Sunday, 7 February 2016

What Everyday Stories Can Tell Us about Language Learning

       - Nomita (Curriculum Support & Facilitator)
     A Bridge Learning Program (or Special Training as it is officially referred to) aims to bridge the learning gaps (as per prescribed syllabus) in literacy and numeracy so that out-of-school children are able to access mainstream schools. If I have to reflect on the work that we have done in the past four months in the bridge program for children of migrant labour many stories come to the surface. Often we view these as interesting and fun episodes to enjoy or relate to others. But, these are events that can often give us powerful messages.
    Here, I recount one such story and the message it has for us as practitioners. A message that is established in research circles, but little understood by practitioners, educators, policy makers or even parents in India today. The latter often vociferously demanding “English medium” education for their wards in their early years - even before they have built a strong sense of their own home language! 
3 year-old Rahul (or Lahul as he calls himself) is from Bihar and his older brother is in the bridge program. Wearing a tiger print, warm, felt jacket, he plays around us and we strike up a conversation in Hindi – Lahul’s home language.

            Actual interaction in Hindi:
We:     "Yeh kaunsa sher hai?!"
Lahul:  "Main shel nahin hoon - Yeh to jacket hai!"
We:     "Theekh hai. Yeh kahani suno. Ek sher tha. Usne ek chote choohe ko dekha. Phir …  ab aap sunao."
Lahul:   "Phil …Shel ne choohe ko kha liya"
We:     "Itni jaldi?!! Theekh hai (smiling). Phir … sher ke paet mein chota chooha rone laga. Phir …?"
Lahul: "Phil …Shel ne kaha, 'mele paet mein choohe daud lahe hain!' … "  (The idiomatic meaning – “I am hungry!”))
We:     Amazed and tickled by this response.
English Translation:
We:     "Who is this tiger?!
Lahul:  "I am not a tiger – this is a jacket!"
We:     "Okay. Listen to this story. There was a tiger. He saw a little mouse. Then …now you tell me."
Lahul:   "Then …the tiger ate the mouse."
We:     "So quickly! Okay! (smiling) Then … in the tiger’s stomach the little mouse began to cry. Then …?"
Lahul: "Then … The tiger said, 'mice are running around in my stomach' "(The idiomatic meaning – “I am hungry!”)
We:     Amazed and tickled by this response.
This story building exchange goes on for a few more exchanges. 
Why were we amazed? The use of idioms adds colour to a language and induces interest in the listener. This is the cultural aspect that languages are embedded with, which native speakers use naturally and powerfully to convey meaning. Lahul’s response, “Shel ne kaha, “mere paet mein choohe daud lahe hain!” shows rich language being used by a three year-old.
If we look at the ‘enacted’ policy of most mainstream schools – private or public – languages that are not the medium of instruction – English or Kannada (in Karnataka) are not ‘allowed’ to be spoken in schools or even pre-schools! The rich knowledge that the child comes with is seldom acknowledged and usually ignored.
“Speak in English!” or even “Kannadadali matanaḍu!” If this was told to our Lahul, we would have silenced him completely! There would have been no story to build, no story to tell, no lessons to learn, no appreciation of the child’s knowledge, no opportunity for him to express his creativity, and no opportunity to communicate with confidence! How often have we heard, “these children do not know anything”! Shaking the very confidence of the child and creating a discomfort with her own identity in public space. Nip it (the creativity) in the bud, as our colonisers did! Mimicking the other, without understanding, becomes one way of coping.
The Indian classroom is a complex one – with a multi-lingual environment being the reality. Far from celebrating this rich diversity, we brush it aside to adopt ‘English’ as our ‘best’ solution! Recently, owing to market pressure, many policy makers have decided that English-medium is the way forward - even in public schools where most children come from homes and environments where English is not heard at all. Isn’t it saddening that we have few creative solutions to offer, not trusting enough to look at small experiments that have shown success in introducing English effectively, while using a multilingual approach.
English is the language of power undeniably and no child should be denied the opportunity to participate equally. So, what is the problem? Few teachers in the system have knowledge or pedagogic competency in English language teaching, especially when it is a foreign language. When we haven’t built the competency of teachers what outcome do we envision for our students! By providing low quality language learning, we instead determine who is excluded. We must allow for ‘free choice’ but let it be an opportunity of ‘fair chance’ too!
More dangerously, we affect the thinking abilities of the child. For it is strong competency in any language – which is but a ‘tool’ to think and communicate meaningfully - that allows one to listen, speak, read and write effectively! These are aspects that help in the making of a ‘rational, thinking being’ (an important aim of education) – not ‘English medium’ by itself.
What could this mean for us in the long term and as a nation? Could it mean that we are running the risk of systematically silencing masses and masses of children? Systematically killing the sense of self-worth in our children! Systematically killing our own ways of expressing! Systematically eradicating our own culture and our own unique ways of thinking critically and creatively? For isn’t language both a means of cultural expression and a tool of the mind? Are we systematically killing innovation by bending backwards to accommodate market forces? Make in India or should it be Replicate in India – as we so cleverly and uncritically have done in the past and continue to do!
Yet, we bow to market pressures and parental demand; instead of finding better solutions we apply quick-fix to a broken argument and roll out policies that can have damaging consequences for the child!
The larger question is : should policy-making be restricted to sloganeering or even an appeasement exercise? Or should it be an exercise in educating ourselves, celebrating our own rich diversity of languages, giving them an equal opportunity to flourish and grow; while collaborating with those organisations that have developed pedagogic knowledge over the years in English language instruction as a foreign language. Build competency in the system and systematically take the right step forward-slowly, yet surely!


  1. You have raised very poignant issues - about empowering and silencing. Both Gandhi and Tagore had their 'takes' on this - their critique of English learning seems as valid today as then. One day you should talk to Malathi Akka from Vikasana to share her thoughts about teaching children different languages.

    1. Too many questions buzzing around. I should have that talk, need more perspectives on this. Which Vikasana do you refer to? IIMb?

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  3. Thanks for sharing your experience. I completely resonate with what you have said, since I am in the same boat. The question we need to ask is - do we want the child to learn an unknown / a foreign language at an early age at the cost of losing her expression ?

  4. I think most of the teachers lacks patience and the listening skills. The combination of both in one teacher gives us a beautiful story to share.
    Thanks for sharing :)

  5. You argue for a nuanced approach, smaller experiments, more complex ones than simply adopting the simpler approach of taking up english- something we have (Those who speak here) have privileged from. As Indira has argued in class once I think: "We shall multiple like rabbits, not expand like an elephant..." :) I resonate with that.
    Was equally amazed by the three-year old's use of language - "pet mein choohe doudenge" :-)

  6. Thanks Jharna for stopping by