Language and education can be considered together in four possible contexts:



            I.             Language is a medium of education in and out of the classroom.


            II.            Education has to provide for the teaching of the learner’s Own Language.


            III.            It also provides for the teaching of the Other Languages.


            IV.            Finally, education may also seek to provide not only for learning this or that language but also for learning about these languages and language in general as a social institution.


            Knowing a language and knowing about it are quite different things. It is idle to include languages in the curriculum without specifying which kind of knowing is being aimed at.


            One understands by ‘education’ the arrangement for transmitting the heritage of insights, impressions, expressions – of culture in fact – from one generation to the next and by ‘language’ the instrument made socially available to everybody for sharing one’s perceptions, feelings, desires, experience with one or more than one other person. It is not difficult to see, then, how language has come to be not just a medium but the medium of education – especially, formal education.




            In respect of subjects like literature, history, social studies one expects both the teacher and the taught to verbalize freely and in quantities. But one does not extend this expectation to technical or experimental subjects. One does not mind a tongue-tied mechanic or engineer, and an uncommunicative physician or musician – indeed our society also expects if not welcomes this. Arguments for giving a place for language in technical and experimental courses, for recognizing, say, English or Marathi as a subject in ungraduate courses in agriculture, commerce, the natural sciences tend to fall on deaf ears. But this deafness on the part on specialists in these fields is likely to prove dangerous in the long run. One would certainly prefer silent proficiency to voluble inefficiency; but an articulate proficiency is even better. The latter should not be looked upon as a happy accident but consciously striven for in the educational scheme. It is an elementary need of the age of science and industry that technical mastery be communicable through language.

            For a mother to get her daughter to cook or a cobbler to get his little son to take up the family trade is an entirely different proposition from attending a school of home craft or leather craft. The two differ not merely in the social setting of the teaching operation. A mother may need to demonstrate visually how much salt goes with what sort of vegetable rather than specify the quantity in grams. And this may not matter really. But one cannot think of training a wireman or plumber in the same terms. But that is of training a wireman or plumber in the same terms. But that is exactly what happens quite often in India. The net result is quite painful for anyone hoping to get work out of a workman in accordance with precise instructions. The product of a craft school is, furthermore, incapable of giving precise instructions to his subordinates or apprentices or of mastering newer techniques that have come into use after he left the craft school. It is not enough to stock a polytechnic or craft school with hardware. The training methods must successfully overcome age long resistances to formalization.


            The situation is equally dismal – at a higher level! – if one turns to fields such as classical music, engineering, law, medicine, and experimental sciences. If our technicians are only slightly better than skilled labour, our professionals are often only glorified technicians. Not that there are no first rate persons in India in such fields. But their achievements tend to stay with them rather than be transmitted to the next generation. Their results and innovations are not passed on to others. They fail to take an academic interest in their practical work. India lags behind in research in law, medicine, and the like. Indeed whatever new is being created or imported into the country does not get widely disseminated to the intelligent layman as anyone who has tried to get Indian professionals to communicate to the public will have realized.


            The story of the sure remedies of the grandma literally dying with her because she did not tell anyone else about them and the story of the backwardness of medical research by the side of a advances in medical practice are both stories of the survival of the medieval approach to things in this country. We have the best technicians and professionals but they are inarticulate, they either cannot or will not be ready to communicate with each other or with others. It is time we realize that technical education and technical advances are not possible without a liberal and skilled use of language. And I mean skilled use – not just an acquaintance with the technical terminology but the capacity to present one’s say clearly and systematically – as a teacher or a consultant or a client or a popularizer or a discussant or whatever.


            We often hear discussions on the choice of the medium of education – whether Own Language or some other Link Language. The medium of education was first narrowly understood as the language of the classroom floor or the examination hall – then interpreted as inclusive of the so-called library language. At the lowest level of education there just is no alternative to Own Language – ‘Own Language’ is here understood as the regional standard language which the learner is more or less at home with, whether the learner learned it from his immediate family as a first language or not. It does not make sense, for example, to have the adivasi children exposed to the regional language that they do not know – a smoother transition over the first two or three years through the employment of bilingual teachers knowing the adivasi child’s Own Language is essential if the child is not to acquire a permanent distaste of all formal education. Again, at the highest level of education it is equally clear that one cannot limit oneself to the Own Language of the learner as the medium. One cannot study Ayurvedic medicine without knowing Sanskrit or Hindustani music without some Hindi or chemistry in its higher reaches without reading German. The needs at the educational levels in between the highest and the lowest are not so clear cut and need to be a studied with care. In so doing, one must constantly bear in mind that language is a medium not merely for imparting information but for organizing thoughts. For organizing one’s thoughts or following the contours of someone else’s thoughts more than a perfunctory knowledge of the language is required – this is often overlooked by those glibly talking about a  “quickie” course in English as a prerequisite to undergraduate economics or philosophy.





            To realize the heavy freight that a language carries is to realize how heavy a responsibility the language teacher is called upon to bear. Indeed he has to share it with the other teachers. George Sampson, the English educationist, has said, “Every teacher is a teacher in English.” (English for the English, London, 1922) Thus, a teacher who uses, say Marathi as a medium of teaching is also thereby a teacher of Marathi. The popular administrative assumption that just anybody knowing Marathi can be assigned the job of teaching Marathi has to be reversed. On the contrary, even for teaching the other subjects a good control of Marathi is necessary so that the teacher will also be in a position to nurture the Marathi of his pupils. The teacher formally in charge of Marathi is simply the leader of this operation. The full meaning of Sampson’s dictum has to be seen in some such terms.


            Now, can one assume that the language being used as a medium in the first years of school is already known to the child entering the school? So put, the question looks obvious enough. But it is not uncommon to see Indian children floundering through an English-medium pre-primary or primary school, the parents and the school authorities making the gratuitous assumption that though the children do not speak English at home somehow they will muddle through and learn other subjects with the help of a language that they do not know!


            And then I have already made a reference to the Korku or Koilam child being called upon to learn in Marathi without having learned Marathi in the first place. The same is true, though somewhat less acutely so, of the child who speaks some non-standard version of Marathi facing a teacher impatient with his failure to use standard Marathi whether passively or actively. It is high time that the teacher and the school administration realize the child’s predicament and adopt a less casual and more sympathetic approach.


            When a Marathi-speaking child learns Hindi, he is not expected to give Marathi the go-by: rather it is just that he is expected to learn a new language in addition to his own – simply for the purpose of opening up new channels of communication to him. Similarly, standard Marathi is to be looked upon as a link language for the various regional versions of Marathi found in Maharashtra; in any case it is not the private property of any region or class. The school child should neither be made to feel that he is no good if he cannot use standard Marathi correctly nor be led to believe that he has nothing to lose by not being able to use an acceptable version of standard Marathi. Rather standard Marathi should be presented to him as a window to the wider world outside the family and the village. Just as one can speak, say, Kolhapur Marathi correctly or write poems or stories in it, one need not exactly find it beyond oneself to master standard Marathi and make it one’s Own Language.


            Does this mean that there is no teaching problem for those pupils who happen to speak standard Marathi at home? Not at all, because quite a part from the dialect diversity at the regional level and the language diversity at the all-India level, a developing country like India is facing a more subtle problem – a problem that is not much talked about that may turn out to be the most important one in the long run. The problem is that of meeting the need of moulding a language nurtured in an agricultural, feudal, rural society with poor communications in such a fashion that it can cope with the triple needs of a modern society, namely:


            (a)            impersonal, standardized expression of science and routinized contents                                    (such that it is accessible to those who need it);


            (b)            richly distinctive expression of novel ideas and personal feelings in literature and thought (such that the individual is not submerged in the midst of a mass society with its pressures for confirmism); and


            (c)             the expression of shared ideas and feelings (such that it is has wide access and appeal in journalism and public life but avoids stale clichēs, snob appeal, or esoteric; argon).


            The problem is not something to be solved in the classroom. The instrument is to be forged by the writers and speakers themselves. What the teacher can do is to make the student aware of the problem and master the instrument as it is being forged.


            Liveliness is ensured through visual and audio-visual aids, dramatization ranging from question-answer to a full-scale dialogue, the choice of graded connected texts with story or other interest, and, finally, relating all this material to the learner’s own interests. Habituation is ensured through audio-aids, memorization of connected texts ranging from nursery rhymes to dialogues, and drilling; it is essential for building a working base in phonology and grammar. Improvisation – coping with “unseen” texts and producing “unseen” texts – is encouraged by variation drills, guided dialogue and composition, and learning to learn new words, idioms and constructions. A controlled and limited use of grammar and of explanations of meaning and grammar in Own Language need not be taboo so long as these do not usurp the main goal.


            Finally, while the use of phonetics and grammar in the class-room has to be indirect and limited, a good and up-to-date knowledge of these subjects is essential on the part of the language teacher and the teacher-trainer.





            So far we have concerned ourselves with the place of language in education as its medium, with the teaching of Own Language, and with the teaching of Other Languages. In so doing we emphasized the distinction between the knowledge of language in a practical sense and the knowledge about language. We shall now attempt to find a place for this latter sort of knowledge under the educational sun.


            The study and research in linguistics has only recently been put on the academic map of India at the postgraduate level, Welcome as this encouragement to linguistics is, it is not enough. It is only proper that a  knowledge about the fundamentals of language – about what makes it tick and what makes a problem out of it – be disseminated beyond the circle of specialists.


            Even as a citizen should know the history and geography of his country, he should have some basic notion of this very important social institution, this important aspect of his very make-up – at the very least, he should not entertain elementary misconceptions on the subject. In a multi-lingual country like India, this is not merely desirable but essential.


            At the primary or secondary school level, it is not inconceivable that a and a certain understanding about language and about the languages around oneself can be nourished as a part of the teaching of history, geography, and social studies. Linguistic science need not be a formal subject in the curriculum; the teaching of Own Language provides a good occasion to inculcate a clear awareness of sound and writing systems, of grammar and vocabulary, of the emergence of meaning and of language variation. Naturally, this means that the text books will have to be recast and the teachers reoriented. A clear-headedness in these matters may have a beneficial effect on Other Language learning and teaching. Turning to the collegiate level, linguistics can certainly be offered as a subordinate elective subject. This will help the diffusion of a better appreciation of language and its problems among the educated laymen.


            What languages to teach how many to teach, whom to teach them, and in which language to teach other subjects – we have all found ourselves discussing these questions at the practical and political levels. But the why and how of language teaching is equally important to consider. If the neglects of Other Language teaching can be costly, the neglect of Own Language teaching can be paralyzing. The prospect of a generation coming up that commands no language sufficiently well to meet the pressing needs of a modern society is very grim indeed.





            This was published in Vishveshvananand indological journal 13; 1-7, 1975 (Acharya D. Vishwa Bandha commemoration Volume, part –II). Also reprinted in  South Asian Language Review 4:2:1-8, 1994 (Creative Books, New Delhi).