With the three language policy inviting widespread censure from non-Hindi speaking states, educationists have questioned the wisdom of expecting school children to learn three languages, two of which, in most cases, may not even exist in their environment.
The NEP draft asserts that the exposure to three or more language in schools will help enhance language-learning abilities in young children. It mandates that students from pre-school and Grade 1 onwards will be exposed to three or more languages with the aim of developing speaking proficiency and interaction, and the ability to recognise scripts and read basic text, in all three languages by Grade 3. In terms of writing, students will begin writing primarily in the medium of instruction until Grade 3, after which writing with additional scripts will also be introduced gradually.
Is the language in the environment?
To understand this concern of educationists, one also needs to understand how language learning happens in children. Language learning, unlike learning of arithmetic or science, happens mostly through absorption (osmosis). The language or languages spoken in the environment of the child (what they hear at home, at school, in their neighborhood), the reading resources like books and newspapers available to them, the languages they hear in the visual media (TV, movies, internet), the languages that they get to use and each child’s innate ability towards language learning – all these factors contribute to the language development in children.
Very few people can develop proficiency in a language, both spoken and written form, which is completely absent in their environment but is just taught to them in a structured manner in a classroom. The rationale put forth by the framers of NEP for introducing three languages at a young age is the research that says ‘children pick up languages extremely quickly between the ages of two and eight’. While this may be true when the language is present in the environment of the child, this may not be necessarily right when the language is learnt in a classroom environment where the exposure to the language in other ways is almost nil.
Continuous exposure to language a must
Many of us may have cousins and friends growing up outside our own states /countries proficient in the language of the state/country where they live, whereas we ourselves would struggle to learn a new language by attending a language programme or a course. While such methods can help in picking up some vocabulary and constructs of the language, comprehension and speaking proficiency can be developed only through continuous exposure to the language. This will also explain why a Bihari who works in the neighborhood ‘chaat’ shop in Chennai or someone from the northeast who waits on tables in Coimbatore can use Tamil better than somebody who learns French by going to a class.
Classroom aspiration vs reality
The United States is a large country where teaching of Spanish as a second language has seen very limited success. In India, even in a developed state like Tamil Nadu, the inroads that English has made, outside urban areas, after 70 years of teaching the language in schools and colleges is moderate. English also happens to be the aspirational language of the upwardly mobile Indian middle class, which sees it as an enabler for getting better jobs and career opportunities. After the 90s, the TN state has been witnessing large-scale exodus from government-run schools to newly sprouted ‘English-medium’ private schools, which may sometimes have poorer infrastructural facilities than government schools.
Whether these schools have resources and trained staff to teach not just English as a language, but also the other subjects like maths, science and social sciences in English is something that parents seem to be less concerned about. There are students who go to ‘spoken English’ classes in college after attending English-medium schools for 12 years. These are some of the challenges of teaching a new language, a language that has very limited existence in the environment of the population.
There are several inadequacies in terms of resources available for teaching the language in our schools. In India, textbooks largely drive classroom instruction and this system may not be adequate for language teaching and learning. In the US, there is continuous research on methodologies to teach English as a second Language (ESL as it is popularly known) to children of new, non-English speaking immigrants. There are graded resources of all kinds developed (audio-visual, picture books, interactive materials etc.) and several new methodologies explored to teach Spanish as a second language. While the Indian education system should also be focusing on developing such resources and methodologies for strengthening the language proficiencies of our students in English and the regional language, introduction of a third language is an unnecessary burden not just on the child but on the entire system.
The same NEP document states ‘reduction of curriculum content to enhance essential learning and critical thinking’ is one of its goals. Making a third language mandatory is unscientific pedagogy and poor policy, which will only enhance curriculum content and lead to useless cramming. It will be a complete waste of the state’s resources (recruiting teachers, creating text books and other resources) to force another language down the throats of children, making them cram and pass exams, depriving them their valuable playtime, time that can be used for developing other skills.
(The author is an office-bearer in the TN Congress party. She has been an educator in the US and taught in a Tamil-medium school in Chennai. She has also had a long stint in the Edu-tech industry, which gave her the opportunity to learn about school curricula of countries like South African and Colombia.)