India’s rush to teach in native languages may be premature

Even with automated translation technology, perfecting course materials in multiple languages will take time, says Mukhtar Ahmad

八月 30, 2021
Source: iStock

Fourteen engineering colleges in India have been permitted to impart courses in regional languages by the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE), an umbrella body for technical education.

This is in line with provisions of the new National Education Policy (NEP), which calls for students at all levels of India’s education system to be taught in their mother tongues as far as possible, in preference to English. The AICTE’s move came after it conducted a survey of 83,000 students in its affiliated colleges, which found that 44 per cent of them would opt for instruction in their mother tongues.

But while there is no doubt about the effectiveness of teaching primary school classes in students’ mother tongues, the wisdom of adopting the same approach to tertiary-level technical courses is open to question.

The lack of books and teaching materials in many languages is one obvious issue. AICTE chairman Anil Sahasrabudhe told The Indian Express that his organisation has already translated video lectures on the government’s SWAYAM platform into eight regional languages, with another three to come, and the council is now “roping in teachers to translate existing textbooks and also write their own in regional languages”. The translation effort is aided by an automated translation tool developed by AICTE, but the rush to implement the new courses from this year seems misguided given that automated translation still needs a lot of human checking.

Proponents of mother-tongue instruction note that in non-anglophone countries such as China, Japan and most of Europe, higher education is mostly delivered in students’ native languages – and this has not prevented these countries from being homes to great scientific and engineering talent. But all of these countries are largely homogeneous linguistically.

India, on the other hand, has diverse languages and cultures. One class may contain students with a variety of mother tongues, making teaching far from smooth. Instruction at all educational levels involves explaining texts and solutions, using writing on the board, for instance. Even if the texts are translated into a variety of languages, classroom teaching can be done in only one language; how this problem can be overcome is still unclear.

The prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology have different views on the merits of teaching in regional languages. IIT Delhi director V. Ramgopal Rao said in an interview that conducting entire engineering courses in regional languages might be “the beginning of the end” of IITs because “our faculty selections need to be on a global scale” and students would be deprived of “a vast amount of resource material available in English”. 

Even if the teaching challenges are somehow met, the employment prospects of students graduating from these programmes will be jeopardised. Most students of IITs and National Institutes of Technology (NITs) aim for employment in top companies, some of which are multinational. These firms may not be interested in hiring engineers whose English language ability is not up to scratch. Sahasrabudhe told The Indian Express that the AICTE’s translations will retain the English names of scientific concepts, but workers in international companies also need to be able to converse more generally in English. Rejected candidates may find jobs in the public sector, but government posts are very limited and are shrinking further.

Substandard English ability will also be a problem for students who want to pursue higher studies, both in India and abroad. Even if they gain entry, master’s courses and research materials are mostly available in English only. Even the top Chinese and Japanese scientists publish their work in English, and, in India, there is hardly any reputable journal in a regional language.

If the AICTE must begin its reforms this year, it would be better to start with the most commonly used mother tongue in India, Hindi. This could form a pilot project, allowing the authorities to see how the experiment goes down with the students. But just as important will be to see how, four years later, it goes down with employers. If it proves unpopular, the NEP’s overarching aim of making Indian graduates more employable will have failed.

Mukhtar Ahmad is former professor of electrical engineering at Aligarh Muslim University.


Print headline: Multilingual muddle



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