I studied in an “English medium” school run by Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha in Tamilnadu. One fine day, goons from a political party forcibly entered the school (the security guard was an emaciated fifty-year old, but when faced with such a bunch of brainless boobs, neither age nor physique would have mattered), threatened teachers and students in classrooms, and smeared all the Hindi they saw with black paint. Ironically, the same black color that was used to erase a language is now being used to play bigoted regional politics.
The National Education Policy, NEP, with its recommendations on the use of Indian languages (and mother tongue) has opened up whatever is the Indian equivalent of Pandora’s box. In an age where the radius of a rosogolla (or its spelling) could divide people, it is not surprising that this aspect of the NEP has become the Indian equivalent of Moses parting the sea, dividing people into two camps: one, those who think that education in English is necessary because all programming languages use English, and two, those who think that education in regional languages is necessary because, well, look at Germany and Japan.
In my first year of engineering, when I got interested in computers and programming (I had no prior exposure to them, coming from a Biology background), the one who initially taught me had studied in a Tamil medium. It would be a more interesting exercise to identify people who have an aptitude for logical thinking, creating something new, and even breaking down complex processes into simple tasks, than associating an exercise like programming with a natural language. The other trope about programming and languages that keeps recurring is Sanskrit being the most suitable language for computer programming (and for artificial intelligence), usually prompting the other side to retort, “Why are programming languages not written in Sanskrit then?”
The paper which started it all is titled “Knowledge Representation in Sanskrit and Artificial Intelligence” by Rick Briggs (then at NASA Ames Research Center). It was published in 1985 in the AI Magazine, and is a very interesting and insightful read (download it from here) that can actually lead to smarter arguments from both sides. So, yes, we can aim for creating a programming language, say, अजगर, but that would hardly make someone who has no affinity to programming perform better. The issue, at least in programming, is not the natural language, and I believe that what makes a good programmer is something else.
If I had the Indian equivalent of a dollar every time I heard about some successful (read developed) countries which do not use English, more so after Muthu became a rage in Japan, I would have enough to retire somewhere in the Indian equivalent of Switzerland. It is pounded down our throats with a consistent regularity without even once considering the complexities of comparing very different countries with very different histories and demographies, and further, without even once considering the fact that many schools, especially government ones, use the state language as the medium even today. Usually, the ones pounding this are the ones who have studied in English medium and are in some successful professional position, and their arguments usually revolve more around culture than livelihood (we tend to project our regrets on our children, and sometimes, on our society – more on this below).
English undoubtedly creates a divide between urban and rural societies, and fosters a cultural elitism that is more ingrained than we think (but then, so does a burger). Now, couple this with better opportunities (simply put, more money) in urban areas than rural ones – this is not necessarily a problem unique to our country, but we may have it in a more dire form. Many who do not know English, or who have not studied propah English, go through struggles that are very real, and these struggles mostly continue throughout the life like some painful scar. When they have to decide on a school for their children, what do you think they would choose? Culture or livelihood?
Do you see a problem with the question itself? Why should culture and livelihood be mutually exclusive? I don’t know the answer to this, but this is a fundamental issue. Instead of simply comparing ourselves with Japan and Germany, perhaps we should delve deeper into how culture and livelihood are entwined in these countries. If language were the only parameter, why not also look at other countries where the medium of education is the local language, but they have not been as successful. I am sure we can find more examples in this category than Japan and Germany.
The argument for local languages is that it would ensure an appreciation (and subsequently, perpetuation) of the local culture, although this is true only if we assume that all aspects of culture are inextricably linked to language (any thoughts on this?). I would agree with this to the extent that I cannot appreciate the literature in Gujarati or Kannada or Tamil or Sanskrit by reading the translations. I always have a regret that I have not read Meghani or Bhyrappa or Kalki or Dinkar (although some, I would start reading now with my limited knowledge of Gujarati, Hindi, and Tamil).
When it comes to education, however, nothing prevents a zealous state government to include agenda-driven literature in a local language. It’s happening since decades, and it will continue in the future. I still remember how our Tamil textbook included, out of all the available chapters in Kamba Rāmāyaṇam, the one where Vāli curses Rāma for killing him. (Even the English textbook had one story by Khushwant Singh titled The Mark of Vishnu and the other by Jayanta Mohapatra titled The Trunk of Ganesha, and we also had a poem by Yeats, The Ballad of Father Gilligan – read them to understand what I am talking about.)
Essentially, there is a need for deeper understanding on the impact of languages on different aspects of our lives, our society, our community, and our nation as a whole. Ultimately, our objective is the same, for we all want to rise as tall as the Indian equivalent – no, scrap that – we all want to rise as tall as the Himalayas.