September 18, 2017 By

Why Mother Tongue Medium in a Multilingual Context?

Let's start with the evidence for something commonsensical: children learn best in their mother tongue (MT). The world's biggest study tracked the performance of 210 000 students in the United States over eight years. The study found that the longer students learnt in the MT, the better their academic performance was. This included how well they learnt their second language (English) as well. (Skutnabb-Kangas and Dunbar, 2010: 96).

This was found to be true in Ethiopia as well. Some regions there transfer to English medium after just four or six years of mother tongue medium (MTM) education. Other regions transfer after eight years. “Grade 8 data show that those learners who have had 8 years of MTM education plus English as a subject perform better across the curriculum, in mathematics, biology, chemistry, etc. than those who have had English-medium education from grade 5 or 7. In addition, their results in the English language are better than the results of most of the early-exit regions.... In summary, the data show that the longer the students have MTM, the better their overall academic achievement (Skutnabb-Kangas and Dunbar, 2010: 98).

Thus, in both well and poorly resourced education systems, developing thinking skills in the mother tongue makes it easier to learn other tongues as well.

This research evidence has immediate lessons for education in our multilingual Indian reality. If MTM education leads to better learning outcomes, then first, appropriate MTM textbooks and other learning materials need to be prepared. Second, teachers should teach in the learner's MT. Third, English (or another dominant, non-MT) should be taught as a subject rather than used as the medium of instruction.

First, then, "appropriate textbooks" means that the content of the textbook needs to be experientially familiar to the learner. Moreover, the language used in the textbook should be as close as possible to the everyday language of the learner; it should not be in an inaccessibly formal register (e. g., a highly Sanskritized Telugu for a child in Telangana). Further, the lesson’s exercises and activities should encourage learners to actively bring their own languages into the classroom.

Second, teacher training needs to include skills to use the MT resources that learners already possess. To get such teachers, recruitment needs to be flexible. Teachers may have demonstrable ability to teach in the learner’s MT, but may not have the formal certification required by the system. The provisions currently in place in Odisha are an indicator of how such recruitment is possible: “teachers fluent in the children’s language will get priority in recruitment” (Rao 2014).

Third, regarding the medium of instruction, the school language (which is usually the dominant regional language) is often not the MT of the learner: (a) it may be an entirely different language (English for a Gujarati-speaking child); or (b) the school language may be a quite different variety than the home language of the learner (Andhra Telugu for a Telangana child).

In some sense, none of this is new. Back in 1938, Gandhi described his educational experience this way:

“Up to the age of 12 all the knowledge I gained was through Gujarati, my mother tongue.... Then I entered a High school. For the first three years the mother tongue was still the medium. But the school-master’s business was to drive English into the pupil’s head. Therefore, more than half of our time was given to learning English and mastering its arbitrary spelling and pronunciation….

“The pillory began with the fourth year. Everything had to be learnt through English - Geometry, Algebra, Chemistry, Astronomy, History and Geography. The tyranny of English was so great that even Sanskrit or Persian had to be learnt through English, not through the mother tongue. If any boy spoke in the class in Gujarati which he understood, he was punished. It did not matter to the teacher if a boy spoke bad English which he could neither pronounce correctly nor understand fully. Why should the teacher worry? His own English was by no means without blemish. It could not be otherwise. English was as much a foreign language to him as to his pupils. The result was chaos. We the boys had to learn many things by heart, though we could not understand them fully and often not at all.… I know now that what I took four years to learn of Arithmetic, Geometry, Algebra, Chemistry and Astronomy, I should have learnt easily in one year, if I had not to learn them through English but Gujarati. My grasp of the subjects would have been easier and clearer. My Gujarati vocabulary would have been richer. I would have made use of such knowledge in my own home. This English medium created an impassable barrier between me and the members of my family, who had not gone through English schools.… I was fast becoming a stranger in my own home. I certainly became a superior person. Even my dress began to undergo imperceptible changes. What happened to me was not an uncommon experience. It was common to the majority.… High schools were schools for cultural conquest by the English. The knowledge gained by the three hundred boys of my high school became a circumscribed possession. It was not for transmission to the masses.” (Gandhi 1938 (1999), 279-80)

In a brief two paragraphs, Gandhi presents a diagnosis that is as valid today as it was in 1938. MTM education facilitates learning; English-medium teaching makes learning difficult for most Indian students; and English-medium schooling creates a separate class of citizens. Nevertheless, English is widely perceived today as the great enabler for social mobility.

But in thinking about language and exclusion in the Indian education system, we need to broaden Gandhi's definition of a ‘foreign medium’. For children of Indigenous Peoples, linguistic minorities, and speakers of dialects not considered the ‘standard language’, the language of the textbook and the classroom might well be the ‘foreign medium’. Indeed, Dhir Jhingran (2005) estimates that for at least 20-25% of school-going children in India, the home language and the school language are different.

So, when we speak of multilingual education in India, we need to keep in mind all these levels:

  • Good data on who speaks what language and what language-variety.
  • Teachers who can teach in the language or language-variety of the learner.
  • Teacher training that sensitizes teachers to the multilingual nature of their classroom.
  • Multilingual pedagogy that builds the capacity of the teacher.
  • Textbooks that actively encourage learners to use their own language resources.

The complexity of multilingual education is such that one can only reiterate the wise words of Lachman Khubchandani: “when dealing with plural societies, we shall do well to realise the risks involved in uniform solutions” (Khubchandani 2001, 43).

To learn more about terminologies in multilingual education, you can consult  this table which has been extracted from the paper "Key concepts in bilingual education: Ideological historical, epistemological, and empirical foundations."


Gandhi, M. K. 1938. Higher education. Harijan 9th February 1938. Reprinted in M. K. Gandhi. 1999. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic Book), Volume 73, pp. 278-283. New Delhi: Publications Division Government of India.

Jhingran, Dhir. 2005. Language Disadvantage: The Learning Challenge in Primary Education. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation.

Khubchandani, L. M. 2001. Language demography and language education. In C. J. Daswani (ed.), Language Education in Multilingual India, pp. 3-47 New Delhi: UNESCO.

Rao, A. Giridhar. 2014. Odisha promotes multilingual education. Bolii.

Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove and Dunbar, Robert. 2010. Indigenous Children's Education as Linguistic Genocide and a Crime Against Humanity? A Global View. Gáldu Čála – Journal of Indigenous Peoples Rights No. 1/2010

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  1. Very nicely describe the importance of MT,that is the reason why we are not getting fruitful result in our school system.

  2. Dear Giri,
    This article is an eye opener on use of MT in early years. Very well argued and articulated. My Father-in-law is involved with an Kannada medium school and he argues on same lines during many instances. The challenge you highlight with not just multi-lingual setting but also dialects is very true. Many a times there are so many words and phrases that are not comprehended across dialects. It’s important for teachers to be knowing the nuances but many a times isn’t it the false aspirations of parents that also act negatively on child’s language development? Parents in many urban settings switch to speaking in English ( not well structured ) with children believing they are helping children grasp the spoken tongue. In my limited exposure I notice that in low fee paying English Medium schools the spoken English of teachers are problematic, however children are forced to speak in that alien tongue and it remains alien a long time.

  3. The dispassionate discussion based on research evidence should be an eye opener for the policy makers as well as the administrators entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring the education of the millions of children who are the victims of the cliche, ‘English for Empowerment.’
    Regarding the second point, teachers “may not have the formal certification required by the system” , I would like to point out that the popular perception that any native speaker of a particular language is capable of teaching that language is fraught with dangerous consequences. Again, I have noticed many teachers of Major Indian languages who cannot speak or write the standard variety of the Indian language they teach. My Bengali teacher in the primary classes often used to pronounce “alo” (light) as “alu” (potato).
    Again, nobody takes the training of the teachers teaching Indian languages seriously. We have one central University,, two Regional Institutes of English (One in Bangalore, and the other in Chandigarh) and more than fourteen English Language Teaching/Training institutes across the country for the professional development of teachers teaching English as second language. All these institutes are either Govt or autonomous organisations funded and managed by respective State Govts. I am not sure how many Govt. Institutes were established to impart in-service training programmes to the teachers who teach Indian languages. MIL teachers are a deprived lot . A B.Ed or a D.El.Ed is not enough to enhance their professional competence as a teacher of MIL.
    Though the writer has referred to Odisha (Rao 2014), I am not sure if the teacher’s fluency in the children’s language should be the only criterion for selecting an MIL teacher. Language teaching, be it the mother tongue or the second language is a technical skill and therefore, it needs a technical solution, not a political one.

    1. Dear Parthasarathi, Thank you for this comment! Very thought provoking indeed! You make a compelling argument when you say merely being a native speaker of a particular language, however necessary, is not entirely sufficient! And then again, what would the situation such as a multilingual classroom demand of a teacher? What kind of skill development or support could we offer?

  4. We have a question for our readers! Please let us know your thoughts on this –
    Giri is arguing for late exit, Mother Tongue (MT) based programmes in his piece – something that is backed by most educators. How can we reconcile this with the aspiration for English in the minds of most parents/communities? Can his argument accommodate, rather than exclude these aspirations?