Second Class Language

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the first Minister of Education in independent India, was responsible for establishing the Indian School Certificate Examination (ISCE) as an alternative to the then prevalent Senior Cambridge school-leaving tests. Through the years, the Council for the ISCE has risen in rank to the position of the premier board of school education in India, providing a balanced curriculum that has kept up with the advancement in scientific concepts and social studies.

Unfortunately, all this modernity and forward thinking has come to a grinding halt with the Council’s decision to abolish the need to be successfully examined in a second language in order to graduate. Unlike other regional and central boards, the ISCE system considers English as the first language and requires the examinee to prove proficiency in a second language, typically the regional vernacular. According to the new proposal that will be effective from 2012, a passing grade will not be required in this second language.

Nobody can deny the importance of English as the lingua franca not only of India but of the world, and the ISCE’s emphasis on English as first language has always provided its students a competitive advantage vis-à-vis higher studies abroad, compared to other examination systems. However, it is as important for students to study their mother tongue, both as a means to instil a sense of pride in one’s language and also to expose themselves to the beauty of its literature. While the Council’s argument that they are not advocating the removal of second language studies may hold water in an ideal world, it would be naïve to assume that a high school student would master a subject that has no bearing on their examination grades.

Moreover, with this regressive step the Council appears to support Lord Macaulay’s misguided notion that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. Macaulay’s education policies in the nineteenth century had the effect of churning out literate Indians who were versed in English and Latin but scornful of their own mother tongues. It took the efforts of John Drinkwater Bethune and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar to promote and popularise the study of Indian languages at the school level.

It is said that those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes. It is a folly to imagine that an all-round education is complete without learning to appreciate one’s language, and it is to be hoped that wisdom will prevail on the ISCE Council so they may undo their blunder before it is too late.


Ela Saraswati Mahi Tisro Devirmayo Bhuvaha Barhihi Seedantva Stridhaha.
[One should regularly worship one’s motherland, culture and mother tongue because they are the givers of happiness.]

Rig Veda, First Mandala, 13/9

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