Higher Education in Indian Languages
A Literature Review
Why is the idea of studying chemical engineering in Bhojpuri or fashion technology in Konkani so laughable? I did a paper on this for ‘Public Policy in India’ course in my first semester during my Masters’ in Public Policy and Governance during 2016–18 at Azim Premji University. This is a literature review but hopefully will make you think.
At the time of independence, there were 369,000 students studying in 27 universities (Altbach). Now, the number of students has increased almost hundredfold. In 2015, there are more than 34 million students in 760 universities (MHRDa). Colleges and universities have mushroomed across India with majority of the growth happening in the last two decades after liberalization through private educational organizations (Krishnan).
There are twenty-two languages in the eighth schedule of our constitution. People speak hundreds more. In a multi-ethnic and multilingual country like India, the choice of language for the medium of instruction is a complex one, especially in higher education where employment is a major concern. In 1960, this was a frequent topic for deliberation and vice-chancellors from eight universities in South India had met to discuss the question of the medium of instruction in universities (Vice-Chancellors). However, the most recent education policy does not even mention the medium of instruction in higher education in its draft (NEP 2016). Considering the increase in the spread of higher education in India, it is important to look at the issue of medium of instruction in higher education not only through the lens of educational efficacy but also taking into account its role in social and political determination for the following reasons. First, language acts as the entry point as well as the barrier in the process of higher education (Sarma & Agrawal). Second, the discourse of higher education significantly impacts the conduct of primary and secondary education. Third, language determines who creates knowledge, for whom is it created and the problems it seeks to solve.
This paper is an exploration of the literature on the issue of Indian languages as medium of instruction in higher education. While a lot has been written about the medium of instruction in school education, there has been little literature about this in higher education in Indian context. The choice of language also determines the context in which knowledge is situated. While it is difficult to separate the two, this paper only limits itself to the language used for medium of instruction and doesn’t account for literature on the need for making higher education relevant for India. The paper will lay out the broad arguments on this subject, discuss challenges, explore opportunities and point out gaps in analysis which could be useful for determining areas for further research.
Fall of the bilingual intellectual
Ramachandra Guha brought attention to this matter in his widely-debated essay ‘The fall of the bilingual intellectual’ (Guha). While it doesn’t address our issue directly, this essay is a good starting point because of its popularity, its observations and the responses it generated. By comparing writings of famous intellectuals over time, the essay argues that in earlier generations, there was a presence of large number of Indian intellectuals who transacted ideas and thoughts in more than one language. He gives the examples of Gandhi, Tagore, Ambedkar along with others as proof. According to him, the presence of bilingual intellectuals has shrunk significantly and now there are isolated camps of intellectuals — those who communicate only in English (such as himself) and those who communicate only in the language of the state.
Various responses to Guha (Kalyan; Lohani) have highlighted the presence of bilingualism intellectualism in performing arts and literature in a few Indian languages. Kalyan, in his response to Guha points out his constant presumption about equating English with ‘cosmopolitan’ and indian languages with ‘parochial’. It is natural for intellectuals to express themselves in their native language which reflects their engagement and commitment to their community. He criticizes the Anglophone Indian that only engages with metropolitan life, affairs of the central government, commerce and industry, the Anglophone diaspora and voices and ideas from the western world. Importantly, he reminds us that it is impossible to participate and influence political, social and cultural transformations without knowing the language of the people (Kalyan).
There is a significant separation of discourses in English and other Indian languages. Bi-directional exchange of scholarship is limited. The broader argument about the decline of bilingual intellectuals appears true. This begs the question, if the access to higher education is guarded by a gatekeeper called English, how is a bilingual intellectual engaged with the community going to be developed?
The expansion of higher education happened along with the growth of the IT industry and the urban middle class (Krishnan). English medium higher education and an IT job symbolized the typical aspirations of the middle class. This aspiration is succinctly summarised that “education only in the mother tongue will no longer be acceptable for the vast majority of young Indians, who see English as a passport to a safe and secure job” (Guha, 2010). They see their vernacular medium counterparts struggle with English, despite their intelligence, in colleges and universities, in getting organized sector jobs, usually in the IT sector, and in prestigious central government jobs. Meanwhile, the English-speaking elite seem to do better and capture most of these opportunities. Most people mistake this correlation for causation. For the masses, who cannot muster the kind of social capital that the elite have, English medium education seems like the solution to access these opportunities.
However, the allure of English medium is a mirage. “About six million students (40% of all enrolled students) from non-metropolitan India enter the system every year and fail to achieve their educational goals because they are unable to cope with English” (Niranjana). Leading employability report concludes that no more than 7.1% engineers can speak English with fluency that renders speech meaningful. Half the students are classified unemployable because their inability to speak English. While there is negligible difference between the technical skills between students from metro cities and non-metro cities (sometimes they are superior in non-metro students), the ability to communicate in English is much higher in students from metro cities (Aspiring Minds). It is important to note that languages are not learnt individually but in a community where it is spoken and transacted daily. This fact alone decides that there won’t be millions of fluent English teachers in non-English speaking communities as they themselves come from the same setting. The elite communities which speak English more will get the more fluent ones.
Also, it takes years of exposure and transaction to master the capability of conducting higher education in a foreign language. Research shows that a second-language learner should know 98% of lexical items to understand written or spoken discourse. This amounts to 8000–9000 word families for reading English (Schmitt). Despite teaching and exposure, there is significant gap between receptive capacity and production capacity of foreign language learners. They can understand text and speech but struggle to produce original content in a foreign language. “It seems quite difficult to train students to use a corpus with the necessary rigour, and to foster a ‘researcher’ attitude.” To expect complete societies as large as those of Telugu or Marathi to completely migrate to English for all knowledge-building seems like Antoinette’s linguistic version of ‘let them eat cake’.
Translating texts into Indian languages seems like a mammoth task. However, every large country serious about development has had to undertake this exercise. In Japan, they converted their English medium universities to Japanese medium in 1940s. “(An) important aspect (of industrial development) is language used in development… It is important not to divide a society into English speaking and non-English speaking classes… Although engineering subjects were taught in English at the first engineering college of Japan… serious and continuous efforts have been made by pioneering teachers in engineering to translate basic engineering terminologies into Japanese language; … Without such efforts, the quick adoption of imported technologies, and therefore the rapid industrialization of Meiji-era Japan, might not have been possible. (Mikami)”
The need for Indian languages
Most of the discussions in India on medium of instruction focus on school education and even in that, mostly till primary level. The role of mother tongue is recognized in early childhood education by UNESCO since 1953 (UNESCO). The draft of the new National Education Policy mentions the need for mother tongue education till class five (MHRDb). However, it is completely silent on the language of instruction in higher education. The masses are migrating from vernacular mediums to English medium as early as they can. The important question to ask is “… if these (vernacular) languages have no presence in higher education, how will teachers be trained, material produced, and issues of pedagogy formulated and evaluated? … What is needed is a policy of “no exit” for any language, and a role in education right up to the highest level for each language that enters the classroom at the primary level. (Kidwai)”
There is some work available on the need for social science education and research in Indian languages. There is a greater connection between the author and the reader if the text is in native tongue and the scope for multiple interpretations reduces. Research also enhances the vocabulary of the language and it creates words to act as vehicles to carry new and complex ideas. As anyone who has tried to translate a technical document into Indian languages can testify, there is a dearth of vocabulary to express technical terms. Since our languages are left out of the research process, their intellectual vibrancy has reduced and their growth stalled (Sarma & Agrawal).
In a country where most of the population doesn’t understand English, the use of foreign language as a medium of instruction leads to people being deprived of important medical and technical information that they can use for improving their and their communities’ well-being. In my experience, I have met many skilled workers who are unable to enhance their education because of the lack of programs in Indian languages.
The state of Universities
Considering the politics around language in India, it is essential that proliferation of Indian languages in higher education be led by the states. Inter-state migration and globalization have added to the complexity in choosing a language as a medium of instruction. English is also convenient as it is considered ethnically neutral and everyone is disadvantaged to the same extent.
Through the years, universities have made multiple small attempts to start some programs in arts, humanities and commerce taught in the state’s official language. Anna university has recently started Chemical and Mechanical Engineering in Tamil. However, the state universities have declined in reputation and quality in the last two decades. “The state universities, particularly, are characterised by endemic underfunding, political interference, often a significant degree of corruption in academic appointments and sometimes admissions and examinations, and inadequate and ill-maintained facilities” (Altbach). Earlier the universities were a part of the state’s political economy with local leaders setting them up to do political mobilization and run the political economy. However, with the rise of UGC, AICTE, MCI etc. at the central level, the control has moved from the state to the centre. Lobbying now happens in New Delhi.
This changing nature of political economy of India’s higher education has had deep consequences. The discourse and aspiration is dominated by national and central institutions like the IITs, IIMs etc. While catering to a tiny minority of students, they are the most vocal and play a disproportionate role in deciding who the higher education needs to serve. The state universities engage in little knowledge creation and are consumed by affiliation and examination processes (Krishnan). However, the national and central universities do not have the kind of proliferation and number of students that state universities have. For meaningful higher education to reach the masses, it is important for the State universities to be rejuvenated.
“Despite the use of English as the main academic language and the existence in India of many extraordinarily well trained and bright scholars and scientists, it seems unlikely that India will have internationally competitive research universities in the coming several decades” (Altbach). On occasions, English medium education has been hailed as growth driver of Indian economy and global competitiveness. However, the state of Indian cities and the lack of scientific innovation should give them pause. From the experience the world over, our underdevelopment is probably not ‘despite’ English but ‘because’ of it.
Challenges and Opportunities
In the Vice Chancellors’ meeting, the following conditions were put forward before any university tries to commence non-English medium instruction. First, textbooks and reference books in Indian languages should be adequate in number, of good quality, not mere translations but written by experts and regularly updated. Second, the teachers should be competent enough to teach in the local language. Third, the examination papers should be common and in English with translations for those answering in Indian languages (VCs Confer). That was in 1960. These constraints are present even now in front of universities. The lack of publishers, journals and translators are significant challenges facing the growth of knowledge in Indian languages (Sarma & Ishan). As an example, Azim Premji University draws a significant portion of its students from non-urban areas. However, a very small section of the library has books available in Indian languages. Most of the books in the library are in English. In addition to this, the elite communicating in English is larger and more entrenched. The world is more globalized and labour markets have the mindset of giving preferential treatment to English.
However, there is an increase in internet access, vernacular language journals and books and material brought out by various NGOs to increase grassroot awareness. National Translation Mission has been setup. Many large companies like Google and startups like Reverie Technologies and Pratilipi are working on increasing access on internet to Indian language speakers.
Tata Institute of Social Sciences has set up a centre for overseeing production of material in Indian languages for higher education in humanities. A gathering organized by the centre discussed the feasibility and modalities of increasing the presence of Indian languages in higher education. Discussions focused on the inadequacy of Indian languages, production of dictionaries, teacher pedagogic development, digital archives and compilation of existing material and archives (Niranjana). Such proceedings will help us move beyond the ‘why’ to the ‘how.’
The amount of research on the linguistic barrier and discrimination faced by the students is little.
There seems to be an absence of empirical studies on this subject. One urgent need is to document the struggles of both teachers and students in transacting in English. At the same time, quantitative and qualitative studies need to be conducted on the quality and outcomes of programs that do exist in vernacular medium. There is also a need for linguistic research to better understand the best way to transact higher education in a multi-lingual classroom. This is will lead to a better understanding about creating and translating content.
India is too large and diverse for any single solution to work in all contexts. The discourse must move from an aggregate national level to states and below. We need more action research at these levels to determine which combination of languages will best suit the needs of the community.
The paper has underlined the importance of providing higher education in Indian languages. English medium education for all is not a desirable policy option as it will only lead to sub-optimal outcomes. We have glanced at the socio-political forces playing an important role in the reinforcement of English as a medium of instruction in higher languages. There are significant challenges that need to be overcome before we can provide quality education in Indian languages. However, most of these challenges are of an ecosystem and are like the ‘chicken and egg’ problem. Unless there is a start, there will be no textbooks, languages will not develop and teachers will not be prepared.
For a developing country with scare resources, the idea of knowledge being controlled by access to a foreign language is ethically indefensible. It is important for us to move from agenda to action.
1. MHRDa: “All India Survey on Higher Education 2014–15”
2. MHRDb: “Some Inputs for Draft National Education Policy, 2016”
3. Vice-Chancellors Confer, “Medium of Instruction in Universities”, Economic & Political Weekly 03 Dec, 1960 Vol. 12, Issue №49
4. Altbach Philip G, “The Giants awake: Higher education systems in China and India”, Economic & Political Weekly Jun 6th, 2009 Vol XLIV No 23
5. Guha Ramachandra, “The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual”, Economic & Political Weekly Aug 15th, 2009 Vol XLIV No 33
6. Guha Ramachandra, “The Loss and Recovery of Intellectual Bilingualism”, Economic & Political Weekly Jan 23rd, 2010 Vol XLV No 4
7. N Kalyan Raman, “Intellectual Bilingualism”, Economic & Political Weekly Oct 10th, 2009 Vol XLIV No 41
8. Lohani Vinayak, “Intellectual Bilingualism, Cross-Interpretational Space and the Idea of India”, Economic & Political Weekly Dec 26th, 2009 Vol XLIV No 52
9. Sarma Sushanta Kumar, Agrawal Ishan, “Social Science Research in Vernacular Languages”, Economic & Political Weekly Oct 16th, 2010 Vol XLV No 42
10. UNESCO: “Mother Tongue Matters: Local Language as a Key to Effective Learning”
11. Kidwai Ayesha, “The Question of Language in Education”, Economic & Political Weekly Aug 27th, 2016 Vol LI No 35
12. Aspiring Minds, “National Employability Report: Engineers”, Annual Report 2016
13. Schmitt Norbert, “Instructed second language vocabulary learning”, Language Teaching Research 12,3 (2008); pp. 329–363
14. Krishnan Simantini, “Political Economy of India’s Tertiary Education”, Economic & Political Weekly Mar 15th, 2014 Vol XLIX No 11
15. Mikami Yoshiki & others, “Engineering Terminology Dictionary: Lessons Learnt from Meiji Japan and NUT-KOSEN’s Initiative”, Transactions on Gigaku Vol. 1, №1, 2012
16. Niranjana Tejaswini, “Indian Languages in Indian Higher Education”, Economic & Political Weekly Mar 23rd, 2013 Vol XLVIII No 12