Monday, February 22, 2010

Lend An Ear, Mind Your Languages


Our director, C. P. Viswanath writes in the Times of India about language learning capacity in India. Read the article below or here at TOI.

The National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) lists a few guidelines on desired outcomes for children learning English as a second language in Classes I and II. These include being able to talk about themselves, follow simple instructions, requests and questions, read simple and short sentences with the help of pictures and understand them, and write simple words, phrases and short sentences.

However, a recent report by the NGO Pratham shows that less that 50 per cent of children in Class I could even identify capital letters in English. The gap between desired outcomes and real outcomes is obviously huge. 

Parents, especially from rural and semi-urban families, see English as a gateway to better opportunities for their children. They send their children to English-medium schools. In most of these schools, children learn Maths, Sciences and other subjects in English, without knowing English. 

This situation has led to an increasing number of educators advocating that schooling should be in the mother tongue only. There have been a few recent articles on this subject in the press that state that learning multiple languages simultaneously is ill-advised . They quote studies and dissertations from the West to bolster this opinion. 

An oft-quoted study, by Helen Abadzi, an education consultant with the World Bank Efficient Learning for the Poor - Insights from the Frontier of Cognitive Neuroscience reinforces this opinion. The key word in Abadzi's study is 'cognitive'. Cognitive learning of language is extremely inefficient . Formal pedagogy, unfortunately, uses only cognitive processes to teach language. This could be seen as the primary reason for poor outcomes. 

There is a failure to recognise that the major elements of language are best learnt intuitively, making it an "associative" task (where you perform a task without having to single-mindedly focus on it). As a result of faulty pedagogy, we should not arrive at a conclusion on a child's capacity to learn multiple languages. 

We just have to look at ourselves, or those around us, to realise that bilingualism and multilingualism is a way of life for many in India. It happens without effort when our environment supports it. A visit to the slums of Dharavi will reveal that many 4-year-olds speak two or three languages. 

Educators and researchers in the West have little or no experience of this kind of organic multilingual diversity. Moreover, schools in the West have miserably failed in teaching a second language to their students. Thousands of students in American schools take Spanish as their second language. After three to seven years of exposure to the best of teachers and the best of facilities, only a miniscule percentage of these students understand or speak the language to even a limited degree. The conclusions of researchers there naturally emerge from these failed experiences in teaching language. 

When approaching the learning of language, we must make a very clear distinction between the intuitive elements of language (understanding and speaking) and the logical elements (reading and writing). Intuitive elements and logical elements of language are learnt entirely differently. This is the reason why you will find individuals who understand and speak a language but cannot read and write and vice versa. The problem lies in the fact that formal pedagogy (as defined by the West and adopted by us) does not recognise this crucial difference. 

Having said this, we are still left with the challenge of facilitating intuitive learning in a classroom. Children who struggle with any language are the ones who have no exposure to that language in their daily lives. There are natural processes that occur when we learn our mother tongue or when we learn languages in a multilingual environment. How do we bring these into the classroom? 

Language learning must be considered complete only when understanding, speaking, reading and writing proficiency has been attained. The progression of learning should also ideally proceed in the same order. An indigenously developed languagelearning programme has demonstrated outstanding results in teaching English to first generation English learners in rural, semi-urban and tribal areas. The process is described as intuitive, immersive, non-instructional and non-linear. It mirrors the learning process of the mother tongue. 

A learner is immersed into a structured language environment through a variety of interesting activities that are designed to stimulate intuitive learning. There is no overt teaching. The learner is led through different kinds of language experiences. Language is learnt using the body, through music and through stories. The programme does not teach meanings of words but allows the learner to figure it out. 

Prayaag Joshi, Convenor of Imlee Mahua, a centre that caters to tribal children in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, and uses the programme, says, "Little tribal children (three to eight-year-olds) have shown in the past few months a voracious appetite for language learning (sic). Besides their mother tongue (Halbi or Gondi) they are taking to learning the other local language plus Hindi and English...both foreign languages...like fish to water. I don't even feel that they are aware that they are picking up 4 different languages already." 

With the right pedagogy, there is hope that every child can learn English and other languages enjoyably and without conscious effort irrespective of their background and without compromising the mother tongue. For this, we must look at our successfully multilingual society and draw lessons from it.

- By C. P. Viswanath, Director of Karadi Tales