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English has emerged as the language of choice for nearly four out of five Indian students who wished to pursue an undergraduate degree in medicine, edging out regional languages.

Data gleaned from the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) showed that while 79.1% of aspirants gave their entrance examination in English, only 12.8% opted for Hindi and an even lower 8.12% for all other regional languages combined. Excluding English and Hindi, 3.7% of the total registered candidates of NEET gave their exams in Gujarati, 2.29% in Bengali and 1.07% in Tamil.

The clear preference for taking the entrance examination in English comes at a time the new National Education Policy (NEP) is trying to make education more inclusive by promoting local languages. The NEP has suggested that “wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language".

While it is an established fact that students are better able to grasp concepts when they are learning in their mother tongues, the unavailability of quality science books and other reading materials in regional languages poses a barrier to students who choose their own languages as the medium of instruction.

“The NEET data holds up a mirror to the ground realities of education and medium of education and preference language of education. NEET data shows that 79.1% in 2020 have opted for English medium exam, which is a meagre 0.23 percentage point less than in 2019. But if you look at the actual number of candidates who had registered for English as the mode of exam, it is 59,000 more this year when compared with last year," said a government official, requesting anonymity.

“There is growth in Tamil, Bengali and Hindi medium students, although their overall numbers are very small," said the official cited above. Nearly 1.6 million students registered for NEET this year.

Education experts said there are reasons why English will remain a dominant medium in higher education. “The government school system across the country has largely failed students in offering quality education. The growth of private schools and coaching institutions is because of this reason primarily. Besides, English is seen by the lower middle class as an aspirational medium of instruction," said Pramod Maheswari, managing director and chief executive of Career Point Ltd, a company that prepares students for taking competitive exams.

“One must also remember that English has now got merged with vernacular language. People who are teaching in Hindi or Telugu use a fair amount of English vocabulary. So, the medium of instruction is English with a regional accent. And most of the reference books and school materials are in English. It’s the ground reality," said Maheswari, an alumnus of IIT Delhi.

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