NEP 2020: How many languages must an Indian learn?  

Several is the short answer. But not all languages need to be taught for 12 years. Some can be taught for five years or less

  A teacher teaching in class at Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya school at Chandni Chowk  
A teacher teaching in class at Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya school at Chandni Chowk
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Uttam Sengupta

Most Americans I met in the eighties were impressed that I could speak in three languages. Most of them knew only one. I was both embarrassed and amused because I had several friends who could speak in four languages. I knew of one or two teachers who were proficient in six or seven languages. I tried to explain the Indian linguistic compulsions to people who had no clue where India or New Delhi was and predictably drew blank stares.

The three-language formula was followed in schools in eastern India even before the Kothari Commission recommended the formula sometime in the late sixties. By that time, we already studied English, Hindi and Sanskrit. My mother-tongue was not taught in school but there were too many enticing books and comics in the language available at home to come in the way of picking up the language.

Years later, I was amazed at the linguistic ability of our four-year old daughter. She effortlessly conversed in her local dialect with the housemaid, in Hindi with her friends, in a smattering of English with her teachers in pre-school and in Bengali with us at home. She has now done her Master’s from Paris and gave her exam in French.

Did we miss something? We did. I would have loved to learn a South Indian language, a handicap for most north Indians barring those in All India Services who must necessarily learn one of the languages before getting posted in southern states. I would also have loved to learn Odiya and one or two tribal languages because we lived in Ranchi. The Jesuit school and college I went to had several priests who had done scholarly works in Hindi and tribal languages. But for some reason, we were never offered the opportunity to learn.

By the time I visited Germany, I had forgotten most of the German I had learnt in college. And not surprisingly, I was sternly asked by a saleswoman selling coffee beans to learn German and not speak to her in English. Back home, I argued that Urdu and Mandarin should be compulsorily taught in schools and colleges. But our approach to languages and language-teaching remained convoluted.

In class eight we were prescribed poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which then made no sense to us. Shelley and Keats, not to speak of Eliot, in college had a similarly numbing effect. Many of us were lucky to come across one or two good teachers, had access to good libraries and were made to translate from Hindi to English every week in school. But most of us had no respect for languages and literature. “Oh, I can’t read Hindi, you know” were often said with a sense of pride. I was too shy to mimic the jokers but continue to do so in my mind.

India is unique and we should not ape any formula from anywhere. All languages need not be taught for 12 years in school. Some languages can be taught for two or three years and others for four years or five. Part-time language teachers could be the way forward. Music and films in the languages concerned could certainly help. We need to preserve and promote more languages than any other country. And we need to learn one or two foreign languages too.

It is doable. But we need to be clear first about objectives. Nor everyone need to be able to write in Malyalam but it will help if they can speak and read. Everyone does not have to become a teacher of Mandarin but it will be nice to have a large pool of people who can read and speak a bit.

I can’t resist quoting from a column in Mint by Deepanshu Mohan, an associate professor of Economics at OP Jindal Global University.

“As a well-known columnist recently remarked, one of the besetting sins of policymaking has always been an excess of ambition. Policy is rarely written for the actual constraints of implementation in the Indian context…”, he wrote. Policies, by nature, are designed to impress and are ambitious. The devil is in the detail and in implementation.

It is for each state to formulate a coherent plan to teach languages. The NEP doesn’t have to come in the way. The question is, will the Centre support the states in their endeavour? And will the states stop citing a central ‘policy’ as an impediment? Education is in the concurrent list and states can surely follow a language policy that is innovative and progressive or destined to be a disaster.

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