Home >Opinion >Online-views >Opinion | Should Indians not learn in their mother tongue?

When the British came there was, throughout India, a system of communal schools, managed by the village communities. The agents of the East India Company destroyed these village communities, and took no steps to replace the schools; even today... they stand at only 66% of their number a hundred years ago", wrote Will Durant in The Case For India in 1930. Indeed, the empire had an enormous effect—mostly destructive—on Indian education. Probably this is what was required of the British. As Karl Marx wrote in the New-York Daily Tribune in 1853, “England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia."

There is a growing debate around the pros and cons of an education system with English as its medium of instruction. Many believe that English proficiency is the path towards prosperity and, unfortunately, is viewed as a sign of expertise. However, a small minority working on the ground are shedding light on the perils of imposing English as the medium of instruction over a student’s mother tongue. There are two important questions here. First, does language of instruction impact learning? Second, can studying in English medium schools alone increase economic opportunities?

A recent paper by Tarun Jain sheds light on the first one by using the 1956 reorganization of states along linguistic lines. Before 1956, provinces were formed without regard to language—some districts (minority districts) fell in provinces where the official language of the province (also the medium of instruction for school education) differed from the mother tongue of the majority in the district. After reorganization, a majority of students were taught in their mother tongue. Jain finds that, prior to 1956, minority districts had 18% lower literacy rates and 25% lower middle school completion rates compared to the majority districts. Post 1956, those districts began catching up—matriculation growth rate in the minority districts was 46.8% higher than the majority districts. But the gap was bridged only by 1991. Evidently, the effect of mismatch in the language of instruction on learning are persistent.

Rajesh Ramachandran, an active researcher in this area, studied the effect of a 1994 policy in Ethiopia that introduced mother tongue as the medium of instruction in primary schooling for the largest ethnic group. He finds that this policy increased the ability to read by 40% and the probability of completing primary schooling by 5%. Ramachandran, along with David D. Laitin from Stanford University, also studied the effect of language policy on socio-economic development in a paper titled Language Policy And Human Development. They find a substantial negative relationship between an official language that is distant from the local indigenous languages and some indicators like internationally comparable cognitive test scores, life expectancy, gross domestic product per capita.

From anecdotal evidence too, I strongly share the view that mother tongue as medium of instruction leads to better learning, especially in poor families where parents often lack the skills to help their children with studies.

We now come to the second question. What if English medium education offers vastly superior economic opportunities? Unfortunately, empirical evidence on this is scarce in India. Typically, children from relatively affluent families make up the most of the English medium cohorts. If we find that children from English medium schools earn more, it would be hard to isolate the effect of their affluent background from the effect of their English education. In a paper titled Traditional Institutions Meet The Modern World: Caste, Gender, And Schooling Choice In A Globalizing Economy, Kaivan Munshi and Mark Rosenzweig observe (not the main focus of the paper), based on a dataset of children in Dadar (Mumbai) from 1982-2001, that the returns from studying in an English medium school increased sharply post 1990s. By 2000, the returns to studying in an English medium school were about 25% higher for both boys and girls, compared to studying in a Marathi medium school. In another paper called The Returns To English-Language Skills In India, Mehtabul Azam, Aimee Chin and Nishith Prakash argue that the returns to being fluent in English can be as high as 34%.

These findings suggest that there may be a real trade-off here. Moving to a mother tongue medium of instruction may improve learning but at the cost of earnings. However, it seems, proficiency in spoken English is the driver of these economic gains. In the Munshi-Rosenzwieg paper, the difference between the English and Marathi medium schools showed a spike in economic returns post 1990s—a period of the outsourcing boom in India. We may have reached the end of this boom. Moreover, the domestic market is now growing, where English proficiency is not very relevant.

Also, even if English proficiency were important, do we know that a mother tongue medium of instruction necessarily means poor English proficiency? As someone who studied in a Marathi medium school, I do not share that view.

On the question of if and how we should migrate towards a system with the mother tongue being predominantly the medium of instruction, we should first note that this obsession with turning the entire education system into a monolithic English dominant one is far from being a global phenomenon. From South Korea to Europe, higher education in sciences is available in local languages. One could offer explanations why that is infeasible in India. But, at the very least, the government should seek the opinions of teachers and educationists from across the country who have worked on these issues for years. Simultaneously, I would propose that the government should launch projects to translate all the major works in serious sciences, such as The Feynman Lectures On Physics, in all Indian languages. Perhaps in a decade then, we can imagine the possibility of higher education in sciences in native languages.

Rome was not built in a day. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Aditya Kuvalekar is an assistant professor of economics at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.

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