What gets forgotten in the German vs Sanskrit debate is the poor standard of teaching in India. Anjali Puri explains
One thing is clear in the German vs Sanskrit debate of the past two weeks, triggered by Union Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani's decision to remove German as a third language choice for middle school students in the Kendriya Vidyalayas -- a language programme cannot be abandoned mid-term without causing great stress all around.
Nearly 80,000 students studying German in Class VI-VIII have been left in disarray by this decision.
A second issue highlighted by this controversy is the impropriety involved in calling off a cultural project, funded by a friendly foreign government and blessed at the highest levels on both sides.
The HRD ministry has tried to obfuscate the issue by tightly framing it as a matter concerning a memorandum of understanding that the Goethe Institut-Max Mueller Bhawan (GI-MMB) and the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan signed in 2011 to launch the German teaching programme in the KVs.
Irani has said the MoU, up for renewal in September, but not renewed, was not referred to the HRD ministry before being signed.
She has deemed it illegal, for violating the "three language formula", under which the third language must be a modern Indian language or Sanskrit, and announced recently that she had ordered an investigation.
However, it is known that such MoUs, involving government-affiliated institutions, are not signed in isolation from relevant government ministries.
In the case of this, the then minister of state of HRD, E Ahamed, witnessed its signing, as did a minister from the German foreign office, which funds the programme.
Even clearer evidence that the German language programme was no backdoor operation comes from the fact that when former prime minister Manmohan Singh went visiting Germany in April last year, top-performing KV students were flown to Berlin to mingle with the two leaders.
Moreover, the then HRD minister, M M Pallam Raju, and a German minister even signed an MoU at the time for cooperation on setting up specialised Bachelor in Education courses to meet the need for German language teachers at the secondary level and upwards.
So, the question really is not who allowed the "illegal" MoU but why the government failed to respect bilateral arrangements arrived at by its predecessor.
Reading between the lines of German Ambassador Michael Steiner's comments to Business Standard on Friday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was likely expecting to witness the extending of the MoU in Delhi in September but went back disappointed.
A third issue highlighted by this controversy continues to hit the headlines.
This is the emotive linguistic-cultural one of what languages young Indian children should be prioritising.
The latest development is that Sanskrit Bharati, an organisation linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and apparently encouraged by the KV case, wants the Centre to have foreign languages dropped from schools run by the Central Board of Secondary Education, and make Sanskrit compulsory.
It is likely to lead to fresh rows between self-appointed guardians of "endangered" Indian culture and the champions of early and unlimited exposure to foreign languages for schoolchildren in the interests of openness, jobs and globalisation.
Between these two positions stands the National Curriculum Framework of 2005, which upholds the three-language formula, but also adds "it is a strategy that should really serve as a launching pad for learning more languages" and that foreign languages may be introduced at a later stage.
If the current German-Sanskrit controversy has served any useful purpose, it is to draw attention to the contradictions in the way language policy is actually implemented.
Against the HRD ministry's projection of the "three language formula" as an immutable law that had been "violated" in the KV case, it has become clear that such "violations" are plentiful, and official indignation is selective.
Take the case of Delhi's Tagore International School, whose Mandarin-learning middle school students were visited by Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan in September, and the pictures were splashed in newspapers.
Principal Madhulika Sen explains, with some pride, in accordance with the three-language formula middle school children in her school have a choice between Sanskrit, Mandarin and French as a third language.
Sanskriti, an elite school generously funded by the government and well-populated with children of the political and bureaucratic elite, goes a step further.
Children in this school can choose between Sanskrit, French, Spanish and German as their third language.
The elephant in the room is class.
Children in government schools, for example those run by the Delhi administration, or the Navodaya Vidyalayas affiliated to the CBSE, have no such luxuries, and are therefore model adherents to the three-language formula: in north India, that would mean Hindi, English and Sanskrit.
It is no wonder, then, that children in the modest fee-paying KVs, flocked in large numbers to the German programme, with its tantalising offer of foreign-language proficiency which is normally denied to children at non-elite schools.
Should private schools lose their privileges now?
Should Sanskrit be forced down the throats of the unwilling?
Educationists and linguists are far from likely to advocate that.
However, some do question whether it is wise for schoolchildren to be able to drop Indian languages altogether by the end of Class 8, as prevails in many private schools, and the concern is pedagogical and not ideological.
Ramakant Agnihotri, a widely-published linguistics expert, says, "If a child is born with two languages, she should attain high levels of proficiency in those languages, because then her conceptual clarity becomes very high, and fosters her ability to earn other languages."
The far greater worry for him, and indeed for most educationists, is the appalling state of language teaching in the country.
In such situation, they point out, even learning a language for a longer time, whether Hindi, English or Sanskrit, is no guarantee of proficiency.
Will that debate ever begin?
Photo Courtesy: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons