In Depth: Why Offering Higher Education In Local Languages Is The Way To Go

In Depth: Why Offering Higher Education In Local Languages Is The Way To Go

by Aditya Kuvalekar - Dec 12, 2022 10:34 AM +05:30 IST
In Depth: Why Offering Higher Education In Local Languages Is The Way To Go Learning outcomes in local languages seem to be unambiguously better.
  • Almost every higher education discipline should be offered in local languages besides English. There are several reasons for this view.

A couple of years ago, I read an article on how the Indian two-wheeler giant Bajaj Auto beat its Chinese competitors in Africa.

It was written by its head of human resources, Srinivas Kantheti. One of the factors he had listed made a lasting impression on my mind.

At some point in time, the executives realised that what they were looking for were talented engineers with solid technical knowledge, not proficient English-speaking graduates.

The easiest way to find them was to conduct interviews in students’ mother tongues, even though the medium of instruction of their engineering degree was English. 

As per Kantheti, they found absolute gems who would go on to achieve extraordinary results at Bajaj Auto.

I was reminded of this story when I read about the Madhya Pradesh government’s recent decision to start the MBBS course in Hindi, the primary language of the majority of the state’s citizens. 

While welcoming the decision, several experts raised concerns about the merits of the decision, given the lack of quality textbooks available in Hindi.

The concerns are legitimate. When one pauses to reflect on the situation, one realises what a tragic journey it has been for the world’s oldest, continuous civilisation! 

In its heyday, it produced Sushruta and Charak, one of the earliest pioneers of plastic surgery. The Europeans would go on to discover the “Indian method” of one such procedure — the famous Pune rhinoplasty — in the late eighteenth century.

The advancements were not limited to cosmetic operations such as plastic surgery. On 10 February 1731, an Englishman, Robert Coult, wrote to Dr Oliver Coult about the practice of inoculation in India. He writes:

The operation of inoculation called by the natives tikah has been known in the kingdom of Bengall as near as I can learn, about 150 years and according to the Bhamanian records was first performed one Dununtary, a physician of Champanagar.
Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century, Dharampal, page 149

And here we are — nearly 300 years after the English discovered Indian inoculation and the ‘Indian method’ of plastic surgery — struggling to teach medicine to our students in the language they are most comfortable with. 

Is all this reviving higher education in regional languages worth the effort then?

Exposure to English has, after all, brought its benefit to us in the outsourcing boom, for example. So, what can one gain by offering higher education in local languages?

The purpose of education (higher as well as primary) is, in most cases, to achieve better economic outcomes through jobs or business. It is reasonable to believe that one’s job prospects in today’s labour markets depend on their core competence, but also their English proficiency, because English is, after all, the lingua franca, especially for business. And this is what complicates the matter. 

We can decompose returns to schooling in two dimensions: one is direct learning of skills and concepts, and the other is language proficiency.

If studying one medium of instruction dominates the other on both skills and English proficiency, there would be no debate. At least based on considerable empirical evidence across different countries, it is safe to infer that children’s learning outcomes are better when they study in their mother tongue.

For example, a paper by Tarun Jain from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, titled Common Tongue: The Impact of Language on Educational Performance, studies the 1956 reorganisation of Indian states along linguistic lines.

He finds that students from districts where the medium of instruction was different from the language of the majority population exhibited lower literacy rate, school completion rates pre-1956. 

Once the medium of instruction changed to the majority one — that is, majority students started learning in their mother tongue — the outcomes started converging, but it took nearly 35 years for that to happen.

In other parts of the world too, the evidence is similar.

For example, David D Laitin and Rajesh Ramachandran studied a policy in Ethiopia that changed the medium of instruction to the mother tongue of the majority.

They find that the farther the language of the medium of instruction (measured in terms of linguistic distance) is from the local language, worse are students’ cognitive test scores. 

For example, the reading ability went up by 40 per cent after studying in a local language.

In their subsequent work in a recently published paper, Laitin and Ramachandran suggest that retaining the colonial language as the official language as well as a medium of instruction (due to its supposed ethnical neutrality) leads to significantly poorer human capital outcomes in Africa.

Therefore, once we broadly agree that studying in the mother tongue leads to better learning outcomes, we are left with understanding whether the net economic effect of studying in English — due, likely, to its superior English proficiency — outweighs that of the mother tongue. And this is where it gets harder to test the impact of the medium of instruction empirically. 

Students who tend to study in the English medium are also more likely to come from affluent backgrounds. In that case, if their job outcomes are better, disentangling the effect of the medium of instruction from their relatively privileged background is difficult.

There is some non-causal evidence such as a paper by Kaivan Munishi and Mark Rosenzweig which shows that job outcomes are nearly 25 per cent higher in the 1990s for students studying in the English medium in the Dadar area of Mumbai.

But such studies often do not take into account the selection bias: the subset of students joining English-medium schools could be systematically different, or that there could be systematic peer effects biasing such results in the favour of English medium schools.

In summary, it all boils down to the following: learning outcomes in local languages seem to be unambiguously better. But the earning outcomes could be worse because studying in the English medium could give English proficiency.

In the absence of empirical evidence on the matter, some anecdotal evidence and my personal interactions with some people who run skilling programmes and universities lead me to believe that almost every higher education discipline should be offered in local languages besides English.

There are several reasons for this view.

On acquiring technical knowledge in the mother tongue: The story of Bajaj Auto that I mentioned at the start of this piece is, to my mind, the greatest proof of the merits of technical education in the mother tongue.

Any industry that wins in a competition with China must have got several things right. The players facing such competition do not have the luxury of abstract theorising.

There is no reason why the switch away from interviews in English — the default at most top engineering colleges — would have been an established practice had it not shown results to firms’ bottom lines.

In fact, going even more anecdotal, I recently spoke to Pravesh Dudani, the Chancellor of Medhavi University, a Skills University in India. He was unequivocal in suggesting that the only way students actually grasp technical concepts, such as operating a lathe machine, is when they learn it in their mother tongue.

We have probably reached the end of the outsourcing boom. As the world diversifies its manufacturing away from China, it will look for more young people skilled at operating machines rather than proficient at English.

Moreover, one can always improve one’s English-language skills through training programmes, but acquiring complex technical knowledge in a foreign language may not be as straightforward.

On the lack of availability of textbooks in local languages: This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. There are no textbooks because there are no degrees in local languages. The demand for textbooks will create its own supply.

I taught economics at the undergraduate level in Spain for three years. The students had the option of pursuing their degree in English or Spanish, and excellent material was available in Spanish for students.

The number of Marathi, Kannada, Gujarati, Telugu and, of course, Hindi speakers is likely to be substantially higher than the Spanish-speaking population in Spain. Therefore, it seems very unlikely that the market for textbooks in regional languages will remain dysfunctional.

For what it’s worth, nearly every European country offers higher education in their language and manages to produce top talent by doing so. To suggest that there is something systematically lacking about India and Indian languages that should prohibit us from doing so seems rather defeatist.

On English proficiency and job prospects: One may have a misplaced impression that I am suggesting that English is not as important for job outcomes, and/or regardless of its importance, we should switch to a local language for jingoistic reasons. I do not wish to suggest this for a moment.

First, there is evidence that English proficiency leads to substantially higher wages; for example, a paper by Mehtabul Azam, Aimee Chin and Nishith Prakash quantifies the gains to be as high as 34 per cent.

What I’m suggesting, however, is that studying in a local language and learning English on the side can get us to have the cake and eat it too. After all, we are not able to pick up the cost of higher education in English on those who, despite their intellect, could not pursue certain disciplines due to a language barrier.

On the future of the Indian economy and the importance of English: As the Indian economy grows and the Indian state embraces its new identity of a modern civilisational state with confidence, its dependence on English proficiency for climbing the economic ladder should, and will, keep diminishing.

A country of 1.4 billion people with a large young population is its own market. That it would be necessary to be proficient at English to excel in internal trade seems somewhat a ludicrous idea even today.

Speaking anecdotally, during my four years of undergraduate study at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, I came across several incredibly talented people who could not pursue an MBA (a business degree) at some of the top IIMs because their English percentile in CAT (an entrance test) would always be their Achilles’ heel.

If we could get rid of English altogether to train the business leaders of the future to do business in Indian languages, we have the chance to make premier institutes more accessible to underprivileged students.

The opponents of such policies take matters into hypothetical and somewhat tangential issues of free choice, questioning the rationale of forcing, for example, a Punjabi-speaking person in Bengaluru to study engineering in Kannada.

This is a disingenuous argument because no proponent of “higher education in the local language” suggests that higher education in English should be discontinued. The recommendation is to provide students with an option, like the way it has been done in Madhya Pradesh.

Another argument is that if we are giving a choice, why not give more than one option?

This is essentially letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just because we cannot provide higher education in Maithili in Bengaluru, shouldn’t we start with higher education in Kannada in Bengaluru?

If two systems fall short of some imagined ideal, it does not mean that they are both equally bad. The only question of relevance is whether the costs of providing an option to pursue higher education in a local language outweigh the benefits.

This is, after all, an empirical question whose answer we will know only when the policy is implemented on a large scale. 

When the British seized control of India from the Marathas, envisioning the future of the British rule in India, Karl Marx wrote 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.
The Future Results of British Rule in India, Karl Marx, New York Daily Tribune

So ferocious was the destruction that the entire Indian education system was uprooted. But times have changed. The new India is no longer obsequious to English-speaking elites.

The time to correct a historical wrong is here. We owe it to the incredibly talented people who are left behind only because they cannot speak English.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Kishen Shastry and Shashwat Alok for their inputs.

Aditya Kuvalekar is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Essex, UK.
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