Sanskrit has been around at least since before the grammarian Panini codified it and he has been historically dated to the 4th century BCE. While many Adivasi or tribal languages can, perhaps, lay greater claim to the tag ‘indigenous Indian language’ Sanskrit has a unique place in the country’s cultural history. Literature that originated in Sanskrit is the fountainhead of a flood of stories and songs that are the pride of towns and temples, villages, artistes and artisans in every nook and corner of the country. Sanskrit also has an every-day, ubiquitous aspect: many of our rivers and mountains, places and people draw their names from the language. So much so it would be irrational to imagine we can divorce Sanskrit from the country’s life-world and disingenuous to argue that any other Indian language, however hoary its tradition, enjoys a pan-Indian presence or an equal status. Sanskrit, therefore, would be the natural choice for classical language of India. That said it would be folly to deny what is due to other ancient languages of our land. So let our three language formula include one indigenous language – which can be Sanskrit or a tribal language.
Languages that became part of our cultural mosaic when they came into our country along with invaders – be they European or West Asian – can be considered under the rubric of foreign languages as they were imported into the country initially. So another of the three languages would be a foreign language, which could be English, German, Persian, Arabic or any other language such as Latin American languages or East Asian languages – just about any language that finds a resonance among the public, in fact.
The primary language or the language of instruction can be English – which is the link language for the nation, Hindi which is the official language of the nation, or a sectarian language which could be the language of a community or a region.
There could be overlaps between the three. The choice of indigenous language (say Soliga) could be the same as the primary language of instruction. Or the foreign language and the choice of language of instruction (say English) could be the same. This issue can be addressed easily by adopting a creative approach with regard to the curriculum and evaluation mechanism for languages apart from the language of instruction.
While the economic consideration of the language of instruction has a place in an education system, it engenders a functional approach to the study of language, and completely loses sight of the finer aspects of the applications of language. After all, most Indians are multi-lingual – especially those who are considered educationally ‘backward’. They are able to converse effectively, critically appreciate, enjoy, and understand the various word forms: from idiomatic expressions to figures of speech to song and literature. It is this potential of language learning that should be sought to be furthered by the second and third languages, which are not the language of instruction. To comprehend, to converse, to critically appraise, and to communicate should all be part of the thought-process that goes into creation of syllabus and evaluation criteria for these subjects.