In beautiful Bhopal, where I grew up, most of us spoke Hindustani. Though we thought we were speaking Hindi, all of us aspired to speak Ghalib’s Urdu. At home, the language was Chhattisgarhi.

Thanks to the British Library and my father’s endless book case, I was equally at ease with English. There was also a failing effort at school to teach us Sanskrit. What the school did succeed in doing was to build an appreciation for the Jaishankar Prasad-type Sanskritized Hindi, and more enduringly, a soft corner for the different “bolis" (often referred to as “tongues", but actually fairly distinct languages) of north India. Later in life, after four years in Thiruchirapally, I gained a working knowledge of Tamil.

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This gateway of languages has taken me to a glorious world of diversity and beauty. It has been a privilege to feel the intensity of Ghalib and Sahir, to soak in Kabir’s tolerant world, to read Faulkner, to watch Habib Tanvir’s Charandas Chor, to admire Prasad’s Kamayani, to catch the jokes at tea stalls on Tamil Nadu’s excellent roads, and to be heartbroken by Usne Kaha Tha.

This uplifting perspective shaped my thinking about the extraordinary diversity of languages in India, till I found five years ago that this diversity, was actually a linguistic chasm for others—especially an unfortunately large number of children.

It was a village classroom, 30-odd km from Udaipur. A single-room school, with about 40 children, between six and nine years old. An earnest teacher was speaking in Hindi as a class full of children stared back blankly. As if he were speaking to a stone wall.

We watched in silence till there was a mild altercation between two of the kids. The teacher intervened, speaking animatedly in a version of Mewari. In an instant, the wall vanished, and it was clear that every child got mentally involved with the mild fracas, including the teacher’s admonishments.

I went back to Udaipur, to meet my friend Hridykant Dewan, a man whom I respect enormously, as much for his lifelong commitment to good education, as for his understanding of the issues of education.

He explained to me what happened in that classroom. It was just that none of the children understood Hindi. So when the teacher spoke in Hindi, which was the official medium of instruction in Rajasthan, they were all disengaged. He had to revert to Mewari to manage the fracas.

As we spoke, the full import of the issue dawned on me. Rajasthan, a state we think of as “Hindi-speaking", actually speaks many languages. The schooling, however, works through Hindi. So a large percentage of children enter the classroom at age six, confronted not only with the bewilderment of a school, but also the incomprehensibility of anything that is being taught—because it’s in an unfamiliar language. The teachers, who generally do know the local language, try to bridge this gulf, but they are limited by the curriculum.

Many of these students are first-generation schoolgoers. They come from underprivileged backgrounds. As they battle their social baggage, they also battle this linguistic chasm. This has deep implications, in terms of limiting learning, on the child’s social and self development and on the school’s overall progress.

It’s a complex problem, driven by the limited number of languages used as media of instruction versus the actual languages used by people.

The government has given 22 “languages of the 8th Schedule" the official seal. According to the census of 2001, 29 languages have more than a million native speakers, 60 have more than 100,000, and 122 have more than 10,000 native speakers.

In my estimate (I would be happy to be corrected) not more than 16 languages are used as media of instruction in schools across different states.

Why is my gateway their chasm? That’s because I am a child of middle-class privilege; it’s the parental and social support I got turned the diversity to a virtuous cycle of learning and acculturation. Disadvantage (and being underprivileged) works in the reverse direction, fomenting a vicious cycle— the unfamiliar language of schooling weakening the already weak ability of parents and the community to provide learning support.

It is a problem created by structure. In most cases, the teacher is familiar with the child’s language. But the system does not see the teacher as a contributor to the curriculum; instead, it tries to develop a curriculum that prioritizes common transactional standards over contextual creative processes. Such a curriculum can only have so many variants.

The immediate need is (i) to recognize the child’s language as critical, and (ii) to empower the teacher’s role as the bridge. For this, the only real solution is a sensitive curricular approach with appropriate material, enabled by teacher capacity building. That’s the one hope of turning the linguistic chasm to a glorious gateway for all.

Anurag Behar is co-CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at