The Three Language Formula: Understanding the Context of Contest

Mansi Gupta and Jay Bhaskar Sharma

The controversy over the three language formula has ensued with the introduction of the draft NEP 2019. Does this transgression of autonomy of states provide a viable solution?


Language plays an indispensable role in our lives. Its importance is often witnessed in crucial matters pertaining to the administration of the state, national unity and integrity. As an Arabic adage goes, “learn a language and you can avoid war”. In India, our diverse language heritage implies that language has always been the bone of contention since time immemorial. In a country with 22 major languages and over 720 regional dialects, it is a tumultuous task to govern and carry out the functions of the state. This article seeks to analyze the raging debate over the implementation of the three language formula which resurfaced in the first draft of New Education Policy, 2019. The authors shall argue that while the three language formula is a better option among the lot, the present form of it does not resolve the contentious issues.

What is the three language formula?

History of India is riddled with attempts to choose one language as the official language. English was the prominent language of study in schools during British regime under which our education system developed. To further this cause, it was made essential for a person to know English in order to enter any government service. Thus, no other Indian language gained traction under the British regime.

Given India’s linguistic diversity, it became an arduous task to choose one language while not hurting the sentiments of speakers of countless other languages post-independence. The consensus in the constituent assembly to keep Hindi as the official language and English as the associate official language arrived after much discussion to give the states liberty to independently decide their official language. However, the teaching system across various regions in the country was not uniform. Whereas Hindi was the general medium of instruction in the north, regional languages and English were the media of instruction in other parts. This led to chaos and created difficulties for inter-state communication. Therefore, in order to uniformize the system, in 1968 the New Education Policy derived a middle path called the Three-Language Formula wherein Hindi, English and the regional languages would be taught to students from the secondary stage onwards. It was developed to ensure proper inclusion and progression of regional languages. The main idea behind it was to encourage students to learn more than one diverse language and to make north Indians learn south Indian languages and vice versa. However, the formula was a “compromise between the demands of the various pressure groups and could be called a masterly-if-imperfect solution” to a complicated problem. As per this policy, state governments were to promote the study of a modern Indian language, preferably one of the southern languages, apart from Hindi and English in the Hindi-speaking States. In the ‘Non-Hindi Speaking States’, Hindi would be studied along with a regional language, their mother tongue, and English, the associate official language of the union. However, a policy cannot succeed until it is properly executed. Thus, while this policy was being followed in the south, northern states did nothing for the promotion of southern languages. The New Education Policy 2019 envisions an objective similar to University Education Commission 1950 and NEP 1965. In fact, in 2017, a Presidential order stated the Centre should draw up a policy to make Hindi a compulsory subject in consultation with the states. Therefore, with the presentation of the NEP in the Parliament, the debate on this was reignited. Primarily because the south Indian states saw it as an attempt to impose Hindi over them and transform it into the national language. This is problematic because at least in 20 out of 29 states Hindi is not the natural language.

Moreover, apart from government policies, some non-governmental factors have also impacted the growth of Hindi. The increased migration of people from north India to southern states has established a greater presence of Hindi in those areas. This migration incurs due to economic reasons considering the fact that most of the metro industrial centers are in south India. For example, the proportion of Hindi speakers in Tamil Nadu doubled from 2001 to 2011.

Fallacies of the Draft NEP

The three functions which the three language formula sought to serve, were accommodating group identity, affirming national unity, and increasing administrative efficiency. But this has been mired by various overriding factors. The present draft is the reiteration of the previous formula with slight modifications as to the introduction of three languages. As opposed to the previous policy, the current draft suggests the introduction of languages at the primary level itself. The grounds on which it can be criticized are: [1] Cognitive burden on young children to learn languages; [2] Threat to linguistic sovereignty of the states; [3] feasibility of implementing the policy.

First, learning three languages from the foundational stage is a rushed decision, taken without much deliberation. The draft mentions that as per surveys children below the age of 10 are most proficient to acquire a new language. However, it would be juvenile to expect young children to gain proficiency in three languages. Moreover, it would thrust upon students a cognitive burden to learn three languages within the first three years of high school.

Secondly, the draft NEP has received a massive backlash from non-Hindi speaking states because this policy came across as a threat to their linguistic sovereignty. Even after clarification by Dr. K. Kasturirangan, the chairman of the draft committee, the concerns over linguistic chauvinism of Hindi has been voiced by political parties like DMK and CPM. Various questions pertaining to saffronization of language and coloured attempt of monopolizing faith in ‘Hindutva’ have been leveled against the draft which initially proposed compulsory teaching of Hindi to students up to 12th standard. This was further amended and to provide flexibility in the choice of language, students wishing to change one or more of their three languages may do so in grade six or grade seven. But this is subjected to the condition that they are still “able to demonstrate proficiency in three languages in their modular board examinations”, which is a mere euphemism as demonstrating proficiency will more often than not make them study those three languages promoted by the particular state.

Lastly, historically it has been seen that implementation of the three language formula is a tumultuous task because often states don’t comply with it. The 50-year old formula speaks volume for the incompetence and lackadaisical attitude of the authorities. For instance, the state of Tamil Nadu till date followed a 2-language formula, wherein only English and Tamil were taught to students. In fact, the state enacted a compulsory Tamil Learning Act years ago. Another fallacy which has surfaced regarding the implementation of the scheme is that in states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and other Hindi speaking states, the criteria of studying other regions’ languages under the three-language formula has always been circumvented by teaching Sanskrit instead, which doesn’t really fulfill the purpose of three language formula. Even though there is a trend towards centralization of decision-making in India, education, being in the concurrent list, is the prerogative of both states and centre. States have often implemented reactionary policies against the centre’s enthusiasm to promote Hindi. For example, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal made it compulsory to learn their state languages across schools in the respective states. The bigger picture shows that such reactionary policies have a domino effect which jeopardizes other administrative functions and center-state relations, for instance, this may jeopardize the other initiatives which the central government might wish to take with the aid of state governments.

The Road Ahead

It is essential to note that the solution to the three-language formula lies not in completely abandoning the idea but ensuring its better implementation. The objective of the draft policy is to maintain the social fabric of multilingualism present in India. The plural culture and multilinguistic diversity should be considered as a boon and an opportunity for learning and expanding one’s horizons rather than an obligation to be fulfilled out of necessity.

A recent initiative by the Rajasthan government can be looked up to as an example which espouses liberalism in terms of language learning. It has recently introduced the Mahatma Gandhi Rajkiya Vidyalaya scheme of opening English medium schools at each district headquarters. Under this, the hitherto education in Hindi would be developed to English so that those poor children who cannot afford high fees of private institutions can get free education of a global language. For a speedy implementation, the already established Hindi medium schools would be converted to English medium and the students would be retained in the new school. However, those students who ‘do not wish to study in English’ will have a choice to get transferred to another Hindi medium school. This explains that the state should respect the individual’s right of learning the language of one’s choice or the one which is native to that person.

The solution of the three language formula can be seen as the strategy of rendering the best pay off in terms of national unity, state liberty, and administrative efficiency. However, for this to materialize it is crucial that certain changes are made to the present system. Firstly, the additional languages should be introduced only in middle school and not in primary school, where real choices should be given to students. This option should be fluid and the students should be given an option to switch their third language to any language of their choice after the expiry of a certain period. In fact, along with regional languages, an option to learn classical, as well as foreign languages, should be made available to students as electives. The new policy includes setting up centres for the development of Persian, Pali and other languages in the country. However, it is essential that adequate teachers are trained for teaching a variety of languages across all parts of the country and on the top of it these jobs should be made lucrative. Secondly, as the importance of English is well established as an international language and pre-requisite for global employment opportunities, it is high time states should give importance to the promotion of the language. Furthermore, Hindi should also be given adequate importance due to administrative ease and other aforementioned economic factors. It would be highly inappropriate to neglect either of the two. This by no means should be seen that these languages are superior to the respective state languages. The Centre and the states should move towards a comprehensive solution respecting each other’s position and refraining from taking retaliatory measures.

Emphasis should also be laid on oral language development in schools. There are languages and dialects such as Awadhi, Rajasthani, Bhojpuri, Tulu, etc. which have a rich heritage. They should be passed down through the upcoming generations in order to perpetuate these languages and dialects. This can be done by arranging classes by local teachers and organizing events like debates, elocution and other contests promoting these languages. The principle underlying all of these should be the creation of liberal spaces which help children to learn languages as per their tastes and preferences.


Through this piece, it can be concluded that the true spirit of nationalism lies in respecting the cultural and sociological differences of each person or group residing in the country. Language unites and it also splits. The latter is the current situation in India. Indians can never be united on a monolingual basis as other countries can because it is a society of vast diversity of people. Therefore, states should strive to develop Hindi as the Constitution of India prescribes but it should be done while facilitating equal growth opportunities to regional languages of other parts. The reason for this is that it is not morally and even practically feasible to impose a single language on the whole population. The middle ground can be reached only if the state makes favourable education policies for non-Hindi speaking people and on the other hand, they understand the importance of a language which has been assigned as an official language by the Constitution.

Mansi Gupta and Jay Bhaskar Sharma are II year students of National Law School of India University.

Image Source: Deccan Herald

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