A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Challenges and Strategies for Multilingual Education in India

Subhashini Rajasekaran and Rajesh Kumar


Language is an essential part of our existence in society, as much as breathing is necessary for our survival. It ceaselessly marks its presence in every domain of our lives. Yet, two interrelated facts about language and its sustaining power evade us; and these have extremely crucial implications for society and for education. One, that languages are fundamentally porous, fluid and continuously evolving systems that human beings acquire and change to define themselves and the world around them. Two, that multilinguality is a norm, not an exception. It is constitutive of being human. We have a “linguistic repertoire” that enables us to engage in multilingual languaging i.e., to move easily between language systems that have some common and some unique characteristics. Multilinguality and porousness, taken together, suggest that languages are constantly evolving and interacting in a dynamic process. Thus, no language can be “pure”. In fact, the pursuit of purity in a language is like marking it for certain death. However, the State, the market and the schools impose monolingual and monoglossic language ideologies, policies and practices in the name of multilingualism.

To recognize multilingualism is to recognize translanguaging—a natural way for multi-linguals to access different linguistic features of so-called autonomous languages in order to maximize communicative potential. In this paper, key challenges and possible strategies are identified for leveraging the inherent heteroglossic multilingualism in education in India and for promoting its understanding and value among the masses.

Challenges for Leveraging Multilingualism in India

Transforming the existing monoglossic school culture presents an enormous but not insurmountable challenge. The situation could be analyzed at four interdependent levels.

1.         Market Demands and the Politics of Power

            A language wields tremendous power due to its ability to contain within itself the identity, attitudes, culture and aspirations of its people. Thus, these sociopolitical factors make some languages more prestigious than others, which then become accepted as “standard”. The demand for languages of power then drives State policies and the market, even though linguistically, all languages are equal. Today, English is definitely the language of power globally. It is a symbol of people’s aspirations, a gateway to opportunities. Similarly, at the State level, numerous languages are spoken but only the standard form of select languages gain favour as the instructional medium in schools. The hierarchy of languages therefore comes to signify the hegemony of power amongst its speakers.

            In such a scenario, parents naturally choose to educate their children in the languages of power in their most “standard” forms. There is a huge gap in public awareness of the empirically proven correlations between multilingualism and higher scholastic achievement. Since the educational system as a whole does not offer feasible options that consider multilingualism a resource, the parents have no choice but to succumb to the one-medium, one-school policy.

2.         Systemic Drivers for Language Decisions are not Educational

            Historically, a few significant but strategic drivers at the national and state levels have formulated the way school education navigates the issue of language today. One, in 1949, the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution, titled Languages, declared Hindi and English as official languages (and not national languages) and recognized 14 major Indian languages. Two, in 1961, a strategic consensual decision was taken by the States to implement the Three-language Formula. This was later modified by the Kothari Commission to accommodate the interests of group identity (mother tongues and regional languages), national pride and unity (Hindi), and administrative efficiency and technological progress (English). The Commission described these changes as “impelling considerations that were more political and social, than educational”. Three, the higher education system blocks multilingualism, thereby triggering a high demand for English, Hindi and a few select languages at lower levels too.

            As per the 7th All India School Education Survey, Hindi, English and Sanskrit were adopted as first, second and third languages respectively in the largest number of schools. Approximately 80-90 per cent of the schools had only one medium of instruction. Out of this, approximately 60 per cent used Hindi or English, with the former having a higher proportion. Hence, multilingual education policies such as the three-language formula are just additive monolingualism that end up denying the complex translanguaging practices of much of the world.

3.         School Organizational Constraints

            The overall structure of “school” is such that there is age-wise grouping of 25 to 45 students in a classroom, with clearly demarcated boundaries between subjects slotted into periods of 30 to 45 minutes in a fixed schedule. Children are officially expected to use the school’s single medium of instruction in all periods / subjects, except in second / third language time-slots, where “other” languages are “allowed”. Typically, strict policy measures control the language children speak inside and outside the classes, with consequences for non-adherence. Teacher recruitment and training is based on the ability to use the medium of instruction. Thus, the school positions a single medium of instruction as central to its overall working, in keeping with the market demands and policy measures discussed earlier.

            Without doubt, operationally, this is an easier proposition due to a uniform medium of communication; but the implicit message is: this is the “preferred” language in its “correct” form. Usually, schools fail to clarify that the languages students personally identify with are not unworthy of recognition, are not inferior and do hold educational value. Overall, the school structure is unable to appreciate the multilinguality of its students.

4.         Teacher Ethos on the Issue of “Purity” of Language

            We spoke to six primary and middle school teachers about the maintenance of purity of language, their teaching strategies and their students’ language abilities. The following response sums up their views and concerns:

            The (English) language ability of students is not very great. They think in their mother tongue and then translate … if they can’t get a word they use from Kutchi, Gujarati, Hindi, etc. Mixing is natural. But it is fine only when children slip into another language and get back to English easily. For others, it’s a big no-no as it hampers the development of (the weak) language. When English, only English. If speaking Hindi, only Hindi. Only then I can say that a child is good in a language!

The above comment represents the myths of language learning, while also exposing the practical constraints within which teachers are expected to function to facilitate and assess their students’ language learning. The practitioners’ view that use of home languages provides a “crutch” seems legitimate and realistic since the teachers work under the pressure of delivering to demanding parents and school managements, unaware of the possibilities of using multilingual pedagogic methods. Questions of identity loss due to non-recognition of home language are not considered significant. Thus, the rich heteroglossic multilinguality of the classroom does not earn a legitimate place in the process of language acquisition.

Key Changes Required in System and School Ethos

Leveraging the strengths of multilingualism in the classroom would not only give voice and legitimacy to the identities of children, but has also been empirically proven to have a positive correlation with scholastic achievement, divergent thinking, cognitive flexibility and social tolerance. With such immense advantages, it is only natural that a market shift is necessary to increase the demand for education that values multilingualism to bring it into day-to-day practice. Since the school actually functions in response to market demands and government policy measures, a “bottom-up only” approach is bound to fail and needs to have strong top-down momentum.

Top Down: Building Mass Momentum in the Long Term for a Mind-set Shift

What is required is a consensual language policy by all States, that is a significant shift from a formulaic approach to a more principled approach (multilingual, acceptance of porousness) with strict implementation and stringent consequences for flouting it. This is definitely an uphill task, given that education is a State subject, language is a political one and many vested interests are involved, besides pragmatic issues such as providing high-quality training for all teachers.

Widespread multimedia-based awareness campaigns and lobbying to develop a mass mind-set that links multilinguality with scholastic achievement, supported by empirical data, are needed. Focused efforts by interest groups from politics, industry, academics, media and civil society could build such a movement. Once awareness changes, so would the nature of the market demand.

New “Education Startups” that have the potential to disrupt the education space by leveraging technology on a mass scale, with a high level of sensitivity to multilingual needs of students, is an unexplored alternative.

Bottom Up: Leveraging Strategies in a Multilingual Classroom

The following strategies could be gainfully adopted to leverage multilingualism in the classroom:

1.         Build model schools and classrooms where multilingualism will hold a central place in all processes. Experiment and determine the practices, policies and ethos for running a school with multilingual language strategies. This could be done by borrowing from the successes and failures of other school systems globally, and testing them in Indian contexts. Analysis of student results in scholastic and non-scholastic areas could inform the formulation of policy decisions. The curricular objectives and overall methodology of such schools would be founded on well-proven principles of language acquisition, cognitive linguistics and child development theories grounded in solid research.

2.         Popularize the value of multilingual practices in school, especially translanguaging, through strong empirical research that links it to scholastic achievement, beyond research journals and academic papers, to reach the common man.

3.         Conduct metalinguistic awareness sessions with students and teachers about the nature of language and its structure, encoding processes of social exploitation and hegemony. Just as students today study about global warming and its dangers, they must also understand the role a language plays in their lives and what it means to be multilingual. Further, they must be able to analyse its socio-political-economic aspects. This could be done in many ways—as a standalone discussion, “language” as an integrated unit of study or as a specific research project.

Practical Ways to Build Multilingual Ecology in the School

Figure 1. Multilingual ecology that welcomes families.

Figure 2. Multilingual ecology values student identities.

Figure 3. Curriculum that recognizes and connects to students’ identities.


In an increasingly globalized and technologically advancing world, language boundaries are fuzzy and fluid. There is a multiplicity of language practices and neo-cultural identity formations. However education leadership in India needs to move beyond the definition of multilingualism as additive / subtractive monolingualism and take a hard look at the socioeconomic political drivers, state controls and schools that are its implementing agents. Multilingual heteroglossic1 education programs must be developed to support multiple languages and literacies, allowing for their functional interrelationships and complementarities to thrive.


1 Monoglossic ideologies treat languages as bounded autonomous systems without regard to the actual language practices of speakers. Heteroglossic ideologies respect multiple language practices in interrelationships. (García, O., 2009)

2 Translanguaging includes and goes beyond code mixing and code switching, focusing more on the observable practices of multi-linguals that enable them to make sense of their worlds.

3 The Three Language Formula (NEP, 1968) states that every child has to learn the following languages:

1st: mother tongue or regional language

2nd: In Hindi speaking States, another modern Indian language or English; In non-Hindi speaking States, Hindi or English

3rd: English or a modern Indian language not studied as second language

4 From the Western scholarly lens, monolingualism was accepted as the norm and bilingualism as double monolingualism. (García, O., 2009) However, this additive / subtractive approach oversimplifies the complex area of linguistic cognition.


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Subhashini Rajasekaran has recently completed her MA in Elementary Education from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She has a keen interest in the use of language in the domain of education.

Rajesh Kumar teaches linguistics at Indian Institute of Technology Madras in Chennai. His research interests lie in the areas of theoretical linguistics, language and education, and language and human mind.