Sanskrit or German? A row over foreign languages in India’s schools

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken to India’s PM Narendra Modi about his order that state schools stop teaching German as a foreign language. The move is designed to promote more traditional Indian languages.
School students in India

India’s government has ordered a state-run school association to stop offering German as a language option for its more than a million students and focus on promoting more traditional languages such as Sanskrit instead.

The country’s government gave the order to the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS), or the Central School Organization, on Saturday, November 15. Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani told the Indian Express newspaper the decision was made in “the national interest,” and that young people could continue to study German as a hobby for no academic credit. The organization has 1,092 schools across India, for the children of army officials and government staff.

Local vs foreign

The announcement throws exam preparations into chaos, with 68,000 students in grades six to eight due to sit exams in less than three months. The students will be asked in the coming days if they wish to switch from learning German. The KVS says it will be providing counseling and extra support to those directly affected by the change.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel

German chancellor Merkel raised the issue with Indian PM Modi when the two met on the sidelines of the G20 summit

However privately-run schools will continue to be free to provide a range of foreign languages, including German.

India’s government promotes a “three-language policy,” designed to encourage schools to teach students Hindi, English and “an Indian language” such as Sanskrit. But many schools have allowed students to study another foreign language such as German in place of Hindi or Sanskrit, while schools in non-Hindi speaking regions generally teach on a “two-language policy” basis, ignoring Hindi altogether.

The alleged violation of the national educational curriculum was uncovered in October, when a 2011 memorandum signed by the KVS and the Goethe Institute came up for renewal. Indian Minister Irani says an investigation has now been opened into how this agreement originally came to be, calling it illegal.

Prior to this, India’s Sanskrit Teachers Association (SSS) had begun legal action in Delhi’s High Court, saying the continued allowance of German in the school curriculum went against national education policy. The group also described the teaching of foreign languages in Indian schools as “a Western conspiracy.”
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More options for students

On Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi when the two met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia.

Following the meeting India’s foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said although no decisions had been made, Modi had made it clear his first priority was the students.

“Indian PM Narendra Modi assured German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he would look into the matter. Modi told Merkel that he wanted Indian children to have the chance to learn as many languages as possible,” said Akbaruddin.

On Monday, November 17, German Ambassador Michael Steiner said while he understood the motivation behind the government’s announcement, he hoped it would consider letting German remain as a foreign language option.

“There is no harm in learning the Sanskrit language as it is an integral part of the Indian culture and society. But if the Indian students want to learn a modern language to improve their professional prospects, they should be given the opportunity,” he told DW.

Language politics

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been pushing for Sanskrit to play a bigger role in Indian society. Although he can speak some English, Prime Minister Modi speaks almost exclusively in Hindi, a controversial action for some in a country where English is one of the official languages.

Though in the most recent national census only 14,000 people identified Sanskrit as their primary language, it is considered the root of many of the country’s more than 20 official languages, and is particularly important in Hinduism.

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