Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Language and Education: Refuting the lies on forked tongues

An easy way to respond to the small, but very vocal group, that insists that all state-supported schools in Goa impart education in the vernacular medium would be to point out that this group is animated essentially by Hindu nationalists. Their dangerous ideology is perilous to the health and well-being of all in this country, as is being demonstrated in the criminally negligent way in which the ongoing pandemic crisis is being managed.

Such a response is not, however, sufficient to understand why this group gets adherents, even among those who may not overtly identify with Hindu nationalism; and to offer a reasoned rebuttal of their problematic arguments.

The primary, and perhaps the best, argument of this group is it claims to offer a scientific reason, but which is best described as pseudo-scientific. They argue that young children are best educated in their ‘mother-tongue’. Prima facie this is, in fact, a logical argument. A young learner, especially a first-generation learner, would perhaps learn best in their first language, rather than through a second language for which they have no support outside of the classroom. The fundamental flaw with this argument, however, is the assumption that the vernacular medium is the first language of the student.

Take the case of Konkani, or even Marathi, as taught in schools. Highly sanskritised forms of dominant caste version of the languages, they bear little resemblance to the language spoken by the student in the home. We are familiar with the argument of the many Konkani-speaking Catholics in Goa who argue that as adults they have difficulty in understanding the Sanskritised Konkani that is introduced to their children in school. The response to this argument is to challenge the validity of the Konkani spoken by Catholics. And this is exactly the problem with the insistence that the medium of instruction necessarily be in the vernacular, that this vernacular is actually not a vernacular at all, i.e., it is not the language spoken by the child in the home. It is the official state language, which is very often quite divergent from the natal language of the child. In effect, with instruction being provided in the official language(s) of the state, the child still has to struggle with a second language.

If such is the case, then the valid counter-argument is: why should the parents not decide which (second) language to have their children educated in? Surely it is the right of the parents to decide what is best for their children? The state cannot be said to enjoy this right; it merely has an obligation to enable the parents to exercise their rights. To not recognise this fact would push us towards authoritarianism, which as we see from the experience unfolding around us, is exactly the kind of political regime that Hindu nationalism is comfortable with.

Equipping their children for social mobility is one of the aims of all parents – including those who cannot afford private education. It is primarily for this reason that parents opt for English as a language of formal education. They know for a fact that an international language opens up wider vistas for their children. The vernacular languages, on the contrary, tend to limit the capacities of their children not simply because these languages are restricted in scope, but also because these idioms are tied to the very local casteist social regime. The fact is that the official languages of states in India, and especially in Goa, are largely pegged to the linguistic form of the Brahmin, which in Goa means the Gaud Saraswat brahmin. As such, no matter how well a person learns this form, the ultimate arbiter of the perfection of the language will always be a Saraswat, and all others, will be seen as trying to reach the ideal. In other words, with an education in the official language of the State, not only are one’s horizons limited, but one is also chained to subservience in a grossly unequal socio-political order.

The argument of those demanding compulsory education in the vernacular also draws on the emotional charge of respect for the mother-tongue. Capitalising on the love that one feels for one’s mother, and the desire to show her respect, these activists suggest that a desire to be educated in English is to show disrespect for one’s mother-tongue. We have already seen how the medium of instruction used in schools is not the mother-tongue of students, but in fact a second language. The concept of the mother-tongue is an invention from the late-eighteenth to nineteenth century. This was the period when both in Europe and subsequently across the colonized world there was an attempt to build national states.

Language was used to build national communities and for this reason language was represented as a mother, and individuals presented as children of this mother with a duty to protect her. The relationship with language was more complex prior to this period. One did, of course, belong to a language group, but one’s socio-political relationship was not entirely determined by belonging to one language group, or any single social group. On the contrary, a person belonged to multiple groups. One could speak one language to one’s caste group, for example, and another language in the bazaar. For those who belonged to elite groups, or merchant groups, the number of languages that they could speak increased. Take the Saraswats who operated as translators (Dubash) for the regional courts. They spoke their caste form of Konkani within the home, spoke Marathi in the Maratha courts, and Portuguese in the Portuguese establishment for which they worked. It is inconceivable that these men, who benefited in all these situations, would argue that they did not belong to these multiple worlds. The argument of respect for the mother-tongue, therefore, is merely a cheap exercise in sentimentality, which cannot and must not, be allowed to trump the rights, and the futures, of persons.

(A version of this text was first published in Fr. Agnel's Call, Vol.56, June 2021, pp. 10-11.)

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