Mother Tongue And Medium of Instruction - A Continuing Battle
K. Ramasamy, Ph.D.


In a judgment last year, the Madras High Court struck down the order of the Government of Tamilnadu that mother tongue be the sole medium of instruction at the primary school stage. M. Karunanadhi was the head of the government, and the plaintiff against the government order was a group of associations that represented the English medium schools in Tamilnadu. These associations had the support of the AIADMK, the leading opponent of the then ruling DMK. One of the arguments in favor of nullifying the government order was that it was against the fundamental right recognized by the United Nations that the parents have about the choice of education they would like to have their children exposed to. Parental right to choose as a dynamic element has been introduced into the debate on mother medium of instruction and this argument has been recognized by the High Court.

The founding fathers of the Indian Constitution wanted to ensure that the children get their education through their mother tongue at least at the primary level. Patriotic fervor, pragmatism, as well as the findings of "science" were the motivating factors for this desire. However, they knew the complexity of the context of the political, cultural, demographic, social and geographical situations in India, and they introduced several flexibilities into the provisions they made in the Constitution. And these flexibilities have come handy in the hands of those who would like the continuance of English as the prime medium of instruction in all levels of education. My argument is that there may be some justification for the retention of English as a medium of instruction. But the question raised is whether English or any other non-mother tongue language should be the medium of instruction at the primary level of education.


The vast body of psycholinguistic research that has emerged in recent years has indicated that language development and cognitive development are intimately related. Empirical research on the relationships between language and cognitive development, especially in bilingual environments, is of great relevance in the context of educational programs and in the context of theoretical perspectives on cognitive development. In some sense, the entire educational system in India is a bilingual system. No Indian student can ever hope to complete his school and collegiate education without studying at least two languages. Also in most cases, a language that may or may not be the mother tongue of the student may be used as the medium of instruction.


Bilingualism in education refers to the learning of more than one language as components in the curriculum as well as learning through a language other than one's own mother tongue as medium of instruction.

I would like to examine in this paper the impact of the latter type of bilingual education (using a language other than one's own mother tongue as the medium of instruction) on two types of cognitive abilities, namely, nonverbal intelligence and verbal creativity, which is also called divergent thinking.

The role of bilingual education involving the mother tongue-medium of instruction has been subjected to thorough investigation by several studies. For example, in the Indian context, Anand (1971) compared the Kannada and English medium students and found the former significantly superior in verbal intelligence and achievement and the latter in nonverbal intelligence. However, a number of studies have reported either beneficial effect or no detrimental effect on the cognition of the child if he is educated through a medium other than his own mother tongue. A pilot study conducted by Srivastava and Khatoon (1980) in the schools of Mysore city with standard eight students showed that the English medium students scored significantly better than those in Kannada medium on the measures of nonverbal intelligence and the three dimensions of verbal creativity, namely, fluency, flexibility, and originality. However, when the school related measures were controlled, there was hardly any difference between the two streams.


My teacher and supervisor A. K. Srivastava and I conducted a study years ago in which a sample consisting of eighth and ninth grade students in the age group of 13 and 14 respectively was studied. The rationale behind the selection of these age groups was the expectation that at this stage the effect of the medium of instruction might have consolidated in the learners in either direction. We also had in mind the often-repeated assertion that the lateralization of the human brain takes place around these years, with consequences for further language acquisition.

The students were from eleven trilingual media schools of Kanyakumari district of Tamilnadu. This district offered several intriguing combinations of the medium of instruction. In these schools instruction was being given through three languages, namely, Tamil, Malayalam, and English. In addition we also noticed groups of students who chose to study through the medium of Tamil even though their mother tongue was Malayalam. Note that this district has been returning a higher literacy rate than other districts in Tamilnadu. School administration in these schools in terms of the syllabus, teaching conditions, and examination patterns was uniform. As a result, the influence of school environment as an intervening variable was controlled. As there was provision for co-education in all the eleven schools we covered, almost equal representation from both boys and girls was available.


We found that the students in the English medium group scored higher than others in the nonverbal intelligence tests. This higher performance may be due to the effect of bilingual learning, using English and not the mother tongue as the medium of instruction. However, one could also argue that these students had better nonverbal intelligence even in the earlier classes and their present performance was merely a continuation of their original endowment.

The mother tongue medium group (those who took Tamil or Malayalam as their medium of instruction) scored higher in verbal creativity. Yela (1975) had argued that since children taught through their mother tongue used simple and direct strategies as opposed to the complex and indirect ones of the bilingual children, the former would perform significantly better than the latter on verbal problems involving reflective thoughts. Our findings seemed to support this conclusion.


One group of students whom we called the cognate group had Malayalam as their mother tongue. But these students or their parents had chosen Tamil to be their medium of instruction. This is a very interesting group to study. For, hundreds of such communities exist all over India in inter-state border areas. These communities have existed for times immemorial. These were not the creation of the linguistic re-organization of the provinces of India after independence, as often claimed to be. Languages of one state, province, or village in India do not cease to be used once you cross the border into another village or state. Our mind, unfortunately, thinks in discrete units, especially when it comes to the use of Indian languages. Languages cross the borders, flow into another political territory that has a different dominant language, and yet are continually used. However, after the linguistic re-organization of the Indian provinces, such communities have been put to some hardship, and they are politically aware of their linguistic rights. Their pragmatism, and their inability to afford education through means other than government-run schools have enabled them to choose the state language (not their mother tongue) to be their medium of instruction. These are valiant people, who need to be rewarded and encouraged. Unfortunately such an approach and understanding is conspicuous by its absence in the country.

We found that this group had lower performance in verbal abilities in the medium of instruction. The dominant language of their environment was Tamil, but they did not show higher verbal abilities in that language. Perhaps, the experience of totally losing their mother tongue from their formal learning leaves them in a mentally disadvantaged position. However, the socioeconomic status of the parents of these children may have more to do with this condition than other factors. It is likely that the parents of these children did not have formal training in Tamil. Educated parents encourage and guide their children in the development of different abilities. There are books, magazines, and other literacy materials available in the house. Such parents are members of libraries and also introduce their children to them. The peers of middle class children hail from similar homes and exchange reading materials. Differences in all these, therefore, promote differential skills in the two homes and put the lower socio-economic class children to disadvantage. In essence, the stimulating home environment that emphasizes the acquition of literacy in the middle class stimulates their cognitive growth also.


In all these we also found that the boys demonstrated higher verbal abilities in comparison to girls. This finding is no different from the findings of other scholars such as Sabogal, et al., (1979), who found that males obtained better results in cognitive measures than girls. The explanation for this superiority is related to environmental factors. Boys are allowed to move and mix freely in outside environment while the parents are still conservative about letting their female children to such a wider exposure.

In recent years, however, girls are excelling every field. They score the highest positions in academic competitions such as entrance examinations to the various professional colleges. Most of these girls, however, come from families that have had a long history of formal education. These girls do indeed show greater verbal and nonverbal abilities. But those girls coming from the lower socio-economic strata continue to suffer from the disadvantage revealed in our study.


How do we go from here? The results of the empirical investigations as to the impact of the mother tongue medium of instruction vis-à-vis the use of English or a non-mother tongue language as the medium of instruction are still mixed, and somewhat confusing. But the balance is certainly in favor of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction as a pragmatic approach. It certainly is the best for those who belong to the lower socio-economic levels because enriched contexts in the use of the English language are not easily available to these groups of people. But parents see only the advantage in career options that may be available to their children if they get educated through the medium of English right from the beginning level of school education. The fight against the mother tongue medium of instruction is bound to be more intense over the years. It is clear that the issues relating to the medium of instruction cannot be fully resolved without taking the overall socio-political factors into consideration.

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  1. Anand, C.L. 1971. The Study of the Effect of Socio-economic Environment and Medium of Instruction on the Mental Abilities and Academic Achievement of Children in Mysore State. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Mysore.
  2. Sabogal, Fabio. et al. 1979. "Physical and Cognitive Development of Guatemalan Children as a Function of Socioeconomic Level and Sex." Psychological Abstracts, 1981 (March), 65, No. 5101.
  3. Srivastava, A.K. and Khatoon, R. 1980. "Effect of Difference Between Mother Tongue and Other Tongue as Medium of Instruction on Achievement, Mental Ability, and Creativity of VIII Standard Children." In E. Annamalai (ed.) Bilingualism and Achievement in School. Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore.
  4. Yela, M. 1975. "Verbal Comprehension and Bilingualism." Psychological Abstracts, 78 (March), 59.
K. Ramasamy, Ph. D.
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006
E-mail: Attention: K.Ramasamy.

LANGUAGE IN INDIA, Volume 1:6 October 2001
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