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International Mother Language Day is celebrated on February 21 to mark the centrality of multilingualism for building an inclusive world, where no child is left behind. With its richness of languages, nowhere is this simultaneously cognitive and romantic project more valid than in India. But while we absolutely must help diversity thrive, that cannot be by any narrow orthodoxy. Parents today are making widely varying language choices for their children, depending upon their different circumstances and desires. Policymakers should not make the mistake of foreclosing any of the choices.
The medium of instruction often comes under flint-eyed scrutiny, in dogmatic campaigns for the mother tongue. But quite apart from the penchant of mother tongue pushing policymakers to send their own children to English medium schools, there are many couples who do not share the same language, and many more who speak different dialects. In such cases why should mother’s tongue get a sexist legup on father’s? Growing millions of parents are also migrants, and they have excellent grounds for schooling their children in the language of a larger belonging and upward mobility, which is usually English in our country.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has posited two general systems of thinking, in which the more effortful one is better at higher reasoning, and research has shown that it is this “slow thinking” that is activated by speaking a foreign language. To be clear, this means more analytical thought and less unthinking emotion. In another field of research, linguistic demographers find that bilingualism is now the condition of over half the world’s population. So after diversity, there is hybridity. Much more than us, our children will inhabit multiple languages. We have to understand all this in terms of gains, not loss. Help doors open for them, whichever way they turn.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.