In November 2020, the Union education ministry announced that IITs and NITs will begin offering engineering courses in vernacular languages from the following academic year. Last week, the Prime Minister had also advocated the teaching of technical courses in Indian languages while interacting with heads of the IITs and other centrally funded technical institutions. While we have confirmed that IIT Bombay will not be offering such courses from the 2021-22 academic year, B. Tech. in vernacular languages is set to become a reality at some other All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) affiliated colleges and possibly, very soon, at IIT Bombay too! With this article, Insight shares its take on the same.
Benefits of Teaching in Vernacular Languages
While the feasibility of vernacular language teaching is still in doubt (especially in national-level institutes like the IITs accepting a diverse group of students every year), some encouraging research on how useful it might be to the students’ learning outcomes does exist. While vernacular learning is proven to be highly beneficial in schools, as elucidated by this paper (backed up by research from UNESCO) as well as this article by the British Council, some findings may even be extrapolated for higher education. For example, it is well-understood that learning in one’s mother tongue helps improve cognitive abilities and leads to a faster understanding of concepts (more so in kids but to some degree in teenagers as well); conversely, learning in a language not well understood by the student may even lead to insecurity and low self-esteem. This also hinders the student’s participation in the courses, inhibiting them from asking and answering questions, making new suggestions and sharing knowledge freely. This is highly important as it is unanimously recommended by educationalists that learner-centred interactive learning is one of the best ways to learn. Another interesting finding states that vernacular language learning sometimes may be more comfortable even for instructors who are better-versed in their mother tongue than in English.
While the ‘why’ of vernacular language degrees isn’t really in question, it becomes important to understand that the above research doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The much-celebrated benefits of using mother-tongue to improve learning outcomes may be diluted by the fact that in the institute, ‘learning for the sake of learning’ is often overshadowed by learning for future career benefits. Also, with over 80% of the peer-reviewed scientific literature being in English and with most companies that come for placements requiring at least a basic understanding of English communication, it can very well be argued whether it is prudent to run courses in vernacular languages versus teaching students basic English (through programs like ELIT) which could at least help them understand their ongoing courses better, as well as build up their communication skills for the future.
Implementation in other countries
While it is true that education in one’s own mother tongue can lead to better learning and therefore, a stronger skillset, the bigger question is about the employability of such individuals. With increased globalization, one’s fluency in foreign languages is not just an additional line in a CV but a legitimate skill that employers actively look for. Especially in the Indian context, where our growth has been led by the service sector and not the labour-intensive manufacturing sector (unlike most other developed countries), English has and continues to play a pivotal role in the economic sense too.
A common example of the success of language protectionism, which is often cited, is that of China. While historically, most of the education in China, starting from the primary level, has been heavily dominated by instruction in Chinese languages, the trends are steadily changing. With the economy slowly opening up to the rest of the world, the demand for foreign language education in China is on the rise, as it opens up increased opportunities. Even at the top Chinese universities, such as Tsinghua and Peking, the number of courses taught in English is increasing year after year. This is in part, to cater to the increasing number of international students. Typically, courses in finance, business management, data science, etc. which have better resources (journal papers, textbooks) in the English language are taught in English
Anna University’s decision to offer engineering courses in the native language and the state government’s announcement of its plans to reserve 20% of its jobs for Tamil medium students in the same year, 2010, can’t be perceived as a mere coincidence. It is usually the signals from the job market that nudge academia to move in a certain direction, thus, this state government promise stirred the demand for Tamil medium courses in Anna University, a good chunk of students took these Tamil medium courses. Fast forward 3.5 years, into the placement season, we see this: –
“Today, the first batch of Tamil-medium engineering students at Anna University is worried a lot. The placements began in August first week and will go on till next month. Over 10 companies have visited the campus and recruited over 2,000 engineering students, but only two of the 120 Tamil medium students have been selected.”
- THE HINDU
The promises of the state government remained mere promises, their plans were shelved, and the students had to bear the brunt. It has been more than a decade now, and Anna university still offers Tamil medium courses- the placement scenario for the students is the same if not worse.
Just like our college, placements in every college are dominated by private companies. Students have to make a resume in English, write tests designed in English, wear the American suit, have a good conversation with the interviewer, preferably in English, and if selected, work in an environment where things are again predominantly English!. There is nothing native in this conventional placement process (yet!) and hence students taking courses in their native languages continue to be in a disadvantageous position.
Don’t get us wrong, there are many career options for graduates who completed their higher education in vernacular languages:-
One can join the prestigious government offices; barring the lack of availability of good preparation resources in native languages, the competition is very fair there. One can of course translate English books to native languages. People who are proficient in regional languages can also proofread computer translations and train AI for better translations. We also have user interface designers who design apps and web pages in the native language. These are just a few options out of the many that may exist. proper information about these options is something that is not accessible to everyone and is a big problem one has to deal with.
In December last year, the Tamil Nadu government finally approved the 20% reservations to Tamil medium candidates in direct recruitment to the government. The candidate should have completed her/his studies in Tamil medium up to the educational qualification prescribed for recruitment. Data on the effectiveness of this move to improve native language education in the state is not yet available.
Implementation in India :
Anna university has a separate class for the Tamil medium students. Instructions are meant to be in the native language but in practice, it is predominantly carried out in English. Tamil textbooks are made available in the library and if not, full-time faculty is available for any clarifications or discussion even outside of classrooms. Students have the option to write the exams in Tamil or in English.
In a compelling article by The KGP Chronicle, the current Director of IIT KGP, Prof. Virendra Kumar Tewari, – who considers augmenting regional languages in technical education as a ‘necessary long-term goal’ – explains how vernacular teaching in national-level institutes like IITs could be envisioned. This model of teaching suggests several innovative ideas to practically implement vernacular teaching. However, some elements of it could have feasibility issues when they might be implemented. In brief, here are some interesting pointers from Prof. Tewari’s plan :
- The model talks about ‘regional language hubs’ – bringing together students and teachers from similar vernacular backgrounds as per requirement and availability, to provide regional language-assisted learning to the students in addition to their regular classes in English
- The disparity between teacher-student numbers in these hubs could be compensated using audio translation aids, such as the ones used in the Indian Parliament and the UN
- To cover the need for vernacular language-based learning resources (books, research articles and other multimedia material), AI-based aids could be used to translate these from English; with IIT Kgp having already started working with the AICTE in this direction.
- SWAYAM courses
In order to assist students in rural India, the study material on the government’s e-learning platform, SWAYAM is being translated into eight regional languages. The platform currently has 521 courses in vernacular languages. The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) is actively inviting applications from teachers and also other students to translate courses to regional languages to make learning accessible to a broader mass. The translated videos are made available on SWAYAM, NPTEL and also YouTube. Soon it will be possible to learn most of the undergraduate level technical courses in your native language through SWAYAM. This move is also expected to complement English medium courses for better subject understanding for those who are more comfortable learning in their native language.
In order to assess the benefits and limitations of education in regional languages, this paper takes a look at some of the key performance indicators:
- Performance of students: Receiving education in one’s mother tongue is certainly more effective but it’s contingent on several other factors. Firstly, the instructors should have a command of the mother tongue and have the ability to effectively communicate in the same language. Secondly, additional resources such as textbooks and journals need to be made available in the respective language. Lastly, effective learning needs a conducive environment, that is free of judgement and discrimination.
- Innovation: Scientific temper is not restricted to one’s proficiency in a certain language, but the application and communication are. If the reading materials covering the relevant concepts and basic knowledge are written in a language that one does not understand, then one’s ability to come up with innovative ideas may be compromised.
- Employability: With increased competition caused by globalisation as well as technological advancements that enable the mechanisation of processes, most developing countries are facing increasing levels of unemployment. If education in vernacular languages grows, the local job market must also grow proportionately to keep up with the supply.
- University Competitiveness: Factors that strengthen university competitiveness include production of high quality and quantities of graduates, high-quality demand-driven research outputs, participation in national and international collaborative programmes, innovative research which results in useful products or policies and publication of research outputs. Generally, these factors to a large extent require the use of an international language.
- Contribution to national development: Universities in developing countries have a role to play in promoting the socio-economic development of people. Through the conduction of relevant research, universities should address the needs of their countries primarily and global needs secondarily.
Other than the aforementioned parameters, the multiplicity of vernacular languages, the risk of ethnic discrimination and ‘isolationism’ and preservation of vernacular languages are some of the important factors that need to be considered.