When I was 12, one day, my class-teacher announced that anybody who spoke in Malayalam would be fined 50 paise. Excited by the challenge, we secretly passed notes in Malayalam or during recess and lunch hour, sat in silence or mumbled a few words to each other in English, not knowing which of us the teacher had appointed as the “spy” to note down the names of those who talked in our mother tongue, so that the next day she could call them out in class. This policy would help us improve our “spoken English”, she had announced. We did not care back then.

Almost a decade later, as I read the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, I was shocked to learn that 60 years into freedom, a public school in Independent India was following almost the same policy that British imperialists had followed in colonial Kenya. As a child, Ngugi writes, the cost of speaking in his mother tongue Gikuyu was corporal punishment, or wearing plates around the neck with slogans such as “I AM STUPID”, giving birth to a culture of humiliation similar to what I had experienced, in less severe yet no less serious forms. While one can claim that the goals of the two policy-makers were different, one aiming to colonise the minds of its subjects and the other attempting to (apparently) provide a tool for economic mobility, the psychological and sociological effects of these policies are the same: a sort of linguistic violence that leads to social marginalisation.

Emerging from my own humiliating experiences as a child growing up, it is by no means a limited phenomenon. I realised that tens of thousands of school-going children, especially from minority communities, knowingly or unknowingly undergo this experience.  The situation in the classrooms in the country, partially derived from the unequal colonial treatment of languages, in general is complex: 1,652 mother tongues have been identified by the 2001 Census, and 234 of these mother tongues have more than 10,000 speakers. These mother tongues have been grouped into 122 languages of which 57 have more than 1 million speakers. Of the 122 languages, only 26 are used as mediums of instructions in primary education.

Less than one per cent of tribal children have the opportunity of learning in their own languages. Most schools in towns and cities use English as the medium of instruction from first grade itself.

Less than one per cent of tribal children have the opportunity of learning in their own languages. Most schools in towns and cities use English as the medium of instruction from first grade itself. Thus, substantial populations of children who join schools encounter an unfamiliar language, and statistics show that 25 per cent of them face issues in the early stages of schooling due to this.

Further, while my own experience with linguistic colonialism was related to English, perhaps an equally, if not more, dangerous threat looms in the form of Hindi imperialism. In India, Hindi has taken on a role akin to Swahili in Ngũgĩ’s Kenya, which was standardised and popularised by the colonisers at the risk of obliterating other regional languages. Therefore, the fight for preserving our mother tongues is a dual fight against both a Hindi imperialism as well the social marginalisation rising from the emphasis on English.


 In his book Ngũgĩ puts forward compelling answers to the questions of language, colonialism and neo-colonialism. “The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe”, he writes in the context of a decolonised Kenya still haunted by the continuing forces of imperialism or neo-colonialism.

He was deeply influenced by the Afro-Caribbean philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon who himself was concerned with issues of decolonising the mind and language, and the psychological effects of colonialism which results in the self-division of a person into two: black and white identities. As he writes on the example of Antilles, the mastery of French and the adoption of French culture give a person power and a sense of being a “real human being”, in other words, white.

Language, which was a crucial vehicle of power, was disseminated through schools to spiritually subjugate the colonised. Ngũgĩ writes: “Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom.”

After the declaration of a state of emergency in 1952, as the nationalists’ schools were taken over by the British, English became “the language” in Kenya. At school, speaking local languages brought about humiliation and punishment. Using English was, in contrast, rewarded.

Formal education was limited in scope, primarily focusing on English and Swahili, the latter taught until the fifth grade before switching to English, to the detriment of the pupil. The national exams in the eighth grade required proficiency in English and so did secondary school entrances, severely hampering educational opportunities for the natives. Inadequate skills in English led at best to low-paying jobs and inter-ethnic communication was rendered ineffective, as English was “the official vehicle and the magic formula to colonial elitedom”.

To Ngũgĩ, language is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture. For communication, there exists the language of real life (“relations people enter into in the labour process”), speech that emulates this life aiding communication between relations and, finally, the written word, which symbolises the spoken, being a much later historical development than the other two. In a society where the written and spoken languages are the same, Ngũgĩ argues, there is harmony between the three elements. In other words, the child’s experience of life and his or her language is closely linked.

The second characteristic of language as a carrier of culture emerges from the need to transfer from one generation to another the values and experiences accumulated over time. These values and experiences form people’s identities, since as Fanon said, “[t]o speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.”

A community or a person’s sense of self is derived from its language to a great extent. Language functions in any culture as an “image forming agent in the child’s mind”, giving her visions of her own society’s history. (Thiong’o, 1987). In fact, a group’s culture and language become almost indistinguishable from each other. Transmitting these images through the spoken or written word language equips a person to creatively confront the reality of the world she lives in.  To sum up in Ngũgĩ’s own words, “[w]ritten literature and orature are the main means by which a particular language transmits the images of the world contained in the culture it carries.”

Having explained the centrality of language (one’s own language) to a society, Ngũgĩ’s continues to depict how colonialism transforms this “harmony” into “disharmony”. At the basic level, the colonial goal was to control the “language of real life” for its own material gains. The colonialists aimed to achieve this by controlling the psychological universe of the colonised, by deciding how people perceived their place in the world (a function that language performs); in other words, to gain economic control through cultural control. On the one hand the colonised culture was undermined and on the other, by dominating the local languages, colonial language and culture was elevated. To the African child in Kenya, English was a foreign “language of real life” and learning it resulted in alienation from the immediate environment and the spoken language at home. Ngũgĩ terms this phenomenon colonial alienation. At school, the teaching of purely British geography, history, music and so on deepened this dissociation.

Ngũgĩ had grown up speaking Gikuyu (or Kikuyu) at home, adept in the language’s nuances, magic, music, stories and values, but had to abandon it for English at the secondary level. Consequently, there was a split between the language of his education and the language of his culture. Therefore, writing in Gikuyu was an important part of his personal anti-imperialist struggle in Kenya. He wanted to transcend the colonial alienation and use the undervalued African languages to create links between African literature and the struggles in the real lives of peasants, linking the two distinct linguistic spheres in his person.

Decolonizing the Mind was his farewell to writing in English. His later play Ngaahika Ndeenda (“I will marry when I want”), an innovative form of theatre where audience participation and improvisation blurred the barriers of traditional theatre, was written in Gikuyu and was produced with the villagers and the Kamiriithu Community Education and Culture Centre of Kamiriithu, who had kept their mother tongue alive in speech and orature even as the government suppressed its written expression in schools.

In the play, the peasants and workers, in their own language, portrayed a history that was their own to claim—a history of revolt, drawing heavily upon the Mau Mau rebellion, the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army and especially the events during the Emergency in 1952. They were given a voice; their minds were being decolonised, asked to move out of the colonial discourse. They questioned the contemporary realities of Kenyan society sharply. When the play was staged for the first time in 1977, however, despite huge popular success, it was banned by the government, and Ngũgĩ was arrested and spent a year in jail. As he writes: “A writer who tries to communicate the message of revolutionary unity and hope in the languages of the people becomes a subversive character. It is then that writing in African languages becomes a subversive or treasonable offence with such a writer facing possibilities of prison, exile or-even death.”

He was released as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience and currently lives in the US. His exile is testimony to the importance of language and its decolonisation to a society.


According to Louis-Jean Calvet, the French linguist, there are two steps involved in linguistic colonisation: the “vertical step” of socially spreading the language, first among the upper classes and then among the lower, and the “horizontal step” where the colonial language spreads geographically, from the capital to the villages. It is my belief that in the process of spreading the English language in India, the post-independence Indian government has played the most crucial role in the “horizontal step” and even in later stages of the “vertical step”.

The attempt of the British to create a small English educated Indian administrative class required them to limit access to this education while the Indian government, from the very beginning, hailed this language as a “gift”, a “window to the world”, a practical tool beneficial to all Indians. With this idea in mind the government’s stance regarding the spread of English education has been more utilitarian than the utilitarian imperialists. English education, in the newly independent country, further, would help the state to create disciplined citizens under its nationalist ideology and the method for achieving this socially exclusive space includes, at the higher levels, various tests such as the NET (National Eligibility Test), the civil service examinations, the conventional university curriculum and so on.

The privilege given to the language in schools and universities, by parents and by teachers, by entrance examinations and job interviews, makes it inherently exclusive. Just as in Ngũgĩ ’s colonial Kenya, English in India today is considered the magical tool that can empower you, which is why “spoken English” classes and guides to learn English are thriving industries separate from the educational arena. An interesting example to note is that of Kerala, where the government’s attempts to reinforce mother-tongue education in government schools was criticised by the Marxists as a bourgeois attempt to keep the poor from gaining the material benefits of English education. The two images shown below are daily sights in newspapers and billboards and demonstrate the nature of the public demand for English education.

Knowledge of English gets you jobs, it gets you respect in public; it even saves you from humiliation. When I joined school, after a few weeks, my class teacher of first grade contacted my mother, surprised that I didn’t know English alphabets (she did not care than I could read, write and speak in Malayalam very well). The fact that a six-year-old freshly joining school is supposed to have attended pre-school and learnt enough English was not apparent to my parents and they were taken aback. Later on, I remember, as a 17 year old, joining a new school and being made fun for my many mispronunciations and accented English. I remember how this made me reserved, how I avoided all instances of speaking in class and how I generally came to be termed as “quiet” and “shy” by my classmates.

I learnt of Wordsworth, of Shakespeare, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, my mind wandered around the moors of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, I recited Auden many times and finally wrote my higher secondary examination not knowing a thing about Indian authors, either in English or in my mother tongue. Looking back, I can see that I was lured by the worlds that English offered me. I sought them, just as the colonised Indian intelligentsia sought English-medium schools and English literature curriculum from the British. And I know what it has cost me: alienation (which I am not sure is reversible) from my culture, from my home and its people, its literary traditions.

This is one level of concretely cultural, social and economic marginalisation by portraying and emphasising English as the key to economic success. Another kind of linguistic imperialism has prevailed in India as well. Though after the 1965 anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu against rendering Hindi as an official language there was constitutional resolution to the issue, the language’s hegemony has continued to spread through cultural platforms. The political milieu that has emerged in the last few years provides fertile soil for making Hindi hegemony official. The mother tongues of the country are at peril from the dual onslaught of English and Hindi. How can we fight this?


An innovative and inspiring example of a system attempting to change the concerns mentioned so far is that of the Multilingual Education Programme in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh in tribal contexts. Multilingual Education, with its use of two or more languages as mediums of instruction in subjects other than the languages themselves in order to cultivate multiliteracy amongst the students, was implemented here.

Usually the cycle of language disadvantage slowly deepens the cleavage between indigenous community knowledge and textbook content, ceating a content barrier children on top of the language barrier, leading to their socio-economic deprivation.

Usually the cycle of language disadvantage slowly deepens the cleavage between indigenous community knowledge and textbook content, ceating a content barrier children on top of the language barrier, leading to their socio-economic deprivation.

At its core, the MLE project aims to bridge this gap between the knowledge that the mother-tongue speaking children carry and the official curriculum, creating an effective learning space where fair opportunity is given to children of all linguistic backgrounds to excel. 


As Fanon said, the use of a language entails the supporting of “the weight of a civilization”, and the marginalisation of a language is nothing but the marginalisation of a civilisation and the true inclusion of all civilisations, all communities by making education multilingual sets the ground for a truly multicultural education system.

MLE is a tool for social justice and providing equal opportunity to children by ensuring children’s Linguistic Human Rights besides providing a psychologically sound early education. It helps children escape the vicious cycle described above where the status of your language in popular perception as the colonialists and nationalists have created it (some languages like Hindi are encouraged more and receive more support in terms of institutionalisation) determines your socio-economic future. 

It gives a place to the child’s community a place in the world by validating its indigenous knowledge and practices, by not hindering his or her identity formation at an early age and by not interfering through a foreign language. In MLE, the first language (L1) is taught at the primary level before transitioning into the second and third languages (L1, L2) at later stages. Studies have proven how children who have a strong education in their mother tongue and later transition to L2 do better in terms of academics. Since the human brain develops its fundamental cognitive skills at a younger age, the MLE programme focuses on children between grades 1 and 5.  Most of the time the reason for the bad performance of children in their L2 and L3 is early exit from the mother tongue system. Therefore, an effective MLE programme would use such activities at a later stage while focusing on strengthening their base in the mother tongue at earlier stages.

How can an educator deal with multilingualism in a society where the practicality that English provides in terms of material upliftment governs the minds of millions of its youngsters?  How can the need for multilingual literacy and society’s demand for English education be balanced in the classroom? MLE programmes in India have failed primarily because of the lack of teacher-training. How can a teacher, then, deal with the issue of multilingualism in the classroom? After all, there is only so much change that top-down policies can achieve.

As mentioned earlier, one of the most important components of multilingual, multicultural education is linking the culture and community of the student to the classroom curriculum. This can be done through projects, archiving and other methods of recording, exploring and bringing into the classroom the folk-tales, rhymes, stories, measurement systems, and so on, of the communities in their own language and basing other subjects such as mathematics on it. This slow movement into English scientific education from local traditions does not alienate the student from his or her real life immediately but transitions experience into knowledge. For example, “mathematising” folk games, using local price systems to learn equivalence and barter systems, and so on, have proven to be effective. This makes the transition from home-life to the classroom easier for the child since he or she comes to school with a plethora of prior knowledge and language from past experience.

The MLE system has a “Read Together” programme that further transcribes this knowledge and makes it an accessible data source to students, teachers and community members cementing the gap between oral and written traditions, between the classroom and the community, between the official curriculum and indigenous knowledge. The article titled “The Selection of Culturally Compatible Classroom Practices” by Cathie Jordan talks about similar practices in Hawaiian classrooms in terms of making teaching methods being more in tune with the cultural practices of the society concerned.

As far as textbooks are concerned, there has been a drive to create resource materials such as glossaries, dictionaries, bilingual textbooks or books in the mother tongue. However, these have not added successfully to the classroom atmosphere because of the way in which these are taught: rather than an interactive setting, the system falls into a rut of the teacher dictating lines and students repeating after him or her. Communicative, oral, interactive linguistic practices in the classroom would be more effective than textbook-teaching.

An interesting idea is that of the “language-hour” where every day, children speak freely in their mother tongues with their peers without the emphasis on understanding for an hour. This can be a fun activity if planned properly.

An interesting idea is that of the “language-hour” where every day, children speak freely in their mother tongues with their peers without the emphasis on understanding for an hour. This can be a fun activity if planned properly. 

If such a practice can be made common at a young age, the child’s brain develops under the positive assumption of language as inherently multilingual and not just a dominant singular language and other “dialects”.


However, given the current situation in India, rather than promoting mother tongues, the first step should be towards the prevention of the subtraction from mother-tongue learning. Before we can celebrate multilingualism, monolingual practices must be stopped. Therefore, at this point, stress should be laid more on teaching English in a manner that does not negate the culture, language or intellect of the child rather than teaching mother-tongues more effectively. Further, there should be a balance between English learning and mother-tongue education as well. In this context, the suggestions made by Lisa Delpit in the book “Other People’s Children :Cultural Conflict in the Classroom” regarding language diversity in classrooms become relevant. The teacher’s aim in teaching language and teaching in a language should be to encourage the student’s holistic language development rather than merely writing ‘answers’ to the questions posed. General discussions about how different communities and cultural groups speak in a TV show or a movie can be an effective starting point to discuss such issues in the classroom.

The most interesting example given in this book is of the use of theatre for effective learning. Drama and theatre become a platform where the student or the child can put aside her real personality and assume another. Therefore, this is a space most conducive to teaching the English language in the most non-interfering way. The memorising and playing of a character who speaks English gives the child skills in English-speaking and thinking, all the while being a “character”. The child attempts to and can be encouraged to speak as the character would have, in Standard English, and does not feel threatened by the teacher’s corrective methods. The instructors can further choose bi or tri-lingual plays in the later stages to make the transitions between languages easier for the child. A child who has learnt to speak the language through theatre is thus both economically mobile as the society wants and is not alienated from his or her mother tongue.

Besides the cultural importance of mother tongue education, many studies have pointed to its concrete impact on students’ educational dispositions. That children learn better in their mother tongue has been established by many studies, especially those conducted by UNESCO. Further, Save the Children published a report authored by Helen Pinnock, where it points out that mother tongue-based multilingual education is fundamental to the development of learning skills in general, which in turn results in student success at school and lower dropout rates. A study conducted on primary school children in Cameroon named the Kom Language Project found that the students taught in their mother tongue acquired basic numeracy and literacy faster than their counterparts who were taught in English. Interestingly, the former group was better at learning English as well, for they had a basic foundation in their mother tongue. 

As far as long term economic benefits are concerned, a study conducted by Bethlehem A. Argaw in Ethiopia (where Amharic was the dominant language of instruction) on the effects of language of instruction on reading skills and early labour market outcomes found that the reading skills of those who had access to mother tongue-based primary education increased significantly and that this system reduced the reading skills gap between Amharic and non-Amharic mother tongue users in half. “The improved reading skills seem to translate into gains in the labour market in terms of the skill contents of jobs held and the type of payment individuals receive for their work”, writes Argaw. 

In a world of rising communal, linguistic, regional and other kinds of intolerance, especially in a country like India, linguistic equality in classrooms and in society is an extremely important element. Being accommodative of languages is being accommodative of cultures. In India, as fascist, fundamentalist forces arise, attempting to link the language to specific religions and impose their language on the citizens in other parts of the country, systems like MLE are most crucial to battle these hegemonic forces. As dialects and spoken languages are endangered and are fast becoming extinct, a programme for multilingualism in the classrooms can further preserve the linguistic, cultural and civilizational diversity of the world, building a better, harmonious, sustainable future for all its habitants, which must after all be the primary goal of all education systems.