The role of language in cognitive development

An educationally-sound appreciation and analysis of the Indian NEP (National Education Policy) is perhaps the best window to understanding the human development challenges in what is demographically going to be the most populous country in the world, with the youngest population, intensively and extensively diverse, middle-class educational ethos, entrepreneurial culture, etc.

The second dimension of evaluation of Indian NEP is whether it duly acknowledges and builds on the critical role of language in cognitive development. This article has no space to do any justice to the way language, thinking, and general cognition interact. Briefly, we think in words, in a language. The other means of thinking is processing images. However, the use of words, weaved together by the rules and nuances of a language, infinitely expand our individual and collective prowess to feel, experience, and observe; process the same in real-time, ‘store in memory’, and then process it all to express cogently and deliberately.

The role of language is so sharp and evident that at the most basic level the difference between a ‘dim-wit’, and a ‘sharp-wit’ boils down to their comparative language abilities. Various academic disciplines further accentuate the nuanced usage of languages. For instance, those who do not know the word ‘acceleration’ are likely to miss the difference between high speed and acceleration, as also a PhD in English is likely to draw an increasing linear graph to show acceleration rather than the exponential one (this is more commonly known to those with engineering, math, science, or economics background).

To the point, academic achievements (and life-long, self-enabled learning, and more) are directly proportional to competence in the language of academics, besides resources for conceptual clarity!

What is critically important in this context is the role of the mother tongue in school education, and the fact that the mother tongue is the only language a young child has to know to interact with their world. By default, competence in the mother tongue becomes the enabler, or disabler of learning foundations.

Further, as we will learn more about soon, cultivation of a reading habit among children mandates that there is at least one truly reader-adult in their lives, and most naturally they may be the parents/mother, or some other adult in the closest community.

Higher competence in a language is a natural advantage in learning and life. How many of us today really know the most basic of math concepts? For example, let us consider prime numbers and composite numbers. The definition that we are taught in schools is – a prime number is a number that has exactly two factors, ‘one’ and the number itself; while a composite number has more than two factors. But if we remind that ‘prime numbers are the prime of the numbers, just as the prime minister is the one above the rest’ and that ‘composite numbers are uniquely composed of prime numbers’, how would that make a difference in understanding the two numbers?

Similarly, imagine a child who is well-read and uses the word ‘friction’ and ‘fraction’ while speaking and writing in daily routine (such as, ‘my parents have friction over issues of my education’, rather than ‘my parents fight over issues of my education’). It is not hard to realise that such a child would quickly grasp the core idea (concept) of friction in science (that friction in relationships and friction between two surfaces are essentially similar) and fraction in math (yes, the idea of the unit-fraction – with one being anything – is rooted in everyday usages of the word fraction). We can hold an endless body of discussion on how command over language makes learning so much more deeper, faster, and multi-contextual! 

Now the relevant aspect of the science of language is that all languages are transacted at four levels – basic (roughly, a vocabulary of a few hundred words, including nouns), communicative (what is educationally also called functional level competency, it is the ability to converse in a language with ease socially – typically, the level aimed at for second and third languages in school systems), literary (the language used to read literary books, and it is the most exalted form of a language), and academic! Yes, the use of a language for learning various academic disciplines is the highest level of competence in that language, way beyond the best (the literary layer); for example, English (lexis) used in writing legal texts is quite differently nuanced from the way it is used in writing medical texts, just as the way we write physics is different from the way we write history in the same language.

NEP rightly lays utmost importance on the use of the mother tongue in primary years, and beyond. But NEP comprehensively loses the plot thereafter – there is no understanding and vision of the level of competence required in the mother tongue to base academic learning on its words and nuances. The command over a language to proficiently learn physics, chemistry, biology, history, geography, political science, math, economics, etc., in that language, at the school level, has to be at a level that is more extensive and practised than the level of literature in that language. Short of that competence, it is all meaningless, reduced to rote memorisation of content that is automatically forgotten sooner than later with a complete wipe-out of the underlying concepts themselves.

What comes across as a silent fact is that the highest level of competence is needed to transact academics in a language. Thus, the NEP does not talk about teaching and learning the mother tongues to a level that all children achieve the highest level of competence in their mother tongues; NEP lets mother tongues be taught at a communicative level (a kind of good spoken level at best), that is kind of similar to the level of how the second, or third languages are learned – they are not languages for academics (i.e., academic subjects are not taught in those languages).   

Most relevantly, the only way to reach the academic level of competence is to ‘pass through the literary level’, through extensive reading of literature in that language, or to be able to grow in a rich conversational environment that is high on content as well as language. By implication, one can transact academics only in a language in which one reads literature extensively. There are NO exceptions. A mother tongue has NO academic value unless it is competently commanded beyond the literary level.

The grave deficit in the NEP with respect to language learning may be restated – it does not attempt to make children readers; it does not address the fact that in India we just do not read literature; literary homes are a rarity (a very small fraction of homes has a good stock of books; unfortunately, in India, even the rooms of principals of schools is majorly full of trophies rather than even one shelf of books). Of course, some regions/states of the country have better literature reading traditions than others, but there is anyway a global decline in reading, and place of literature in our lives.

Reading is an acquired skill, and if we raise a generation or two or more non-readers, NEP will go down in history as one that steered the death of reading in the country.  

The role of mother tongues in school education can only be realised if it does facilitate ‘reading schools’, ‘reading families’, and ‘reading children’ (every one of them)!’ Lest ‘reading’ is misunderstood, here is an easy measure of competency in reading for academics (which is in terms of literature-reading competence) – reading about 200 pages of fiction in under 5 hours.

Importantly, there are untold and incalculable cultural gains to be made by embedding literature reading practices in primary school – it is the best enculturation possible, the most feisty, happy, and socially-productive creation of identity for the young in the society. It is indeed music to the ears of elders, and politicians.

There is more of great interest in respect of reading and language! Reading is quite a skill, transferable across language to a good enough degree (reading is a training of the mind to read ‘black letters’ and their sound in the mind as we read). To the extent, a child with proficient reading skills in any one language is really well positioned to acquire the same competence in another language of choice with a few years of concerted focus and effort. Thus, literary-level reading by Grade V in any mother tongue can be quickly transferred to English, or any other language.

“NEP is substantively wrong about the role of the mother tongue in primary years, IF it continues to ignore the natural advantage mother tongues have, in the lives of children, in becoming the easiest and culturally-superior language to read literature.”

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