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Language Policy in Indian Schools: A Point of View

This blog illustrates a point of view on the recommended language policy for urban and semi-rural schools in India, with inputs from research findings from the fields of cognitive neuroscience, early childhood psychology, bilingualism, language learning. An attempt has also been made to marry this research with policy and socio-economic realities in India.

Current Language Policy in Indian Schools

Thanks to India’s rich cultural diversity, the country does not have a national language but has 22 ‘official languages’ (including English). Since the states were formed on linguistic lines, each of the 28 states has its native language(s) as the official language(s). English, due to its ‘lingua franca’ status, is an aspiration language for most Indians – for learning English is viewed as a ticket to economic prosperity and social status. Thus almost all private schools in India are English medium. Many public schools, due to political compulsions, have the state’s official languages as the primary school language. English is introduced as a second language from grade 5 onwards. Some states also mandate learning of a non-native third language from grade 6. This lack of priority to the lingua franca in public schools is one of the major reasons for high enrolment ratios in private schools (44 per cent in rural areas and 65 per cent in urban areas). An overwhelming number of urban and rural parents aspire to ensure that their children master the lingua franca along with their native language.

Current Practices of English Medium Schools

Proficiency in English is often correlated with higher educational and social standing. Given the parents’ preference for English, many private schools (including low socio-economic status (SES) schools) aggressively focus on building English-speaking skills among children right from nursery grades. Many of these schools adopt a ‘total English pedagogy’ in which all of formal and informal school interaction is in English right from nursery grades. Many schools also discourage the use of native language by completely banning any conversation in the native language – even among peers and friends.

Many urban schools encourage parents to converse in English even at home. An unintended consequence of this practice is that children have a negative attribute towards their native languages. On the other hand, government-run public schools focus purely on native languages. English is introduced as a second language from grade 5, thus presenting a clear competitive disadvantage to students of public schools.

The current practices at the private or public schools are largely driven by economic compulsions, market demands or political compulsions, not scientific research. This policy of focus of only one language may not be in the best interest of the child, especially in light of recent research on bilingualism.

How We Learn Languages

Speech is natural to humans. We are born with an innate capacity to learn any language and more than one language. Children are born with an ability to perceive the phonology of any language. Before six months of age, they start to recognise the vowels and consonants (in this order) of their mother tongue or the language(s) they are exposed to. At this stage, they slowly start to lose the ability to identify the prosody or phonology of other languages which they are not exposed to. By nine months, they start to babble in languages they are exposed to. By their first birthday, they start to say words or sentences. Although they are grammatically incorrect, they however speak like a native speaker.

Neuroscience research does indicate that there is a ‘sensitive period’ in our brains to learn language(s). Although we are prepared to learn any language, in time, we tend to specialise in languages we are exposed to and we start losing our ability to recognise some aspects of other languages as we grow older. Research has indicated that our ability to learn accents, grammar, and phonology is much higher if children learn the language before five to seven years of age. These aspects of language become difficult (not impossible) to learn as children enter adolescence and adulthood.

Behavioural studies have also indicated that if children are exposed to two languages by age seven, they gain proficiency in both the languages. And if they are exposed to two or more languages by age five, they use overlapping innate brain areas for language processing lateralised in the left hemisphere. But any learning of language after five to seven years of age often results in recruiting other ‘cognitive’ neural networks of the brain, more bilateral and distributed across the two hemispheres of our brains. More effort is required in neural processing when exposure to another language happens after five years of age. As later bilingual exposure results in different patterns of neural organisation for language processing, the most efficient use of neural resources occurs when language learning happens early. Simply put, language is ‘naturally acquired’ if exposure occurs before schooling years. And language is ‘consciously learnt’ through exposure during or after schooling years. Thus learning a second or third language is most easy when done before schooling years.

But Why Learn more than One Language?

There is scientific evidence beyond economic or socio-political reasons to support learning of more than one language. Bilingual ability has tremendous cognitive benefits across life spans. Several longitudinal studies have indicated that bilingual children have better cognitive benefits over monolingual children especially on non-verbal tasks, conflict resolution, cognitive flexibility and other cognitive control tasks. Interestingly, the cognitive and attention advantage of bilinguals over monolinguals actually increases with age. Older bilinguals have superior cognitive control than older monolinguals. Bilingual brains tend to show higher white matter integrity (meaning there is data loss between neurons), better structural and functional connectivity across the brain and a better “brain reserve” than monolingual brains. There is also a substantial delay of the onset of Alzheimer or dementia for bilinguals as compared to monolinguals.

There is also a linguistic cost bilinguals pay for their mastery of more than one language. Bilinguals across life spans tend to divide their linguistic competence across two languages and hence have a marginally compromised lexical strength and lexical recall. But it is important to know that there is no variation among mono- and bi-lingual speakers on the school vocabulary (vocabulary used for academic purposes). The variation is only for the home vocabulary. Since vocabulary size is a strong predictor of academic success, bilinguals do not have an academic or literacy disadvantage. Bilinguals also would have more “tip of the tongue” episodes than monolinguals. There are some preliminary findings that indicate that bilinguals have the advantage of working memory but a disadvantage of semantic memory. There is also anecdotal evidence that the onset of speech for bilingual children is marginally later than for monolingual children, although this time lag is inconsequential, as bilinguals tend to catch up quickly.

It is important to remember that bilinguals develop languages the same way as monolinguals do. By 14 months of age, bilingual children have a clear demarcation of phonological representations for both languages. So bilingual infants develop the phonological awareness for both languages on roughly the same schedule as monolingual children do for their language. Thus, despite some linguistic costs paid by bilinguals, they have far greater cognitive advantage over monolinguals. Thus, bilingualism should be encouraged in early childhood policy not just for economic reasons or political compulsions but for cognitive benefits – so that children have a competitive advantage to fully realise their potential in this competitive and a globalised world.

What Schools Should Do?

Howard Gardner says that just like a GPS works with the coordination of three satellites, children should know at least three languages. Since language learning is effective when begun early, schools should encourage ‘every day’ use of at least two languages right from kindergarten. The current practice of starting second language in primary school may not be the best strategy. Schools should strike a balance between phonology and ‘whole language’ immersion. Schools should keep in mind that development of a child’s brain happens in stages and, many a times, a child’s brain may not be fully develop to perceive or produce language skills. Thus, children should be given the freedom to express their language understanding in the way they want and not necessarily be restricted to writing and speaking.

Schools should actively encourage parents to speak English and their native languages right from the birth of the child. Given the extraordinary focus on English in the schooling system, parents would be well advised to speak in their native language extensively.

By the time students reach middle years, schools can have students converse more in formally in English in corridors and classrooms. While parents would do well to develop mother tongues at home, middle schools, on the other hand, must encourage formal communication in English in school to develop the skills of spoken and formal English.

Vishnu Karthik
CEO of Xperiential Learning Systems and Associate Director of The Heritage Group of Schools, a group of K-12 experiential learning schools.

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