacular and English medium private schools have been able to convince parents that they are giving importance to learning in and of the English language.  However, finding quality teachers who can effectively teach subjects in English, at salaries near minimum wages is an uphill struggle for schools in low-income areas.

The problem of low fees translating into below par teacher quality is more acute in rural areas of major states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. The National Sample Survey (71st Round) data shows that in 2014, the median school fee in the rural areas of these states was Rs 117, Rs 250 and Rs 180 per month, respectively.

A majority of the teachers are paid just around Rs 4000 per month as salary in rural private schools, which makes it extremely difficult to attract reasonably qualified talent. The difficult language used in text books compounds the problem of recruiting quality teachers. English medium text books have been written keeping in mind English medium schools in urban areas. These books are not suitable for students or for teachers in rural areas. These factors lower teaching standards in English medium schools in rural areas, resulting in students performing way below their potential.

The challenges faced by English medium students in rural areas go beyond the quality of teachers. Another major problem faced by students in rural areas who want to study in English is the lack of English medium schools beyond elementary level in these locations. As a result, after getting education in the English medium till class 8, a large proportion of students are forced to opt for the vernacular medium.

Among the major reasons for the relatively low number or lack of schools at the higher secondary level which use English as the medium of instruction is largely due to the inability and unwillingness of parents in rural areas to pay the high fees needed to fund the high operational costs of such schools. Although the problem appears less serious at the elementary level, the fact is that schools assess their own students, which then makes it easier to hide shortcomings such as under-qualified and untrained teachers. As state-level boards take over the assessment process post the elementary level, investors and promoters feel less confident about opening English medium secondary or senior secondary schools.

On the other hand, if students pursue their studies in the vernacular medium, it becomes very difficult for them to compete, after class 12, in premier institutions, especially after the introduction of the semester system at the graduation level.

The language used in vernacular medium school text books does not help students in higher education or in the job market. These books have been written with the assumption that students will continue their higher education in the vernacular medium.  In the present day semester system prevalent at the university level, students have to write their examinations in English within two months of obtaining admission in college. This poses impossible challenges for ill-prepared students, adversely affecting their job prospects – particularly in the social sciences, which heavily rely on proficiency in the language used for expression of thoughts. They find it very difficult to grasp the intricacies of the subject in such a short period of time and write their answers meaningfully in the English language. Poor performance in higher education or in the job market gives impetus to the idea that school education should be in the English language.

Way forward

Discussions on the language of instruction are mostly restricted to mother tongue versus English in India. However, given the nature of job markets and resource constraints, we need to transcend the issue of whether to teach in the mother tongue or in English. As the Indian economy integrates further with global markets, the importance of English is bound to continue to increase. We need to equip our students to navigate with ease between vernacular mediums and English. However, improving the availability of quality teachers in rural areas to carry out this task would be very challenging in the short and even medium term, especially with current textbooks.

The government should take the initiative to get the existing vernacular medium books re-written. There is a need to differentiate between words which are commonly used (in the mother tongue) and terms which require explanation. In the new books, technical terms should also be mentioned in English. Some of the textbooks use English words sparingly; however, teachers and students generally tend to gloss over these words or terminologies. The usage of English words should be increased significantly and evaluations should be designed in such a way that students are encouraged to learn both the vernacular and their English translations simultaneously. The effort that students would need to put in learning or retaining technical terms (which are not commonly used) would be nearly the same, irrespective of language. Learning technical terms in English will smoothen the students’ transition from vernacular medium to English medium, which will make it easier for them to adapt in senior classes and in job markets.

To reduce the language divide, the government could go a step further and make similar adjustments in English medium textbooks as well. For example, these should also include translations of technical terms in the vernacular. This will enable students to better grapple with textbooks, even if the teaching quality is poor. The ease of navigation between English and vernacular languages will create the right conditions for acquisition of knowledge as well lay a strong foundation for the emergence of a more egalitarian society.

M. Shuheb Khan is a researcher at ICRIER and is associated with the Buniyaad Trust, which focuses on education in rural India.