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Language Policy in India


India, as a confluence of many cultures and empires is regarded as one of the most linguistically diversified nations in the world. It is common for most Indian citizens to be bilingual or multilingual due to cross interactions between the various languages.

As a melting pot of various cultures, there is no particular language that can be considered as the dominant one across every state in the country. Thus, India does not have a national language. However, the languages spoken in various regions play an important role in the lives of people—socially and economically.

Languages in India are generally formed with the assumption to:

  • intertwine with the traditions and cultures of the people;

  • lead them to avail benefits and act as barriers in terms of education, employment and socially due to language disparity;

  • and can also be used to bring people together or pit them against each other.

The article aims to elaborate upon the existing language policy specifically focusing on language education as the language medium in which education is imparted and the impact of disparity in its implementation on various spheres of the lives of citizens of the nation.


The classification of languages in the Indian Census plays an important role in shaping the language policy which consequently affects the education of languages.

According to the 2011 census:

  • There are 121 languages, with 22 Scheduled and 99 non-scheduled languages (which include English), and 147 mother tongues spoken by more than 10,000 people. (Jolad and Agarwal)

  • 22 languages are in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and they account for the mother tongue of 96.72% Indians. (JagranJosh)

However, questions have been raised on whether the classification and enumeration under the census reflects the true linguistic diversity of India. According to the India Forum, the censuses stopped listing languages spoken by less than 10,000 people after 1971, and these languages are lumped into the “other languages” category. Similarly, the mother tongues spoken by less than 10,000 are placed under the “other mother tongue” category. This process of rationalization of language data, and the “other” categorisation could lead to the invisibilisation of languages spoken by ‘minority’ people. (India’'s Linguistic Diversity, 2021).

At present, The People’s Linguistic Survey of India reported the existence of 780 languages (without making a direct distinction between language and dialect), the Ethnologue classifies 447 languages of India, while UNESCO has identified 197 languages in India as endangered based on the population of its speakers being less than 10,000 (Jolad, Agarwal).

Figure 1:

Scheduled Languages and their Associated Mother Tongues in India, based on Census 2011 Classification (The height of the bar represents the number of speakers on a logarithmic scale).

Figure 2 : Comparative Ranking of Language Census of 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001, and 2011


Language with reference to policy is India is dealt with in:

1) The Official Language policy -which states the languages to be used for official purposes; and

2) Policies regarding education of languages.

The Constitution also provides various provisions for development and safeguarding of languages.

Official Language Policy: (Meity)

According to the Official Language Policy, Hindi in Devanagari script is the official language of the Union. The Constitution of India (1950) states that English and Hindi would be used for official business for 15 years in Article 342(2) and 343(3), after which English would be supplanted by Hindi and be the only official language of the Union. However, the replacement of English with Hindi was opposed by many non-Hindi speaking states, mostly in the south. Thus, the Official Language Act of 1963 states both English and Hindi as official languages whereas the states can choose their own formal languages.

Policies regarding use of language in education:

Language education is one of the most important fields for imparting knowledge and sustaining the progressive use of a language. Thus, the language policy in India places special emphasis on policies regarding the education of languages.

  • Three Language Formula

The three-language formula, considered as the most important development in language education policy.(adopted in 1968, reiterated in 1986, 1992, 2005, and continued) has been introduced again with modifications in the National Education policy, 2020.

It was introduced by the Kothari Commission (1964–66) on Education to be implemented in states across India. The policy was suggested to remove inequalities based on language and enable national integration at a time when there was widespread dissatisfaction with the imposition of Hindi. The focus of the policy is on—“The study of a modern Indian language, preferably one of the southern languages, apart from Hindi and English in the Hindi-speaking States, and of Hindi along with the regional language and English in the non-Hindi speaking States.” (NPE, 1968: Page 40)

However, the implementation of the three-language system was not uniform across the states and it was also met with opposition. Modified versions of the formula are applied across states in India:

  • From Standard 6 to 10 in most state boards; Standards 8 to 10 in a few of the state boards; Standards 6 to 9 in two national boards under Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), i.e. Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and National Institute of Open Schooling(NIOS), and one private board Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations(CISCE). State boards have also started following CBSE pattern i.e. two languages in Standards 9 and 10 to overcome the unfair disadvantage their students face in the Class 10th Board Examinations. (New Indian Express, 2019)

  • For the speakers of linguistic minority languages it has become a four-language formula as they have to learn their mother tongue, the dominant regional language, English, and Hindi. (The Hindu, 2014)

  • Sanskrit became the third language instead of any modern regional language in many of the Hindi speaking States and some boards/institutions even permit learning foreign languages such as Spanish, French, and German in place of Hindi or Sanskrit.

  • Hindi-speaking States did not include any South Indian language in their school curriculum. (The Hindu, 2014)

  • Tamil Nadu and Puducherry follow a two language policy. (The Hindu, 2014).

  • Odisha is the only state to formally incorporate Mother Language Education(MLE) into its education system, and that too only for its tribal areas. (Business Standard,2020)

National Education Policy 2020 (NEP Page 13-14)

The NEP 2020 continues to implement the three language formula and states that there will be greater flexibility in the three-language formula and no language will be imposed on any State. The draft NEP 2019, included compulsory study of Hindi which was revoked later due to heavy opposition from the non-Hindi speaking states.

NEP 2020 states that:

  • learning three languages will be the choice of States, regions, and students themselves, as long as at least two of the three languages are native to India.

  • Wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond it will be the home language/mother-tongue/local language/regional language to be followed by both public and private schools.

  • High-quality textbooks, including in science, will be made available in home languages/mother tongue along with extensive use of technology for teaching and learning of different languages and to popularize language learning

  • All efforts will be made early on to ensure that any gaps that exist between the language spoken by the child and the medium of teaching are bridged.

  • Every student in the country will participate in a fun project/activity on ‘The Languages of India’, sometime in Grades 6-8, under the ‘Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat’ initiative to learn about the major Indian languages.

  • Options for learning classical Indian language and some foreign languages will also be available at the secondary level across India whereas Indian Sign Language(ISL) will be standardized and local sign languages will be taught and used where relevant and possible.



As the Language Policy in education is not implemented uniformly throughout India, the impact varies according to the language mediums and schools. According to the National Education Policy, research clearly shows that children pick up languages extremely quickly between the ages of 2 and 8 and that multilingualism has great cognitive benefits to young students. (NEP,2020-Page 13)

However, despite the policy push towards primary education in mother tongue, most of the private schools are in English medium and the government schools depending upon the state are in regional, Hindi or English medium. Moreover, adequate infrastructure does not exist at higher education level in vernacular language, or for the smooth transition to other languages. English is the prominent language medium for most of the higher educational institutions which places the vernacular medium students at a disadvantage. Most Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics(STEM) based education in institutions such as AIIMS, IIT and private universities are imparted in English.

An analysis of the Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE+) data of 2019–20 shows that states/Union Territories have up to two mediums of instruction- the state's predominantly spoken language, either English/Hindi and up to seven languages of instruction (for example, Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Hindi, English, Manipuri, and Garo in Assam) (Bhusnurmath, 2022). Hindi remains the largest medium accounting for over 42% of total enrolment (TOI, 2021). However, few Universities offer vernacular medium instruction such as Delhi University (Hindi), some state universities and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) has granted permission to 14 colleges across the country to offer select engineering courses in 11 regional languages (DrishtiIAS, 2021).

Thus, the outcome is tipped in favour of students studying in elite English medium private schools. Students in private English medium schools with good socio-economic backgrounds have performed well, and those who have studied in vernacular medium have lagged behind. (Sreekanth, Yagnamurthy; 2021)


Employment for vernacular medium based individuals are highly restricted to government sector and language teaching professions. The medium for language for exams which are the entry point in most of the central government jobs include those in the 8th schedule, whereas the state government jobs depend on the state language.

However, individuals studying in vernacular face a comparative disadvantage as

According to a report published by Cambridge English and QS in 2016, 64% of employers that offer better packages to applicants with good English skills in India; 90% of employers that said English is significant for their organization in the private sector in India. (Cambridge English, 2016) Thus individuals who have studied in vernacular medium or English medium schools with poor infrastructure do not have the equal opportunities in comparison to those who studied in private English medium schools.

Social and Cultural:

Language, as a means of communication, affects how people interact and perceive one another. Due to the connection between one’s language and culture, it also affects their perception of themselves. Contrary to research which shows that education in the mother tongue is a key factor for inclusion and quality learning, improving learning outcomes and academic performance (UNESCO); it has been observed that the medium of language education in India depends on economic and social benefits.

In general, languages such as English enjoy hegemony in India as they are associated with certain attributes such as affluence and education. Similarly, languages which are widely spoken also have an advantage as they are accounted for in data and policy is formulated accordingly. Conversely, the number of individuals speaking minority languages continues to decline. This is detrimental to the sustenance of an individual’s culture.

Another factor which strengthens this hegemony is that government-run public schools focus purely on native languages (English is introduced as a second language from grade 5) and proper guidance for transition to English later on is mostly absent. Thus, this presents a clear competitive disadvantage to students of public schools. Parents assume that a child who studies in English will automatically have a good career due to the advantages in terms of employment opportunities etc. An unintended consequence of this practice is that children have a negative attribute towards their native languages. (Heritage Experiential Learning)

Proper implementation of the three language policy would be beneficial to society. Knowing one’s mother tongue also plays a role in having self-confidence and self-knowledge. Lack of knowledge can often lead to individuals being misled or communities being pit against one another on linguistic lines. Alternatively, being able to effectively speak the popular link language such as English enables individuals from various parts of the nation to overcome the linguistic barrier in society, education and all other spheres.


Any language in education policy which is developed and implemented needs to be linked to the goals of the education system and support a country to reach its education goals in terms of learning outcomes, access and equity, and language proficiency (USAID, 2015; Ball, 2011).

Language Policy in India has specifically focused on education and emphasized on the benefits of multilingualism and learning in the mother tongue. However, the recommended policies have not been followed uniformly in the nation due to various reasons such as:

  • lack of knowledge about the benefits of mother tongue learning;

  • preference for English medium education;

  • difference in mother tongues in the same region/classroom;

  • heavy opposition due to fear of imposition of majority language;

  • lack of infrastructure to support policy goals; and

  • economic, social and employability prospects.

The language policy faces problems in terms of implementation as the link required to support the educational benefit of studying in the mother tongue is absent.

Effective implementation of the three language policy would require

  • impartation of awareness about the importance and benefits of use of mother tongue in primary education and multilingualism;

  • flexibility and increase in options of language mediums state wise as the mother tongue of students vary even in the same state;

  • enhancement in school infrastructure(teaching staff, study materials, etc) and pedagogy to enable effective learning;

  • proper facilities which focuses on multilingualism right at elementary stage to enable smooth transition of students from mother language education to other widely used and known languages;

  • resources and infrastructure to support higher education in mother tongue and regional languages;

  • creation of opportunities of employment for vernacular learning students.

With the existing challenges and the plethora of languages in India, it is very necessary for the policies to be effectively implemented in order to have link languages to prevent language barriers, safeguard minority languages, and prevent language hegemony/linguistic chauvinism.


The Official Language Policy of India states the languages to be used for official purposes, whereas the safeguarding, promotion, and sustenance of languages largely depends on the Constitutional Provisions and Policy on language education.

Due to the disparity in implementation of language policy and lack of facilities to enable proper application, language acts as a barrier for many individuals studying in vernacular as they are unable to transition smoothly into education in other languages. This disparity is further aggravated in the employability, economic, and social scenario. The difference in the medium of language in education has led to variability in learning outcomes, equity and language proficiency among the citizens. There is also a decline in the number of individuals speaking minority languages which is detrimental for the community and composite culture of India.

The implementation of the policy so far has been hindered due to fear of language imposition along with promotion of selective language, gap in understanding benefits and non uniform implementation. The advantages of the existing language policy can only be realized through thorough and effective implementation across the nation with the aim of promoting and preserving the composite culture and languages of India.


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