A critical assessment of the approach towards languages and multilingualism in the National Education Policy 2020 in India

by Sanika Abhyankar

Since the day I started attending the seminar on ‘Language Politics, Policies and Planning’ at the University in Flensburg, I could not help but reflect upon the topics and questions discussed during classes in the context of India, my home country. With every topic discussed I became more conscious of the complex linguistic situation in India. This further led me to ponder upon and question these said language-matters. When the term ‘acquisition planning’ i.e., ‘the language-in-education planning’ came up and was discussed in class, I almost immediately thought of the National Education Policy in India which was announced in 2020, here onwards addressed as NEP 2020, and became curious to find out how this policy deals with languages in education in India.

Since India is culturally and linguistically an extremely diverse country, it provides one of the very complex contexts for language planning. The official language of the Union Government of India is Hindi in Devanagari script; English can also be used for official purposes as an additional language. According to constitutional provisions, the state governments may choose one or more languages in use in that state or Hindi as languages for official purposes within the state. The states are thus structured along linguistic lines where each state has one or more dominant language groups and several other linguistic groups of different sizes.

According to the 2011 census, there are 270 mother tongues in India spoken by 10,000 or more speakers each. Out of these 270 mother tongues, 123 come under the 22 Scheduled Languages and the remaining 147 are included in the Non-scheduled Languages category. There are of course other mother tongues spoken by less than 10,000 speakers each in the country which are classified under the particular language in the ‘Others’ category. Long story short, devising a national education policy in such a linguistically diverse and complex context is nothing less than a herculean task. 

Keeping these challenges in mind, I will take a critical approach to some provisions related to languages and multilingualism in school education in the NEP 2020 in the following text as well as consider some observations from research scholars in this field. The NEP 2020 seems in many areas too ambitious to me. There seem to be some welcome recommendations like mother tongue as medium of instruction or bilateral agreements between states to hire language teachers, at the same time, one can hardly ignore the gaps in this policy regarding implementation and regarding acknowledging challenges on the ground.

‘Mother tongue’ as a medium of instruction:

The extensive research conducted on effectiveness of schooling based on the medium of instruction shows convincing evidence for the value of including the student’s home language in school. Therefore, the very first recommendation in the NEP 2020 regarding languages in schools, which advocates the students’ mother tongues as medium of instruction at least until Grade 5 and preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, seems quite welcome with regard to this research. It still leaves me with many unanswered questions. In the following I will address 6 critical points regarding this provision:

1. The terms like ‘home language’, ‘mother tongue’, ‘local language’ and ‘regional language’ are used interchangeably and the unclear and indefinitive usage of these terms makes it difficult to understand what the policy makers actually want to convey. Given the vast and complex linguistic diversity in the varied geographical regions in India, the terms such as regional language, local language, home language and mother tongue cannot overlap in reality. However, the policy recommendations fail to acknowledge this reality.

2. The term ‘wherever possible’ appears thrice in the same paragraph leaving room for way-outs in its implementation and makes one sceptically think about the objectives of the government behind making mother tongue as medium of instruction mandatory in all schools:

‘Wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/ mother tongue/ local language/ regional language. Thereafter the home/local language shall continue to be taught as a language wherever possible. (…) In cases where home language/mother tongue textbook material is not available, the language of transaction between teachers and students will still remain the home language/ mother tongue wherever possible.’ (NEP 2020, 4.11)

3. The story of mother tongue education does not end there, one of the recommendations also states that this will be followed by public as well as private schools. The reality, however, is that most of the private schools in India are ‘English medium’ schools and it is going to be rather a challenge for them to execute the said policy recommendation.

4. Furthermore, the policy does not acknowledge the classroom reality where there are students with diverse linguistic backgrounds and mother tongues and leaves this question unanswered: Whose mother tongue will be chosen as the medium of instruction in a class full of students having different mother tongues?

5. It is known that acquisition planning should ideally go hand in hand with ‘status planning’ (deliberate efforts to allocate new functions to languages in a particular community) which brings me to another practical concern I read in an article by Papia Sengupta, an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University Delhi. She has put forth the problem regarding documents such as essential laws, school enrolment forms, etc. not getting translated into all the scheduled languages and therefore sees the plausibility of NEP’s aspiration of education in mother tongue critically.

6. In addition to that, the insistence on mother tongue as medium of instruction should be critically considered in the light of the existing reality where English and the official languages of the respective states in India play an important role in employment opportunities in white-collar jobs.

7. There is just this one vaguely formulated statement related to tribal languages and endangered languages in the section related to languages in this policy:

 ‘Efforts to preserve and promote all Indian languages including classical, tribal and endangered languages will be taken on with new vigour.’ (NEP 2020, 22.17)

And what is more worrying? This statement does not appear in the paragraphs where the policy talks about school education. Also, there is no acknowledgement of the fact that students speaking a tribal language or a minority language are discriminated against in school. This then also led me to wonder why the policy does not specify about the provisions regarding mother tongue as medium of instruction in case of learners coming from a tribal and a minority language background.

The three-language formula and the linguistic reality in Indian schools today:

Because of failure in its implementation and its conventional approach towards multilingualism and language learning, the three-language formula in India (see below) has been criticized by many linguists and scholars. But the NEP 2020 does not acknowledge this failure and recommends its implementation further with ‘greater flexibility’ in choosing the languages to be included in the formula. Following is a tabular description to give you an idea of the formula recommendations as announced in 1968:

Languages taught in schoolStates where the majority population speaks HindiStates where the majority population does not speak Hindi
1st language Mother tongue or regional language for a period of 10 years
2nd languageEnglish or other Indian modern language (preferably from the South of India) for a period of 6 yearsHindi or English for a period of 6 years
3rd languageEnglish/A foreign language/ A modern Indian language not studied as the second language for a period of 3 years

This formula has been implemented in several states in various, often unsuccessful ways. Some of the reasons behind that are the heavy language load in school curriculum and the high cost of arranging for instruction for different languages. Moreover, the schools in the northern part of India are not motivated enough to teach languages from the South and the schools in the South have resisted teaching Hindi due to historical language debates. Therefore, it so happens that learning those three languages in schools does not account for more than just an examination ritual.

At this point I would like to share an example from my own experience with the three-language formula. I went to an English medium private school in the state of Maharashtra where Marathi is the regional language. Besides English, the medium of instruction, I also learnt Marathi (my mother tongue), Hindi and Sanskrit. I can say that I am fairly confident when it comes to my proficiency in the first two languages mentioned, not so much in case of Hindi and not at all in case of Sanskrit; I can hardly remember things related to Sanskrit taught in school. Come to think of it, Sanskrit in school was not taught in an interactive way and only for a period of three years; most of its part was just rote learning and there was also no language input outside of class, for e.g., there were no TV programs I would watch in Sanskrit, nor could I hear anyone around me speak Sanskrit. Here I think of an argument I read in an article on the draft of NEP by an emeritus Professor at Vidya Bhawan Society Udaipur, Dr. Rama Kant Agnihotri. He criticizes this obsession with the three-language formula and argues that rich comprehensible input is an essential condition for language acquisition, the absence of which makes language learning difficult and tedious in the context of formal education.

Dr. Agnihotri puts forth an interesting classroom model in place of the three-language formula which I could quickly relate to since I had read something of a similar sort when I was studying Didactics of German as a foreign language and practiced it when I taught German as a foreign language in India: working with the languages of all learners in the classroom as the basis for scientific analysis and learning a new language.

‘The advantage with language as the first window to scientific inquiry is that learners have all the data in their heads; they also in fact “know” the rules subconsciously; it is the joy of collectively unfolding them in small groups at the conscious level that brins joy of the application of the scientific method of data collection, classification, categorization, rule formation, and hypothesis testing.’ (Agnihotri, 2020)

I found this approach very plausible because it describes a model which is built upon the grassroots reality of a classroom and increases the chances that the learners will learn to respect each other’s languages thus making way for a socially tolerant classroom environment.

Conclusion or is it possible to formulate a country-wide language policy for a country like India with such a complex and enormous linguistic diversity?

With the above question in my mind, I started reading the NEP 2020 and as I could unfortunately see how the linguistic diversity and complexities in India are not well addressed in the policy document, it became clear to me that I had sort of asked a very practical question. I would therefore agree with Dr. Agnihotri’s argument in his article where he argues for a language policy in India where each state and perhaps each district is allowed to formulate its own language policy according to the language diversity and reality that exists in that particular region.

The NEP 2020 is yet to be implemented in most of the states in India and since education is a shared responsibility of the Union and the respective State governments, only time will tell how the policy recommendations meant for the entire country are interpreted and executed in the context of the individual states and linguistic regions.


  • Sengupta, P. (2021) NEP 2020 and the Language-in-Education Policy in India. A Critical Assessment. Economics and Political Weekly 43, 45-51.
  • Spolsky, B. (2021). Education. In: Rethinking Language Policy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 26-44.