If the mother tongue (MT) versus English as medium of instruction argument was grossly oversimplified, it would have two competing sets of arguments. On the one hand are what can be broadly termed as the cognitive, socio-emotional and rights-based arguments concerning the learning and well-being of the child. On the other, are the socio-economic and logistical arguments, relating to opportunities available to the child and the practicality of offering MT-based education.
If we were to decide solely on the basis of cognitive and socio-emotional considerations, it is clear what the decision would be. More than 150-200 studies conducted around the world during the past 40-50 years have shown that youngest children in bilingual programmes with MT as the medium of instruction, consistently performed better than their peers taught in other languages.
Further, the longer they remain in MT education, the better their knowledge retention and performance in school. This is because children start preschool with a fairly developed and developing repertoire of oral language. But, often the language that young children encounter in school is alien and incomprehensible to them. This creates both cognitive and socio-emotional difficulties — adversely impacting their learning as well as sense of identity, self-esteem, and motivation to remain in school. This has profound consequences, especially for first generation learners, who may be pushed-out of school by an insensitive and unresponsive education system.
It is estimated that one in four children across the country experiences moderate to severe learning difficulties because of this mismatch. In contrast, bilingual children who have received their primary instruction in their MT have a cognitive advantage over their monolingual peers. They have a deeper awareness of how languages work, display greater flexibility of thinking, and achieve better academic outcomes.
Lets now evaluate the factors that have created the tremendous aspiration for English learning in our country. A major part of this aspiration is related to socio-economic advancement and opportunities that open up with English language learning from early age.
People who dont have access to this language of global power suffer in terms of economic and educational opportunities. Dalit activists have highlighted the unfair education system of India with English for the classes and MT for the masses. All middle-class theories, discussions and debates about the right medium of instruction seem to be about how best to educate other peoples children. These other people whose childrens educational futures we decide on committees and at conferences, have firm opinions about what they would like for their own children i.e, to learn English from the youngest age.
However there is a middle path available, implementation of which requires vision, commitment and patient effort to build up systemic and individual capacities. A multilingual society such as India needs to imagine and implement a strong and viable bilingual/multilingual programme in the early years of schooling because:
• The human brain is wired for multilingualism. There are more multilingual people on this planet than monolinguals
• Despite the Central governments official three language policy, multilingualism has never been implemented seriously in our classrooms. In a truly bilingual/multilingual programme, differing languages would not be taught separately as distinct subjects, but would be integrated into the daily life and work of the classroom
• This is especially easy to imagine in preschool settings, where there could be spaces in which switchovers between the MT, the regional language and English are encouraged
• In such preschools, its important that the MT is used when new concepts are being introduced or discussed. MT should also be used for giving instruction and building relationships. English should be introduced with the objective of achieving basic conversational proficiency in the early years
• Where more than one MT exists in a classroom, there are constitutional provisions for providing MT-based instruction if 10 students in a class of 40 students speak the same language. In more diverse linguistic contexts, even if media of instruction move between the regional language and English, the curriculum and pedagogy could make spaces and provisions for welcoming and including the differing languages of a classroom
In conclusion, it is clear that MT-based education has significant cognitive, academic and socio-emotional advantages, especially during the early years. However, this does not mean that we shut the door to English in our preschool classrooms. It is worth considering that we lose nothing by encouraging multilingualism in our classrooms, but stand to gain much.
(Shailaja Menon leads the Early Literacy Initiative at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad campus)