Mother-Tongue based multilingual education and English in India

India’s National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020 [PDF]) — makes the following recommendation:

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. Thereafter, the home / local language shall continue to be taught as a language wherever possible. This will be followed by both public and private schools. (Para 4.9, p. 12)

In this article we will look at some of the evidence for Mother-Tongue based multilingual education (MTB MLE). The evidence comes from educational research from all over the world. Then we will look at what MTB MLE implies for the learning of English in our school system in India. Finally, we will touch upon a few initiatives that show the way forward.

Several studies show that length of time spent in mother-tongue (L1) schooling is the best predictor of academic performance. This includes performance in the second language (L2) as well. The world’s largest longitudinal study of education of linguistic minorities was of over 210 000 students in the United States whose mother tongue was not English. The study concluded that “the strongest predictor of L2 student achievement is the amount of formal L1 schooling. The more the L1 grade-level schooling, the higher the L2 achievement”. Thus, an early transition to a dominant language (such as English) does not yield good results. About this study, other researchers noted, “The length of Mother-Tongue Medium (MTM) education was… more important than any other factor (and many were included) in predicting the educational success of bilingual students. It was also much more important than socio-economic status.”

Our second example is from South Africa. Even under the racist policies of apartheid, one study noted that

secondary school pass rate rose, with 8 years of MTM, to 83.7% by 1976 and the English language as a subject pass rate rose to over 78%. When after the Soweto uprising MTM education went down to only 4 years, with an earlier transition to English-medium, the secondary school pass rate declined to 44% by 1992, with a parallel decline in English language proficiency.

Thus, once again, length of MTM education was linked both to better learning as well as to proficiency in English.

Our final pair of examples are from Assam and Odisha in India, from the work by Ajit Mohanty and his colleagues. In a well-controlled study, Bodo children learning in Bodo-medium outperformed Bodos studying in the regional language Assamese. The MTM education resulted in better learning.

In Odisha, Kui-speaking tribal Kond children in Kui-Odia bilingual programmes “in their later grades (i.e. the high school grades) were found to perform in Odia language tasks at the same level as the Odia-only monolingual children”. In other words, mother-tongue education resulted in not only learning one’s own language well, but also learning “the other tongue” just as well as the native speakers of the other language!

The links to these studies are provided in my blog, “Bolii” (, post of January 2017, “MTME needed beyond early grades”.

There is thus strong research evidence for the MTB MLE recommendation made in NEP 2020. The research simply does not support the belief that one must start schooling in English-medium, otherwise we cannot learn English well. In fact, the research evidence asserts the opposite. The mother tongue should be taught well. Then, the child not only learns their own language, but also learns other subjects well. Moreover, the child also learns other languages better! Here is a plan of action recommended by the language-rights activist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, especially for children of vulnerable communities like Indigenous Peoples (Adivasis) and Linguistic Minorities:

  1. All Indigenous/tribal and other linguistic minority children (hereafter, IM children) should have their first or own language (or one of them, in case of multilingual children) as their main medium of education, during minimally the first eight years (but absolutely     minimally the first six years), in non-fee state schools.
  2. Even if the mother tongue might no longer be used as a teaching language     after grade 8, it should be used orally in the classroom, and it should be studied as a subject during the entire education process.
  3. IM children should have good teaching of a dominant local or national language as a second language, given by competent bilingual teachers, from grade 1 or 2. It should be studied as a subject throughout the entire education process. It should be studied as a     second (or foreign) language, using second/foreign language pedagogy/methods; it should not be studied as if it were the children’s mother tongue.
  4. Some subjects can be taught through the medium of a dominant local or national language and/or an international language in the upper grades, but not before grade 7 and only if there are competent teachers.
  5. If necessary one or two practical subjects (physical education, music, cooking, etc) can be taught earlier through the medium of a second language, but cognitively and/or linguistically demanding subjects (such as mathematics or history) should be taught in the child’s first language minimally up to grade 7, preferably longer.
  6. IM children should have an opportunity to learn other languages as school subjects, including a language in international use such as English, Spanish, French, Russian, Hindi, etc, if it is not a dominant local or national language mentioned in Recommendation 3 above.

The links to these recommendations are available in my blog post of January 2009, “MTME Education in RtE Bill”.

Fortunately, the NEP 2020 document seems to be thinking along the same lines. The document mentions bilingual education at several places. For example here:

Students whose medium of instruction is the local / home language will begin to learn science and mathematics bilingually in Grade 6 so that by the end of Grade 9 they can speak about science and other subjects both in their home language and English. In this regard, all efforts will be made in preparing high-quality bilingual textbooks and teaching-learning materials. (Para 4.12, p. 12-13)

If that is indeed the aim, then the extensive English-training programmes that some states are currently undertaking (Karnataka and Telangana, for example) can be seen as preparatory capacity-building for a transition to bilingual education. As the document notes, a great deal of material will need to be developed. In fact, NEP 2020 recommends the setting up of an “Indian Institute of Translation and Interpretation” (IITI) (Para 22.11, p. 53).

The bilingual material will need to be both “bottom-up” (school textbooks and supplementary material for students) as well as “top-down” (teacher training material and university-level material). For decades, governments as well as NGOs have sporadically prepared bilingual material, often for Adivasi children – that is, bilingual textbooks in the regional language and an Indigenous language. The main reason for these projects not scaling up is lack of sustained state and institutional support: they depended crucially on individual activists and sympathetic officials in the education bureaucracy. The Odisha project is one of the few with some sustained government support. Perhaps with an IITI that gap will be closed.

    Meanwhile, in the sphere of higher education – the “top-down” mentioned above – two examples can be given of initiatives already underway. The first is the “Translations Initiative” (TI) at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. A major objective of TI is to make all the readings of the various programmes of the university available (initially at least) in Hindi and Kannada as well. This will enable access to higher education to a much larger pool of students than only those proficient in English. Simultaneously, TI is organizing “seminars in Indian languages on subjects related to school education in collaboration with different Universities across India”.

    In alignment with TI is the second initiative, namely the National Translation Mission (NTM), located in the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysuru. NTM lists 69 “chief domains” in which they have identified “knowledge texts”. As their website notes: “All prescribed text books, reference books and articles that are considered foundational in any discipline of college / university education are included for translation. Specific attention is given to the disciplines of Natural Sciences and Social Sciences.” The result is a list that currently ranges, alphabetically, from “Adult / Continuing Education” and “Anthropology”, through “Linguistics” and “Management”, to “Women’s Studies” and “Zoology (General)”.

    To create a network of translators for such a massive project, NTM has been conducting regular Translator Education programmes – currently on hold because of COVID-19. Nor is all this somewhere in the future! NTM’s 2018-2019 Catalogue lists 63 translations already published and available – in India’s 22 Official Languages! More details are available in my blog post of August 2020, “NEP 2020, NTM, and Indian Languages in Higher Education”.

    Policy-makers should remember that we are a federal democracy: consultation, collaboration, and consent are necessary. And these have to be between multiple stakeholders: central government, state governments, and non-governmental agencies. Further, in the Indian Constitution, education is in the Concurrent List – states too can legislate on the subject. In such a political structure, a readiness to dialogue becomes that much more important.

    Hopefully, these bottom-up and top-down initiatives will together create a sustainable ecosystem for mother-tongue based multilingual education in India.

Giridhar Rao ( teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, courses on language and literature in school education, language policy, Esperanto and linguistic democracy, and science fiction. He blogs in English at and in Esperanto at

Marathi version of the article – मातृभाषेवर आधारित बहुभाषिक शिक्षण आणि इंग्रजी