Why India’s first linguistic state is caught in a language row

Critics have said that the move to introduce English as the medium of instruction in state-run schools at Andhra Pradesh would undermine promotion of Telugu language and culture. Illustration: Eunice Elizabeth Dhivya

Telugu, which was the basis for formation of the country’s first linguistic state, is now the center of a row in Andhra Pradesh following the Jagan Mohan Reddy government’s move to replace the regional language with English as the medium of instruction in state-run schools.

The debate is acquiring caste and communal overtones with conspiracy theories being floated on either side of the divide and the narrative being positioned as an “upper caste versus weaker sections” fight.

Those supporting the introduction of English have dubbed the criticism as a conspiracy to deny the benefits of English education and the employment opportunities it provides to the weaker sections of society, Dalits and minorities.

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The critics, however, said the move would undermine the promotion of Telugu language and culture, apart from putting pressure on young minds by denying them the chance to learn in their mother tongue.

The opinion is divided among education experts while the opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP), BJP and Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party have raised objections over the government’s “thoughtless” move.

However, in the midst of the raging row, the people by and large appear to be welcoming the government’s decision, given the popular perception of English as an aspirational language that equips students better for future jobs in the global market.

Make-over of schools

In tune with its election promise, the YSR Congress government has drawn up plans for introduction of English medium education in all the 45,000 state-run schools over a period of three years.

In the first phase, it would be implemented from classes I to VIII from the academic year 2020-21. However, Telugu would be taught as one of the compulsory subjects. For classes IX and X, English would be the medium of instruction from 2021-22, a government order said.

English labs will also be introduced in all government schools, and both CBSE and ICSE syllabuses will be followed. Teachers, too, would be trained to switch over from Telugu to English medium of instruction.

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Under the programme, christened “Naadu-Nedu” (Now and Then), the government will spend around ₹12,000 crore to improve facilities and infrastructure in government schools by 2022-23.

In the first phase, around 15,715 government schools would be taken up this year for providing a range of facilities—separate toilets for boys and girls, drinking water, ceiling fans, lighting of electrical bulbs, green blackboards, chalk pieces, proper furniture, compound walls and English laboratories.

The Chief Minister launched the programme at a government school in Ongole on 14 November, which also happens to be Children’s Day.

Raging row

“I know that some people are opposed to providing English medium education to poor children as they want poverty to remain here forever, but I will not allow this to continue,” Jagan said.

He also took a dig at his detractors, saying, “I want to know where the children and grandchildren of Venkaiah Naidu, Chandrababu Naidu and Pawan Kalyan are studying—in Telugu or English medium schools?”

Jagan said that his decision was based on two factors: The poor were finding it difficult to send their children to private schools as government schools didn’t have English medium. There is also a need for government schools to gear up to the future challenges and the need to make India a skilled and developed nation.

“Why shouldn’t poor children too study free of cost in government schools in English medium? Telugu will be taught in all schools; there is no threat to the language,” he asserted.

The former Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu attacked the government’s move for its lack of preparation in switching over from one medium to another and doing it in a hasty manner.

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“Where is the preparedness for this massive transformation? Children will suffer as teachers are not trained enough and schools will find it difficult to cope with the change,” he said.

“AP was the first linguistic state in India and it prided itself for its rich language and culture,” Naidu noted.

The actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan went a step ahead and attacked Jagan for his patronage of English as “misplaced adventurism”.

“Will you also introduce English translation of ‘Suprabhatam’ at Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams?” asked Pawan.

Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu waded into the controversy and said that the government’s decision would spell doom for Telugu in Andhra Pradesh.

The state BJP president K Lakshminarayana wrote to the CM, asking him to review the decision, complaining that the state was doing ‘injustice’ to the Telugu language. He also pointed out that it would be difficult for teachers to switch to English as the medium of instruction in such a short span, and that the transition would be especially hard on poor students from rural areas.

However, the Chief Minister found support from noted educationists like Kancha Ilaiah, author and social activist and Prof Nageshwar, former member of the Legislative Council.

Ilaiah wondered why the “forces” opposing English medium education were not calling for introduction of Telugu medium in all private schools.

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“When English is a pan-Indian language, why should it not be recognised as a national language of India and its teaching expanded by making it the medium of instruction for more subjects in government schools? We must realise that English has already become the mother tongue of airborne Indians,” he argued.

Terming the government’s move as “revolutionary”, the Dalit intellectual said it would transform the education system in the state, benefitting Dalits, minorities, backward classes and financially weaker sections among the upper castes.

“To stop this, the so-called intellectual groups, including those from the left wing and right wing are demanding that a section for Telugu medium be made available in all the government schools. But why aren’t these groups demanding the establishment of Telugu medium in every private school? They think that their children would have to compete with children of SC/ST and minority communities in jobs and career in the future and that is the reason why they want Telugu medium continued only in government schools,” Ialaiah contended.

Nageshwar, former head of the Journalism Department at Osmania University in Hyderabad, said a majority of the parents, irrespective of their social profile and earning levels, want to send their wards to English medium schools. “As a result, there is mushrooming of private English medium schools in the state. We cannot ignore this fact while arguing for preservation of Telugu language and culture,” he said.

The A P Official Language Commission Chairman Y Lakshmi Prasad says that promotion of Telugu should continue to guide the government’s policy and that the introduction of English medium in schools would not affect this mission in any way. Lakshmi Prasad, a former Rajya Sabha MP, felt that the Chief Minister’s decision was based on popular demand.

Mother tongue is best

However, the critics pointed out the practical difficulties in implementing this decision, given the lack of skills among teachers. “Young school children have to cope with a strange environment for many hours with other unfamiliar children and teachers. What makes matters worse is the language of instruction that is often not their mother tongue,” says Jo McGowan Chopra, co-founder and director of the Latika Roy Foundation, a voluntary organisation for children with disabilities.

“While the research is clear that children learn best in their own mother tongues, there are other compelling arguments as well, particularly in India. A majority of teachers in both private and government schools are unable to pass a national eligibility test. With this level of incompetence, we can’t expect them to teach in a language they are likely to be weak in themselves,” she argues.

“In China, France, Germany, Holland or Spain, where English is commonly mastered as a second language, the primary education is imparted in the dominant language of the area,” says analyst and author Ramesh Kandula.