International, People, Research

Visiting Scholar

October 06, 2014

Speaking the Same Language

Visiting Scholar’s life work emphasizes the importance of educating children in their mother tongues

There are more than 150 different languages spoken among India’s indigenous tribal minorities, but Hindi and English, the country’s two official languages, are not among them. What’s more, until this year out of these 150 different languages, the Indian government recognized only two.

This meant that until recently, children in tribal communities had to attend schools where classes and instruction were not offered in their home language. They fell behind other students. Many quit altogether.

Dr. Ajit Mohanty, the Faculty of Education’s 2014 visiting scholar, played an integral part in changing that.

Mohanty is a leading scholar and researcher in the field of multilingual education, and world-renowned for researching and advocating for mother-tongue education among India’s tribal populations.

His life’s work was instrumental in the development and passing by the Indian government of a 2014 policy that guarantees mother-tongue-based education in his home province of Odisha, one of the eastern provinces in India.

“These tribal children were being left behind by those children lucky enough to be educated in their mother tongues,” said Mohanty. “So I decided to get involved.”

It wasn’t an easy task. He published papers on the benefits of offering education in mother-tongue languages. He advocated to government officials and policy makers. But nothing changed.

“There was frustration on my part,” he said. “I’ve been working on this since 1978 – I would publish, and wait. My research was gathering dust.”

Things changed in 2004 when UNESCO, the intellectual agency of the United Nations, became involved.

“Then, people listened,” said Mohanty with a smile.

With UNESCO’s encouragement, the Indian government supported mother-tongue-based education on a trial basis in two of the country’s provinces, including Odisha.

Recently, they not only developed and passed the policy guaranteeing mother-tongue-based education in Odisha, but India’s upcoming National Curricular Framework for school education now recommends implementing multilingual education across the entire country. Mohanty, who knows eight different languages with varying levels of proficiency, is thrilled to be helping plan the educational content.

“It is reenergizing,” he said. “I’d have retired thinking my work hadn’t had a single positive result. Now there are better outcomes for children, parents understand the curriculum and are more involved, teachers are more engaged. It is wonderful.”

Mohanty will be with the Faculty of Education until the end of October, but it’s not his first visit to Western. In 2009, he and Dr. Shelley Taylor, associate professor of applied linguistics at Western’s Faculty of Education, established a partnership on multilingualism between Western and Jawaharlal Nehru University, where Mohanty worked in India.

The partnership brought Mohanty, one of his colleagues and two students here in 2010. He’s happy to be back, and looking forward to meeting with as many students, faculty and staff as he can.

“The Faculty of Education’s students and faculty are involved in many of the issues I deal with in India,” he said. “We can all work on the same wavelength.”

In particular, Mohanty hopes to study and work with Faculty members on the subject of educating First Nations students in their native language. It’s a subject that’s close to his heart, and one about which he is truly passionate.

“When I worked with the tribal communities in India, their lifestyle and way of dealing with people had an impact on me,” he said. “I no longer saw myself as an objective observer; I got involved socially and emotionally. And I don’t regret that.”


Dr. Ajit Mohanty will hold regular office hours
Faculty of Education Building, Room 1028
Please email him to set up an appointment at
phone at 519-661-2111 ext. 88602. You can learn more about Dr. Mohanty on his website:



Friday, October 17: MLE Policy for Tribal (Indigenous) Children in Odisha (India): Crossing the Rubicon
1 pm, Room 1139 (Community Room), Faculty of Education

Monday, October 20: Growing up in a Multilingual Society: Stages and Strategies in Multilingual Socialization
7pm, Room 1010, Faculty of Education

All are welcome. RSVP to