Language and Language Teaching in the context of National Education Policy 2020

Dr. Partha Sarathi Misra Visiting Faculty, Azim Premji University, Bangalore, Former Director, English Language Teaching Institute, Assam
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The lack of a proper understanding of the nature of language and its role in the teaching learning process is the root of cause of the malady afflicting the language teaching scenario of our schools. Language is not merely a means of communication, it is the vehicle of our thought, it is our window to the world. A child's interaction with the world begins with her first language. Taking note of the fact that young children learn and grasp non-trivial concepts most quickly in their home language, the Draft National Education Policy 2019 pointed out that a large number of children going to school to classes that are conducted in a language that they do not understand, fall behind before they even start learning. The National Education Policy 2020, therefore, has strongly advocated the need for classes in early years to be conducted in the children's home language/mother tongue.

The National Policy on Education 2020 points out that the teaching of languages should be based on an experiential-learning pedagogy. "The teaching of all languages will be enhanced through innovative and experiential methods, including through gamification and apps, by weaving in the cultural aspects of the languages - such as films, theatre, storytelling, poetry, and music - and by drawing connections with various relevant subjects and with real-life experiences" This policy statement implies that a language across curriculum and relating language leaning with real life experiences have a very important pedagogic implications for all the stake holders involved in language education at the school level.

In Section 22.7, the National Education Policy 2020 points out the severe scarcity of skilled language teachers in India and opines that language pedagogy in our schools must be improved to make it experiential. The pedagogy should focus on the ability to converse and interact in the language and not just on the literature, vocabulary, and grammar of the language. Languages must be used more extensively for conversation and for teaching-learning. In other words, in language classrooms, the teacher should "teach" the real language, no more "teaching about" the language. It is immaterial if a child knows the "rules" of changing a sentence from active voice into passive voice. We should be happy if the child can "use" sentences in both active and passive voices for communicative purposes in real life situations. An illiterate native speaker of a language knows how to use active and passive sentences in his mother tongue without knowing the formal rules of 'passivization' in his language. The lack of the knowledge of the formal grammar does not affect his communicative competence. Learning the rules of grammar of a particular language by heart does not make us a fluent speaker of that particular language. What's the use of learning the rules of the grammar of a language if you can't use that language for communicative purposes in real life situations?

Do I need to go to an English medium school to learn English well? Not necessarily. The National Education Policy 2020 is quite unequivocal in this regard: "a language does not need to be the medium of instruction for it to be taught and learned well." You may not learn English well even after attending an English medium school for years together but you may learn English quite well even in a regional medium school.

Whatever may be the medium of instruction of the school in which the children are learning English, the primary objective of an English teacher is to help these children to acquire the desired competency in the target language. The most important question in language education in India today is the degree of the learners' competence in the target language, not the medium through which that language is being taught.

Whether we teach in an English medium school or a non-English medium school, we should be aware of the process of language acquisition. Don't we all acquire language the same way as pointed by Stephen Krashen ? Ref: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiTsduRreug

Our children studying in non-English medium schools do not get an adequate exposure to English, they are tormented during their 'silent period' of language acquisition in their English class, their 'affective filter' goes up in the English class and instead of becoming a vehicle for thought and expression, the target language becomes a means of suppressing their voices and critical thinking. The following observation by Rutherford is quite significant, "There is at least one characteristic that is common to every successful language-learning experience we have ever known, and that is that the learner is exposed one way or another to an adequate amount of the data of the language to be learned" (Rutherford, 1987:18).

Be it the mother tongue or any other language (second, third or fourth), language acquisition presupposes adequate language input, meaningful interaction in the target language and natural communication in an anxiety free environment in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and interpreting. Can we create this ideal situation in the English classrooms of our regional medium schools? The question raised by the NCF Position Paper on Teaching English in 2005 is relevant till today: "Can the English-language classroom replicate the universal success in the acquisition of basic spoken language proficiency that a child spontaneously achieves outside the classroom, for the languages in its environment? If so, how?" It is really unfortunate that non-English medium schools teaching English across India have largely failed to address this basic question and consequently, a large number of our children studying English in these schools fail to attain the desired competency in English.

As the new National Education Policy 2020 aims at overhauling the education system in India, it is be presumed that the language pedagogy used in our schools will also undergo a drastic change. As the policy document states: "All curriculum and pedagogy, from the foundational stage onwards, will be redesigned to be strongly rooted in the Indian and local context and ethos in terms of culture, traditions, heritage, customs, language, philosophy, geography, ancient and contemporary knowledge, societal and scientific needs, indigenous and traditional ways of learning etc. – in order to ensure that education is maximally relatable, relevant, interesting, and effective for our students." The draft National Education Policy 2019 also stated that "in addition to teaching languages native to India, English must also be available and taught in a high-quality manner at all government and non-government schools. The emphasis should be on functionality and fluency." (Page 81, Draft NEP 2019)

It is quite significant to note that the National Policy on Education 2020 has repeatedly highlighted the importance of high-quality language teaching in our schools. To quote from the said document: "All languages will be taught with high quality to all students."( section 4.11). Again, the section 4.20 of the NPE 2020 states: " In addition to high quality offerings in Indian languages and English, foreign languages, such as Korean, Japanese, Thai, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian, will also be offered at the secondary level".

How can we ensure the high quality of language pedagogy in our English classrooms? Neither by mechanical drills nor by the practices used in the monolingual English class rooms of the English-speaking world. A multilingual pedagogy in which the child is empowered to converse and interact in all the target languages can alone make the language classrooms interesting to the child. The artificial barrier between the mother tongue class room and the other language classrooms should be removed during the initial years of learning languages. Just as a normal child living in a multilingual society picks up more than one language spontaneously, let the child in our regional medium schools acquire equal proficiency in more than one language in an unobtrusive manner in the same Language class. The same teacher should facilitate the acquisition of all the three languages by the child. One language classroom, one language teacher but multiple languages…….. can't it be the norm in a flexible language approach advocated by the NEP 2020?

References:

Govt. of India. Draft Education Policy 2019
Krashen, S. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiTsduRreug
Govt. India. National Education Policy 2020
NCERT (2006) Position Paper on English Language Teachinghttps://ncert.nic.in/pdf/focus-group/english.pdf
Rutherford, W. E. 1987. Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. London; New York: Longman.p.18.