Real challenge for three-language formula is in Hindi belt, not South India

With the 'Hindi imposition' row having died down for now, the three-language formula (TLF) could face its real test in Hindi-speaking states and over the manner in which the Draft National Education Policy 2019 recommends its implementation.

After a proposal that was seen as being intended to make Hindi mandatory in schools in non-Hindi speaking states sparked outrage, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) had last week revised the Draft NEP 2019, which no longer has a mention of the language being made compulsory. Both the Centre and former Isro chief K Kasturirangan, who heads the panel on the Draft NEP 2019, have clarified that there were no efforts afoot to impose Hindi. The committee led by Chairman Kasturirangan on May 31 submitted the Draft NEP 2019 to HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal 'Nishank'. The report has been put online for suggestions until June 30.

The Draft NEP 2019 recommends the continuation of the three-language formula in schools. The policy appears to recognise that Hindi-speaking states have not properly implemented the TLF, at least not in the way it was originally framed -- a truth that has often been drowned out by protests by South Indian political parties, particularly in Tamil Nadu, against what they view as the imposition of Hindi in schools in their state. 

The policy says that the three-language formula "must be better implemented in certain states, particularly Hindi-speaking states". It recommends that schools in Hindi-speaking areas should teach Indian languages from other parts of the country. 

Historically a tall order

Past experience shows that this is easier said than done.   

In response to a question in the Lok Sabha in August 2014, Kiren Rijiju, the then junior minister in the home ministry of the earlier NDA government, had listed the possible reasons why the three-language formula was not implemented effectively. One of the reasons given was that Hindi-speaking states did not include any South Indian language in their school curriculum. Rijiju had informed Parliament that Hindi was not taught only in Tamil Nadu, Tripura and Puducherry. Tamil Nadu follows a two-language formula -- Tamil and English. Meanwhile, he had informed, "In many of the Hindi-speaking states, Sanskrit became the third language instead of any modern Indian language (preferably south Indian language)." 

The National Policy on Education 1968 had said: "At the secondary stage, the State Governments should adopt, and vigorously implement, the three-language formula which includes the study of a modern Indian language, preferably one of the southern languages, apart from Hindi and English in the Hindi-speaking States, and of Hindi along with the regional language and English in the non-Hindi-speaking States."  

"The old three-language formula under the Official Language Resolution of Parliament in 1968 was implemented neither in letter nor spirit," says D Shyam Babu, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. He explains that Hindi-speaking states never promoted non-Hindi and "preferably one of the Southern languages", even as non-Hindi-speaking states continued to teach Hindi -- with Tamil Nadu having obtained an exception to this policy. 

Babu gives the example of the time when Bihar had opted for Telugu as the third language, while Andhra Pradesh had picked Hindi. While Bihar went back on the TLF, Andhra continues with the formula.   

While recommending that Hindi-speaking states teach Indian languages from other parts of the country, the 2019 policy drops the "preferably one of the southern languages" part that was there in the 1968 policy. 

Still, it remains to be seen how many Hindi-speaking states will opt for Assamese, Bengali or Oriya, for example, as the third language to be taught in their schools. Education falls under the Constitution's concurrent list of subjects that can be legislated upon by both the Centre and states. Back in 2014, Rijiju had informed Parliament that different states had interpreted the three-language formula in different ways and, as a result, its implementation had been "uneven". 

Moreover, there are concerns over the formula itself, and the manner in which the Draft NEP 2019 recommends to implement it.  

Why catching them young may not work

The Draft NEP 2019 recommends that children learn three languages from the "Foundational Stage", which consists of three years of pre-primary school and Grades 1 and 2. The policy says this recommendation is based on research, which it says "clearly shows that children pick up languages extremely quickly between the ages of two and eight". The stated aim is to develop speaking proficiency and interaction, and the ability to recognise scripts and read basic text, in all three languages by Grade-3 -- by the time the child is eight or nine years old.  

Dhir Jhingran, founder director of Language and Learning Foundation, argues that this recommendation is a bad idea and that the policy has confused language acquisition with language learning. He says that research shows young children can acquire multiple languages if they are appropriately exposed to them through natural communication, like what happens at home when they acquire their first language. However, he adds that "there is no evidence that young children have a strong ability to learn unfamiliar and additional languages when they are taught formally in school through textbooks and teachers, along with examinations." Instead, he says, there is evidence that children of ages 10 or above are better placed to learn additional languages in the classroom. 

Further, Jhingran argues that expecting children to learn three different scripts within the first three years of entering school would be a very heavy cognitive burden to place on those between the ages of five and seven, because each Indian language has a very large number of 'aksharas' (visual units) that would have to be mastered in two to three years' time. Jhingran is also a former IAS officer who worked as director in the Ministry of Human Resource Development.  

A policy mindset frozen in time?

The TLF was devised during the chief ministers' conferences held in 1961. Subsequently, the National Commission on Education, known as the Kothari commission, recommended a graduated formula, which, in turn, was recommended by the 1968 policy.  

Ganesh Narayan Devy, chairman of the People's Linguistic Survey of India, feels that the formula has not kept up with the changing times. "The significantly different demographic context in 2019 will make the three-language formula unacceptable," says Devy. Pointing to large-scale migrations from one linguistic state to another, which have taken place since the 1980s, he says that the TLF would be a "cruel punishment" for students whose parents have migrated recently to a state using a different language than their home state. 

Back in 2014, Rijiju had also informed the Parliament that for the speakers of linguistic minority languages, the three-language formula had become a "four-language formula" as they had to learn their mother tongue, the dominant regional language, English and Hindi. "The three-language formula shows scant sensitivity towards the educational needs of children belonging to small-language communities," says Devy.

He adds that the TLF is founded on a deeply flawed understanding of people's linguistic behaviour and choices. "It has no consideration for the linguistic rights of individual citizens, and is, therefore, undemocratic," Devy explains.

D Shyam Babu goes a step further and says that the three-language formula is unconstitutional in any form. Citing the case of Karnataka vs Recognised-Unaided Schools to back his argument, he recounts how a Supreme Court Constitution Bench had ruled in 2014 that imposing even the mother tongue as the medium of instruction would violate a person's fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. "From where does the government get the right to make language teaching compulsory when it can't even make students learn in their own mother tongue," he says.

In defence of the formula 

This doesn't mean that TLF has no takers. Swaraj India National President Yogendra Yadav, who has worked as an advisor with the NCERT in the past, and Thiruvananthapuram MP and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor have defended the formula.  

In a recent opinion piece, Yadav described the three-language formula as a "prudent way to resolve the vexed issue of English and the various modern Indian languages...". He also wrote that the formula accorded due respect to the primacy of state and regional languages and recognised Hindi's usefulness as "a bridge among Indian languages" and English's "as a bridge to the world outside India". He lamented: "Sadly, the formula was never practiced in its true spirit." 

Tharoor told news agencies recently that the three-language formula should not be abandoned, but should be better implemented instead. At the same time, he pointed out that TLF was never properly implemented. "Most of us in the South learn Hindi as a second language, but nobody in the North is learning Malayalam or Tamil." 

Ultimately, the successful implementation of the three-language formula as envisaged by the Draft NEP 2019 will depend upon the resources invested into it. Once again, Rijiju's 2014 answer in Parliament is instructive -- one of the reasons for the formula not being implemented effectively was that the states, most often, didn't have adequate resources for providing additional language teachers and teaching-learning material.

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