The Power of Mother Tongue

The Power of Mother Tongue


Mother tongue's role in education, importance of broader language skills, and the example of Govindram Seksaria highlight the link between language, cognition, and knowledge acquisition.

The debate about the mother tongue as a medium of instruction in schools is old. Linguists
have been arguing in its favour. Recently, the new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020
recommended it. But despite its overwhelming importance, many believe that knowing
English is the only gateway to a decent career. There is no problem in such a position per
se as English language knowledge has known advantages, particularly now that it has
become a universal lingua franca. The only word of caution lies in overemphasising it at
the cost of not knowing the mother tongue: the language of primary communication for all
of us. Further, promoting English in India as a medium of communication alone in school
has the potential to fuel inequality skewed against children with limited means at home.

Mother tongue is a gateway to thinking. Without the knowledge of the mother tongue, most
children will miss the critical link between the immediate environment and general
cognition. Day-to-day life experience adds to human cognition that the mother tongue
captures so well. It is so critical that teaching in all the subject domains starts with the
child’s experience before they are in school. All knowledge discipline pedagogy wants the
teacher to start from a child's lived experience. Even for learning languages, the mother
tongue is important as it helps to internalise deep language structures. Now, with the idea
of languages having a universal structure, the role of the mother tongue is well
established. Universal language structure internalises the best with maximum opportunity
to use it. And it is the mother tongue that helps the child to build the language structure
through its use. Stopping or discouraging a child from using their mother tongue is a longterm cognitive loss. With a mother tongue, a child learns the basics of languages making
learning a new language relatively easily.

Another related problem is people making English knowledge look narrow—limiting it by
equating it with the ability to speak it. Knowing a language is not only the ability to speak it.
It involves many more skills to know a language: phonology, it's syntax, and it's semantics.
Therefore, to know a language a child must know using it to acquire knowledge across
disciplines. Language is the gateway to acquiring knowledge.

The best example of the precedence of knowledge over language comes from a famous
Marwari trader—Govindram Seksaria. We know about him as the teacher training college
has his name—Govindram Seksaria Teacher Training College (GSTC). He gave Vidya
Bhawan the seeding money to start college. He lived in the early '30s in Nawalgarh—that
time, a remote Rajasthan location. Despite the remoteness of his location, and language
limitation—he only knew Marwari— he was the authority worldwide on the cotton trade. It
led to his becoming a member of the New York stock exchange. Cotton traders would
travel—in those days travelling was not easy—from different parts of the world came to get
tips from him on its trading. It led him set up a business empire—that continues even now.

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