British Council India recently hosted the 11th Language and Development Conference on the theme Multilingualism and Development at The Lalit Hotel in the Capital. Rob Lynes, Minister (Cultural Affairs), British High Commission, and Director, British Council of India, in his message mentioned that India is an ideal location in which to hold a conference exploring the theme of multi-lingualism and development. "While living in India I have been continually impressed with the ease with which people are able to switch from one language to another and fascinated by the ways that different languages have different functions for their users at work, at school or at home," Lynes said. "India has the linguistic diversity befitting a continent, with two official languages, 22 languages scheduled in the Indian Constitution and over 700 more languages estimated to be in everyday use. This diversity is to be celebrated, but it is clear that it also raises some critical issues around equality of access to services, education, rights, technology and economic development – both in urban and rural environments."

Here are the major highlights from some of the most relevant sessions in the Indian context:

Whose Development?  

The presentation by Ajit Mohanty (who developed the Multilingual Education Policy for Nepal and for Odisha) questioned the roles of English or other global/ post-colonial languages in multi-lingual societies, including India, which tend to be hierarchical in nature, characterised by a double divide: one between the elitist language of power and the major regional languages (vernaculars) and, the other, between the regional languages and the dominated indigenous languages. The "double divide" is associated with loss of linguistic diversity, marginalisation and progressive domain shrinkage of the indigenous languages.

The (Illusory) Promise of English in India  

As in many other countries, in India too, one sees English as the key to a better life. As a result, private (fee-paying) English-medium schools are mushrooming all over, even in rural areas. Besides, especially for Dalits and indigenous people, English promises to by-pass the discrimination within the linguistic hierarchies in the various Indian languages. But Giridhar Rao of Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, in this session, argued that it is a false promise for two reasons. The first is the poor condition of the education system in the country. A recent study by Azim Premji Foundation shows that private schools do not give better academic results compared to government schools. The second reason, according to Rao, is that the introduction and teaching of English do not emerge out of a mother-tongue-based multi-lingual education.

MTB MLE in Odisha  

Mother-tongue-based multi-lingual education (MTB MLE), as a strategy for addressing high student drop-out rate and poor performance in school education in tribal regions, is well-established today in India. Odisha is one of the pioneering states to have adopted this policy in primary schools in tribal regions. Seemita Mohanty, Associate Professor, Department of Humanities of Social Sciences, National Institute of Technology, Rourkela, during her session, Mother-Tongue-Based Multilingual Education in the Indian State of Odisha: Issues, Challenges and Impact, argued that even though the programme is progressing on the right track, there are still numerous issues that need to be handled at the implementation level before it can be designated a success. It is also apparent that certain other language and social issues exist at a latent level, which the MTB MLE approach has not yet been able to address.

A Castle in the Air  

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009, introduces a number of changes in primary education in India. The RTE Act, Article 29.2.f, states, "The medium of instruction shall, as far as practicable, be the child&’s mother tongue." Sujoy Sarkar, a research student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, during his session "A Castle in the Air: Right to Education without Ensuring Linguistic Rights for Tribal Children", argued that the states do not follow the law in practice. How is it possible for RTE to be inclusive of "all" other than providing mother tongue education for linguistic minorities? This Act also mentions active learning (Article 29.2.d) in a child-friendly and child-centred manner. The obvious question that comes to his mind is: Is it possible to provide a child-friendly education without securing the language rights of tribal children (where the school language is totally different from the home language)? His presentation explored the failure of RTE in securing linguistic rights in primary education for linguistic minorities.

Muslim Education and Multilingual Contexts

Sajida Sultana, a research student at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, in her presentation, Muslim Education and Multilingual Contexts: A Study of Madrasas in Hyderabad, investigated the purpose, practice and development of English language education in seven madrasas (Islamic schools) in Hyderabad. The first section of her presentation focused on the educationally-backward status of Muslims by engaging with the Sachar Committee’s report of 2006 and consequent discussions about that report. It underscored the significance of the role played by madrasas in the educational development of Muslims. The second section elaborated the multi-lingual context of madrasa education. The idea of multi-lingual context is used broadly to emphasise the linguistic, socio-economic and cultural diversity of madrasa learners. The third section focused on the factors that resulted in English gaining prominence in madrasa curriculum. It discussed how the needs and aspirations of the learners, necessity of English in the employment opportunities and constant thinking within the madrasa administration in terms of curriculum reform, together constitute the contemporary significance of English in madrasas. The presentation concluded that there is a need to have a greater understanding of madrasa education and also to relate research insights into curricular innovations in the teaching of English in non-native contexts.

Multi-lingualism and Linguistic Poverty

Multi-lingualism in India is part of Indian tradition. The special features of Indian multi-lingualism have been studied by scholars such as Pattanayak (1984), Annamalai (1986), Khubchandani (1983), Srivastava (1977) and Pandit (1979). Multi-lingualism has been recognised as a resource in the educational context. This being the era of globalisation and the era of information and communication through technology, proficiency in technology has become an economic imperative. Government plans to bring the Internet to Gram Panchayat level to bridge the digital divide.

The challenges in achieving this include low literacy level, broadband connectivity and computer skills in rural areas. Compounding this, the non-availability of local languages for accessing the computer and information is a major stumbling block for economic prosperity.

Computers are mediated through English. Fewer than five per cent of people in India can read and write English. Over 95 per cent of the population is normally deprived of the benefits of English-based information technology (IT). Interestingly, IT and the Internet belong mostly to English-knowing and -speaking people. The content that is available on the Internet for the masses is mostly in the elite languages, the highest of which is English. These were the highlights of the session on Multi-lingualism and Linguistic Poverty: Status of Indian Languages in the Digital Context by  L Ramamoorthy, a Research Officer with the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore.