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Home / Opinion / Views /  Being rooted in local language is key

I will never forget the day I arrived at Elphinstone College in 1968 as a second-year student. As someone who had attended a Gujarati-medium school and experienced America as a high school exchange student, I was looking forward to a cosmopolitan, intellectual atmosphere that could combine my global and local interests.

This is what I found instead. It felt as if the British Raj was well and alive. Students from English-medium schools were the elites of the college, condescending to students who came from Marathi- or Gujarati-medium schools. They were seen as old-fashioned, provincial, backward and not worthy of being leaders of the New India.

Much has changed since. But one thing that not only has remained but strengthened over the decades is the desire to send one’s children to English-medium schools. English is now privileged as the lingua franca of the world, a gateway to a better life.

Even in my own family, all young ones now go to English-medium schools, with a lingering sense that Gujarati is a language of the past, not worthy of study even as a language, never mind as a medium of instruction. There is little awareness today that Gujarati is a rich language that boasts of great writers like Kanniyalal Munshi and Umashankar Joshi. Gujarati remains the language that formed their early cognitive skills, but these are wiped out by the time they join the English-medium classroom. Often their mode of learning is by memorization rather than through cognition. And their curriculum also has a little sense of local culture or history.

These youngsters are born in a globalizing world. Indeed, they are “global natives" with their online access to the world. They do need to learn English well to compete in the global marketplace. But it doesn’t need to be at the cost of local knowledge, language or history. Think of students in the Netherlands or Switzerland: they are multilingual and they don’t see the need to learn all their subjects in English. They learn English well and early. But they also know French, German and their local language. The key is to learn other languages as well, in addition to one’s own.

It’s time to recognize that we need to prepare our young ones to live in local, national and global terrains comfortably, with curious minds and open hearts, rooted in the local language, while reaching for the world with good English. Let’s not cut off their roots.

Vishakha Desai is senior adviser to president of Columbia University

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