Dimasa: a little known language of India

Today, I am writing this post just to put on record for posterity the reference to my work on a little known language of India. I submitted my thesis entitled, ‘A Contrastive analysis of English and Dimasa Phonology in a Generative Framework’ to the University of Calcutta in 1983. Soon after the submission of the thesis, my guide, Dr. Suhas Chatterjee, the then Khaira Professor of Indian Linguistics of the University of Calcutta expired and I became an orphan and my thesis submitted to the Calcutta University for evaluation became nobody’s business. After running from pillar to post for the evaluation of my thesis and the viva, I got my Ph.D degree in 1991. Those eight years of my life was a nightmare, full of agony and despair, and the inordinate delay of the great Calcutta University changed the course of my life. When I got my Ph.D. it was too late, it had no value for me for my career advancement. I was doomed.
Looking back, I have no regret. I pity the University that ruined my life, but I feel pride in the fact that I did a pioneering work on a little known language of India. As the internet was not known in those days, google is not aware of my work. When I read a dissertation submitted to the University of Florida by a young Indian scholar who worked on the tonal features of this language but did not refer to my work lying in the cold storage of the library of Calcutta University, I felt amused.

The book, ‘Indian Doctoral Dissertations in English Studies’ by M S kushwaah and Kamal Nseem published by Atlantic Publishers, NewDelhi in 2000, however, mentions my work. But who cares?  As a note on this book admits, “Indian Research In English Studies Has A Long And Rich Tradition. But, Unfortunately, it Has Failed To Make Any Notable Impact On The Academic World. This Is Largely Due To The Fact That Most Of The Indian Doctoral Dissertations In English Studies Lie Buried In University Libraries.”

Well, no more of this personal narrative! Let’s have a look at this little known language which gave me sustenance during my youthful days. My thesis on Dimasa is a response to my love for this language and is a testimony of my admiration for a vibrant community whom I loved, respected and adored during the period 1975 to 1983. I worked on this language for eight years… a little known work on a little known language!

My work was not just a conrastive  analysis of the phonological patterns of two languages, the ultimate objective was English language pedagogy. How to teach English to the marginalized pupils of a tribal community whose  mother tongue  was in the spoken form till then. These pupils of  a community of one lakh members spoke a language which was not used even at the primary level. Teachers who  could not understand a single word of their language used to teach them English. The /p/ sound of their language, for example,  is an aspirated sound  word initially, just as it is the case with the English  /p/ sound. The English  teachers speaking Assamese or Bengali had no clue to the phonological patterns of the mother tongue of their pupils and taught them English as if their mother tongues were Assamese or Bengali. In these two languages, there is a phonemic distinction between /k/ and /kh/, but in English as well as in Dimasa, the distinction between /k/ and /kh/ is allophonic, not ‘phonemic.’ Teaching English to the ‘doubly disadvantaged’ tribal pupils at the cost of their own language!
Dimasa, a branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, is spoken by the Dimasa people of Dima Hasao (North Cachar Hills), Cachar, Karbi Anglong and Nagaon districts of Assam, India. This language is one of the oldest languages spoken in the north-eastern part of India. The word Dimasa etymologically means “Son of the big river” (Di- Water, ma- suffix for great, sa-sons). According to the 2001 Census of India report, there are 110000 native speakers of this little known Indian language.
According to the classification given in the Linguistic Survey of India, Dimasa belongs to the Boro sub-section of the Boro-Naga section under the Assam Burma group of the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan speech family. To quote from ‘The Linguistic Survey of India: “What is called the hill dialect of Kachari is spoken in the North Kachar Hills and in a small tract in the south of Nowgong. This is commonly said to be a dialect of Bara, or at least it is contended that two are common dialects of one language. No doubt, at one time these two speeches were identical, but in the course of centuries, they have developed on such different lines that I prefer to call Hill Kachari, or as its speakers call themselves, Dimasa, the language of the people of the great river, a separate language of the Bodo group.”
The Dimasa Speech Community is a section of the large tribal group which goes by the name of Bodo Kachari and whose members are found scattered all along the Brahmaputra valley of Assam, parts of Arunachal, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura and West Bengal in India. Some speakers of the Bodo group are also found in the north eastern region of Bangladesh. The major concentration of the Dimasas is in the autonomous district of  Dima Hasao (North Cachar Hills) of Assam where they constitute more than 40% of the total population of the district. Till 1961 the Dimasa was treated as a sub tribe of the Kachari Tribe. In 1961 Census they were grouped as a separate tribe. They are listed in a special schedule issued by the Govt. of India and thereby they are entitled to special Govt. protection and constitutional benefits.
It is estimated that Dimasa branched off from the ancestral common language about one thousand years back. In its present form it is completely different from Boro spoken in the districts of Goalpara, Darrang, Sonitpur, Kokrajhar and Kamrup districts of Assam. Endle (1911) says, “Inter-marriage between the two races (the Dimasas and the Boros) is apparently quite unknown, indeed, the barrier of language would of itself probably go far to prevent such inter-marriage for although the two languages (Dimasa and Boro) have much in common, yet in their modern form they differ from each other nearly as much as Italian does from Spanish and members of the two sections of the race meeting each other for the first time would almost certainly fail to understand each other’s speech.”
Dimasa has three dialects spoken in the entire Dimasa speaking region of Assam. They are as follows: the Hill dialect, the Burman dialect and the Hojai dialect. The Hill dialect is spoken in the districts of Dima Hasao (North Cachar Hills) and Karbi Anglong, the Burman dialect is spoken in the plains of Cachar and the Hojai dialect is spoken in the district of Nagaon.
There are sub-dialectal difference in the Hill dialect. Dimasa as spoken by the educated native speakers of the community at important places like Haflong, Maibang and Diphu has been taken as the standard form of this language. It may be pointed out that the Hill dialect and the Burman dialect are the two contenders for the position of the standard variety of this language. The process of standardization has been going on and Dimasa is likely to evolve an acceptable standard form eventually.
(a) Anybody interested in the grammar of this language, can read Dimasa Grammar by F. Jacquesson at http://brahmaputra.ceh.vjf.cnrs.fr/bdd/IMG/pdf/Dimasa_Grammar-2.pdf.
(c) The first book on Dimasa written by Mr. Dundus in 1885 is available in the National Library of Calcutta.
Hoping that someday someone may be interested in studying this language, I am citing  the following resources.
1. Burlings,Rrobins. 1959. “Proto-Bodo”, Language, Vol. XXXV, No. 3.
2. Bhattacharya, P.C. 1977. A Descriptive analysis of the Boro Language, Gauhati.
3. Endle, S. 1911. The Kacharis, London.
4. Grierson, G.A. (ed). 1903. The Linguistic Survey of India, Vol. III, part II, Calcutta.
5. Shafer, Robert, 1955. “Classification of the Sino-Tibetan Languages”, Word, Vol.II, No.1.

Continuing language learning: the role of L1 literacy in secondary L2 language and literacy development

Originally posted on Oxford University Press:

Frustrated student at work in classroomMany secondary second language learners face numerous challenges as they develop language and literacy in a second language at the same time they are learning subject area content in that second language. Fortunately, L1 academic literacy is not separate from L2 academic literacy. They are both manifestations of a common underlying proficiency. In this post Dr. Marylou M. Matoush, introduces her forthcoming webinar highlighting the ways that academic language and literacy proficiency can be developed through active reading, writing, speaking and listening in either or both languages.

Secondary schools are commonly structured as if all students need the same type of instruction, for the same amount of time, across the same curriculum. While this is far from ideal, it may not seem too problematic in some second language and literacy instructional settings, such as foreign language classrooms, where second language (L2) learners share somewhat similar first language (L1) language and literacy…

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In search of a holistic Perspective on Language and Language Teaching

In spite of the highly academic discourses available on the nature and characteristics of language and its manifestation as a cognitive phenomenon and a social dynamic, language seems to be an enigma to many stakeholders involved in designing and implementing a language curriculum. Language as a tool for making sense of the world is coterminous with our human experience and is used spontaneously in all the spheres of our personal, social and cultural engagement right from our childhood. Though language plays a very important role in our perception of reality and the sharpening of our cognitive ability, not only in the popular parlance, even in scholarly discourses, it is often viewed simply as a means of communication. “Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of voluntary produced symbols” Sapir (1921:8). But considering language from a purely utilitarian point of view is a travesty of the fact that language is a constituent of our human entity and an embodiment of our human experience. A child’s tryst with language begins with her birth and the language ‘acts as a subtle, yet strong force, shaping the child’s perception of the world, interests, capabilities, and even values and attitudes.”(Krishna Kumar, 1986:1).

Though the professionals involved in language education have a general idea of ‘what is language’ and how it works, an in-depth understanding of language and its role in the cognitive development of a child and its pedagogic implication in concept formation and knowledge creation are often overlooked by them. The Position Paper on Teaching of Indian Languages published by the NCERT, NewDelhi in 2006 observed that “In order to appreciate fully the role of language in education, we must begin to develop a holistic perspective on language.”(NCE, 2006:1). But, in order to develop a holistic perspective we have to examine language in a multi-dimensional space.

As language can be considered from diverse points of view, theoretical linguists, applied linguists, social psychologists, cognitive psychologists and all other people interested in language have tried to look at it from their own perspectives. Consequently, the plethora of diverse perspectives originating from conflicting theoretical orientation often pose serious problems for the people who are entrusted with the task of teaching language. Therefore, the interface between language perspectives and language pedagogy needs a systematic exploration for our own understanding and the classroom practice.

As the intertwining of the language and its context is an essential condition for language acquisition and language leaning, any language pedagogy meant for young learners has to take into consideration the learners’ urge for relating language to their context. Any attempt to teach a language without relating it to the context appealing to the learners is an attempt to negate the natural process of a child’s way of picking up a new language. Moreover, as language is a complex system and encompasses the wide spectrum of the cognitive development of a child, a single perspective cannot be adequate for an understanding of the process of language acquisition. Skinner’s argument of ‘language as behaviour’ vs Chomsky’s ‘theory of innateness’ view two extreme ends of a debate and along with this debate we have to consider the sociolinguistic realities that condition language acquisition. A lot of research findings on the correlation between language behaviors and cognition, the role of the speech community in shaping the linguistic as well as the cognitive competence of the child and the child’s innate ability to internalize the verbalization pattern of the first language without overt consciousness are based on diverse points of view.

Language acquisition is a mysterious phenomenon, indeed, and new theories are emerging on the basis of neurobiological approaches or from diverse sociological perspectives. It has been reported that certain elements of language are acquired even during the prenatal and neonatal period and the innate disposition of the newborn baby accounts for the Chomskian statement that the first language is rapid, effortless and untutored like maturation. Language acquisition in early childhood does not mean that the child does something, it only means that something happens to the child. (Chomsky, 1993). Jean Piaget refined the theory put forward by Chomsky and asserted that children learn language for personal and aesthetic reasons and through a gradual, constructive approach to society. He believed that language was a process of active exploration and discovery, a constant building of meaning. Lev Vygotsky advocated a language approach which celebrated the inherent knowledge of the learner. “The child begins to perceive the world not only through his (or her) eyes but also through his (or her) speech” (Vygotsky, 1978:32). The language paradigm emanating from the scholarship of Chomsky, Piaget and Vygotsky celebrated the child’s inherent capability and desire to generate a sophisticated, socially driven language. Now, the question is how to arrive at a holistic perspective!!!!!

#BridgingTheGapChallenge: Bridging the Gap between Researchers and Teachers


“ELT is not a matter of bridging the gap between theory and practice, but closing it.’ -wisdom from #ELTons2015 lifetime achievement winner.”

Originally posted on Clare's ELT Compendium:

There is SO MUCH research going on into langauge teaching methods, approaches, etc. But the sad fact is, it has turned into a big jumble of research strands, hard to untangle and find the right connections!

An art installation on the Moselle river made by Trier Art Academy (Kunstakademie) 2015. An art installation on the Moselle river made by Trier Art Academy (Kunstakademie) 2015.

Let’s be honest, how many classroom teachers have access to it? And time to read and digest it all? Probably very few! SO where do teachers get their inspiration and lesson ideas? Well, online a lot of the time. And so I came up with a blog idea, which will hopefully turn in to a challenge which lots of people participate in… #BridgingTheGapChallenge

THE CHALLENGE: Teachers or researchers reading this: grab (or click on!) one ELT-related journal you have access to. Read one article that interests you, and post a quick, readable summary for other teachers to read, who are too…

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The Material Writer’s Essential Toolkit – MaWSIG PCE at IATEFL 2015. Workshop summaries

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A very insightful summary of eight information-packed sessions and workshop focusing on practical hands-on ideas useful for any materials writer. A must read for a materials writer

Originally posted on ELT stories:

IATEFL 2015 has kicked off, and – yes, this year I’m attending it.  Feeling incredibly lucky and very grateful to my company, without whose support I wouldn’t have been able to go!

Today I spent a delightful day at MaWSIG pre-conference event. There were eight information-packed sessions and workshop focusing on practical hands-on ideas useful for any materials writer, no matter how experienced you are. Below is a brief overview of the day – if you want to find out more, scroll down to detailed summaries.

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/df/My_toolkit_for_reading.jpg


After a brief introduction by Nick Robinson, Sue Kay gave a session on writing multiple-choice questions. She gave a checklist of potential pitfalls to avoid and shared several very useful slides with suggestions how to reformulate language from the text in the questions.  

A theme that came up in two talks was the changing role of ‘non-visuals’ in ELT. Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones showed that images…

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Vow, it’s just awesome

As soon as I posted my new photo as my profile picture on the Face book, strange comments started pouring in. (1) “Vow, it’s cool.” (2) “awesome !” (3) “ Vow, it’s just awesome!” (4) ‘great!” (5) “sexy”. While thanking my friends for all the compliments, I started wondering if I knew my English well. For old fashioned people like me, a photograph is ‘beautiful’, ‘nice’ or at best ‘wonderful’. But, the English language has changed, we have to learn it afresh. I use the word ‘cool’ to refer to the cool night air or when I get a ‘cool’ reception at my old friend’s place. But, now a days, ‘cool’ is a highly welcome expression. ‘That’s a cool car’, ( a very good, excellent car), ‘ My wife bought a cool purse’ ( a fashionable purse). Earlier, we were afraid of the ‘awesome’ power of the atom bomb, but now we are thrilled by an ‘awesome lecture’ or we gaze at an ‘awesome ‘ shopping mall (awesome=excellent). The word ‘sexy’ was a taboo word in the last century, but now it is a common word in the day to day parlance of the younger generation. “ Congrats, you have bought such a sexy new car!” “ I listened to her speech, but sorry to say it’s not very sexy” ( meaning, the speech was not very exciting or appealing). “ Great, it’s really a sexy project”. I knew that ‘ No way’ meant ‘under no circumstances or not at all’, for my young friends, it’s just an emphatic ‘no’, nothing more than that! Similarly, the word ‘great’ has also got a new meaning: “ We played awful, they played great.” ( great= very well, excellently).
‘Language without meaning is meaningless’ ( Roman Jakobson). But what do you do when you find that the meaning that you know is meaningless? While pondering over the meaning of meanings, I realized how English is fast changing. During the pre-internet period, we learnt English usage from F T Wood’s ‘Current English Usage’ published in 1963 and H W Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage published in 1926. But now we have to relearn English from the social media. When I was pointing out this transitional phase to a friend, he exclaimed,“ Come on man, everything’s gonna be aight!” (al right= aight).
English language has become more informal and more innovative during the post-Google period. The purists may dismiss the new coinages and the new connotations of words as aberrations or slangs, but they are the signs of the younger spirit of the language. “That’s really interesting”! Or should I say, “That’s cool!”