Confessions of a Multilingual

I think I am a multilingual. I speak Bengali (my home language) with the members of my family, I speak Assamese (my second home language) with my friends , colleagues, students and neighbors who are the members of my extended family, I speak Hindi ( the official language of my country), I speak English too during my professional, official and social interactions with my colleagues, friends, students and casual acquaintances. During my younger days, I used to speak Dimasa ( a Tibeto-burman language) too though in a very restricted domain. Finally, I am an adult learner of Kannada, a language which is omnipresent in my immediate environment. All these languages have made me what I am today. Not only do I speak these languages, I do think and dream in these languages without being aware of any code-switching from one language to another. Multilingualism is a constituent of my existence; I won’t survive if you deprive me of any one of these languages. The story of my multilingual identity is not an exception, it is the story of millions of Indians too.
Does my switch between languages affect my personality or the perspective? Certainly not. These languages which are the constituents of my consciousness do not compete with one another, rather they complement one another. Instead of a single window room, I live in a spacious room having a number of windows which allow an easy flow of the resources of so many vibrant languages.
How I acquired these languages puzzles me. I acquired them as they came to my life. I speak as I breathe.
One of the first words that I used to utter as a child was ‘aidamono’, my mother used to tell me. For me, this was the term of address for my grandmother. This word did not exist in any known language, but I used it as a child. I was coaxed and cajoled by my mother to give up this absurd word for the standard Bengali word ‘thamma’ or ‘thakurma’ as it was used by the other siblings in the family. I was rather adamant, my mother used to tell me. What I did as a child was not at all unusual, children all over the world have the curious habit of coining unusual words and I am glad that I was a normal child. It seems that Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device (LAD) was quite powerful in my head. What Lewis Carrol put in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ was in my mind too, I suppose. “When I use a word”, Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “ it means what I choose it to mean….neither more nor less”.
I learnt my second home language when I was 20. I remember the day when I reached Guwahati to study the MA course. In the evening, my elder brother who was a Professor at GU at that time asked me to go to market to buy vegetables. “How can I do that?” I protested, “ I don’t know the local language!” “ Don’t worry. While you go there, stand before the vegetable vendor and ask him “Kiman” (What’s the price?). He will tell you the price and ask you “Kiman” (how much?). Tell him one kilo or half a kilo and your shopping is done!” That evening, I conquered the world with only one word of a new language that became a part of my entity during the rest of my life.
For learning a language, you have to identify yourself with the people who speak that language, you have to imbibe the spirit and the flavor of the language and to acquire the appropriate language sensitivity. An expression like “ bro thangma?” or ‘bede jadu ?” are not merely questions among the Dimasa speaking people of Assam, they are the examples of ‘phatic communion’ establishing a bond between the speaker and the addressee. When you ask me ‘How are you?’ I reply sponteneously, ‘ I’m fine, thanks’ even though I have a severe head ache at that moment.
It pains me when I hear people talking about primitive languages. I know people who maintain that this or that language has a couple of hundred words! All languages are equally powerful and equally complex. Over generalization about language is a linguistic crime. Do adjectives precede nouns in all languages? Certainly not. To quote from Dimasa : ‘Malasa majangbi’ means “ girl beautiful.” The noun preceding the adjective. Unlike other Indo-European languages, in Dimasa, a little known language of India, the noun precedes the adjective. There are many color terms in this language not available in many other well-known languages.
The communicative needs of a person prompt him or her to learn a language and human beings are always communicative by nature. There is no point in suppressing your communicative urge. If you try to suppress it, you are exposed to heart attacks. Poets and singers who reach out to millions of people through their communicative voice live longer than the people who are introverts and confined to their shells. Rabindranath Tagore knew it, that’s why he could sing ‘nirjharer sapnabhanga’, Bhupen Hazarika knew it, that’s why he could give a clarion call that reverberates across the hills and the dales.
Fall in love with a language and drink the nectar, it will rejuvenate your spirit and open a new world hitherto unknown and unexplored.

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Do the Americans and the British use the internet English in the same way?

The internet English: what, how, when and by whom?
Do the Americans and the British use the internet English in the same way? How is the internet changing fast the way we communicate? How are our classrooms, teaching and listening style changing due to the use of technology? What do we mean by a speech/writing and formality/informality continuum? How do the medium, the audience and the context condition the use of internet English? What do we mean by ‘speakerly writers and writerly Speakers’?
These are some of the issues discussed quite elaborately and convincingly by Professor Roland Carter yesterday at 7-30 pm IST when he addressed us in his webinar on ‘Internet English: The changing English language and its implications for teaching’. It was a highly stimulating and thought provoking academic discussion which kept the audience totally engrossed. Thanks to the IATEFL for organizing this highly informative and interesting discourse by one of the leading applied linguistis of the world who initiated me to Stylistics and the study of language during my Nottingham days 25 years back.
The internet has been changing English. Has it changed the language of the speaker who has studied the impact of the internet on the English language? A participant asked Ronald Carter. Responding to the question , a smiling Ron answered in the affirmative, “I’m more informal than I was twenty years back.’ How nice! The internet has its impact on all of us. It has made us more informal, more open and more creative in our use of language. It has a liberating influence on the users of a language.
Ron’s presentation echoes the views expressed by David Crystal in his book ‘Language and the Internet’ published in 2006. In his book, David Crystal argues that the internet has encouraged a dramatic expansion in the variety and creativity of English.
There is no denying the fact that the internet has been radically changing the way we use English. Internet language is a kind of writing that is close to speech but it is neither identical to speech nor writing. Ron cites a nice example: A: Gotta go. B: ttyl. C: talk to you soon. B: which means tomorrow, right? A: I’d forget that. B: Cos we’re seeing Davis. A: must go see you later alligator.
During his deliberation, Ron pointed out that the ‘needs of space and real time in twitter and SMS texts force users to use less hedging, more direct forms and more spoken/informal grammar.’ Similarly, the dialogic nature of the blogs make them more communicative, Ron stated.
The impact of the internet on the English language has a far reaching consequence on the future of English language teaching . As Ron points out, “ Digital technologies for communication bring the real world and authentic language into the classroom and take the class room into the real world.”
As the users of the internet, we must be familiar with the social and contextual differences of the internet English. British internet English uses a lot of vagueness than the internet English used by the Americans, Ron remarked in response to a question by a participant. What about the internet English of the non-native speakers of English? Well, that was outside the purview of the study referred to in the webinar. Again, ‘kisses’ are quite common in the texts and emails of the native speakers of English who use ‘kisses’ as discourse markers. What about the non-native speakers? Anyone interested in studying the nature of the internet English used by non-native users of English can undertake a project. Interested?
btw, IATEFL members will have access to this highly informative webinar. Therefore, if you are not a member yet, go to the site http://www.iatefl.org/ It will be an enriching experience.

Is ELT ailing in India?

The ailing English Language Teaching in India

India is the land of Panini,the great grammarian. India is a multilingual country where many people speak and understand more than one language. India is one of the few non-English speaking countries of the world where English was introduced almost three hundred years back and to cap it all, India is one of the few countries having English as the ‘associate official language’. In most of the States of the country, children spend about ten years for learning English as a compulsory language. In spite of all these positive factors, some thing is rotten in the State of English in India. English language teaching is ailing! Nobody knows why.
Discussing the present scenario of English in India is a sensitive issue. It may invite adverse social, political and administrative repercussions. You may eulogize English in private conversation, you may send your kids to English medium schools, you may read English newspapers and make your official noting in English, but don’t propagate the spread of English teaching in public. Experts like David Graddol are tolerated. When Graddol examines the complex nature of English in both education and employment sectors in India, we are wonder struck, we refer to him in our policy documents. That’s all. Knowing full well the importance of English in the educational scenario of the country, the ‘Position Paper on English Language Teaching’ prepared in connection with the National Curriculum Framework, 2005 does not accord any special status to English in the language curriculum. It makes it amply clear that English is not above other Indian languages. The said paper makes an emphatic statement,” English needs to find its place along with other Indian languages in both regional medium as well as English medium schools” (page 3). Ideologically and emotionally, it sounds good. It boosts our national pride. But the ground realities tell a different story. Even after sixty years of independence, attendance at most of the Indian universities requires fluency in English. How many people are aware of the intellectual hardship faced by the vernacular medium students studying in Indian universities and other institutes of higher education? How many people are aware of the agony of the young job seekers who had their schooling in Indian languages and could not acquire English well? Can we deny the fact that English provides spatial and economic mobility to the Indians?
The lack of a clear perspective, the apathy of the policy makers, the half-hearted initiatives of the educational administrators and the inability of the grass root level teachers of English are the causes of the malady afflicting English language teaching in India.
It is easy to blame the poor primary teacher of a vernacular medium school for not teaching English well. But who cares for the agony of the teacher who has to teach the local language as well as English with her limited competence in English? Achieving professional competence as a teacher of English is a life long endeavor. Have we devised a mechanism to ensure that?
ELT is ailing in India and the great English divide is becoming wider day by day. Further delay may, unfortunately, force us to shift it to the ICU. Therefore, it will be nice if all the people committed to the cause of ELT in India join hands with the organizations working in the field of ELT. Political considerations should not blur our vision. We should remember that the future generation will not forgive us if we deprive them of English for our vested interests.

English, Speech and Society: A webinar on The English Language Day

The webinar ‘English, speech and society’ by Urszula Clark organized by the British Council last night on the occasion of the English Language Day reminded me of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel ‘English August: An Indian Story’. Upamanyu’s protagonist says that his English may sound funny, but it serves his purpose. As long as I can communicate successfully with my English, I’m ok, he says. The protagonist of the novel ‘English August: An Indian Story’ is neither a linguist nor a language teacher, but he has common sense which is rather a rare commodity in the world of ELT. While discussing the implications for English and social, regional and national identities, in relation to the teaching of English worldwide, Clark forcefully pointed out that ‘successful communication is more a question of understanding, and being able to engage successfully, in the context of use rather than whether one is a native or a non-native speaker.’ (emphasis added)
Listening to Clark at midnight, I recollected how difficult and frustrating it was for me to understand the native speakers of English in their natural non-academic environment. In the University campus, my Received Pronunciation was quite alright during my interactions with the teachers and the fellow students. But, going to a hairdresser, for example, was a night mare, the blondes won’t speak in any other language except their Midland dialect! Go to a supermarket or a pub and try to ‘engage successfully’ with the help of your so called RP, you are at a loss. My bookish English failed me miserably when the native speakers pronounced ‘cor’ for ‘can’t’ and ‘yow’ for ‘you’.
Different varieties of English perform different roles and functions and if you are to feel the pulse of the people speaking English in natural situations, you must be familiar with the varieties of English they use. Standard English is a myth, within the English speaking countries as well as the countries of the ‘outer circle’ or the ‘expanding circle.’ ( courtesy: Kachru’s three concentric circle).
In a global context, there is no point in claiming the superiority of one variety of English over the other. As Clark rightly observed, “ … we need to recognize the roles and functions that different varieties of English, including that of standard English, fulfil.”
Linguistic variation is a characteristic of all natural languages and English is one of the best examples of this wide variation across the globe. What’s the purpose of using a language if it does not help you to engage successfully with your interlocutor? It is, of course, equally important to ensure intelligibility, we should not sacrifice intelligibility in the name of ‘linguistic variation.’
The use of a particular variety of English is linked with a number of social factors… identity, age, gender, social class and ethnicity. The teaching of English as a global language, therefore, should take into account the socio-cultural contexts in which it is used.
Understanding the relationship between a variety of English and its social context of use is very crucial today. English with its innumerable dialects and accents, varying with geographical regions, social class and situation is a wonderful language to be explored for widening our linguistic and social perceptions. Thanks to the British Council for a lively webinar. Those who missed it may go to the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVZgC75xRJ4

The capability of the Child

The Capability of the child

The immense capability of the child in acquiring the complex system of her first language is one of the greatest wonders of the world. Even before a child learns how to count, she can join simple sentences, ask questions, express disapproval and can use the phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic rules of her first language without being aware of the intricacies of the grammatical rules which govern her language use. Language seems to unfold its bounties to a child in a very unobtrusive manner and the child starts navigating in the ocean of her first language without any deliberate support of her parents or caregivers. But, though the child’s ability to acquire her first language is spontaneous, it is not unwieldy, it follows a particular pattern which is a topic of an inquiry for the linguists, child psychologists and the language teachers. There’s a method in the madness, with an apology to Shakespeare.
The capabilities of the child indicate that she is ‘equipped from birth with the necessary neural prerequisites for language and language use’ (Fromkin and Rodman,1978:243). But, it has to be remembered that the child’s language acquisition and language use are not isolated phenomena. As language is ‘a defining feature of the human species’ (Goodwin,1997:1), it is related to human cognitive faculty and social entity.
Though the degree of correlation between cognitive and linguistic abilities of the child is still a controversial one, any discussion on the linguistic development of the child should take into account her cognitive development as both the developments are interrelated. How does a child respond to her immediate environment? How does her language acquisition build on her cognitive development? When the child starts acquiring her first language, she builds on what she knows from her acquaintance with immediate objects and experiences. The conceptual experience triggers her linguistic experience. “In the first 12 months, infants start to organize what they know about entities and events before they gain access to the representational properties of language. ( Clark,2004:472).
The child’s sensitivity to her immediate neighbourhood adds to her cognitive as well as social development. The child uses her mother tongue and the other languages of her surrounding for various purposes. She communicates with herself and with the others. She depicts the understanding of social relationships. She knows how and what to talk about to people around her. When a child is busy in an activity, she talks to herself; she explains what she is doing and what she would do next. She discovers new language games, imagines a whole new world of stories, creates stories, dramatizes, plans, strategizes, personifies inanimate objects and thinks beyond here and now. All these activities require cognitive and social abilities along with the linguistic ability and the child has the innate ability to adapt the input she receives to her emerging cognitive, social and linguistic abilities.
It is interesting to note that the child has the ability to develop her own strategies for learning whatever she finds relevant to learn around her. She is often more resourceful, resilient and creative than adults are ready to give her credit for it. She has the ability to find the right ways to make language work for her and she loves to experiment with her limited linguistic resources. She has the ability to replace difficult sounds with sounds that are easier for her to articulate. Sometimes she does not hesitate to drop difficult sounds altogether.
The language spoken in her immediate neighbourhood enables a child to adjust herself with the adult world by internalizing adult values and norms. She is a curious observer of the adult drama being unfolded before her day by day and she tries to equip herself with the required linguistic and cognitive abilities with the help of the resources available to her. The urge for socialization prompts a child to become a linguistic adult even in her childhood. Aren’t children more social than adults? He/She who is more social learns a new language more quickly than a person who is not very social? You know what I mean if you are an adult learner of a new language!
PS. I acknowledge my indebtedness to the following sources.
References:
Fromkin, V and Rodman, R. 1978. An Introduction to Language, NewYork, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Goodwin, M.H. 1997. ‘Children’s linguistic and Social Worlds’ in Anthropology Newsletter, Vol.38, N0.3 retrieved from http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/goodwin/97anews.pdf
Halliday, M.A.K. 1978. Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning, London, Edward Arnold.
Hymes, D.H. 1972. ‘On Communicative Competence’ in Pride, J.B. and Holmes, J. (eds) Sociolinguistics: Selected Readings, Harmondswoth, Penguin.
Clark, E.V, 2004. How language acquisition builds on cognitive development, Trends in Cognitive Sciences Vol.8, No.10, pp. 472-478 retrieved from http://dingo.sbs.arizona.edu/~charleslin/indv101/review_reading/clark.pdf

The Death of a Teacher and the Birth of a Facilitator, a Manager and an admirer

The Death of a Teacher and the birth of a Facilitator, a Manager and an admirer. Why are we afraid of Dr. Sugata Mitra’s School in the Cloud?

It is really amazing to note that the global English language teaching community in general and the teachers of English as a Foreign language in particular have started a crusade against a researcher who came into limelight with his “Hole in the Wall” project initially started at a slum near New Delhi, the capital of India. Dr. Sugata Mitra, a highly innovative and unassuming professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, UK, has successfully demonstrated that even without any direct input from a teacher and without the supervision and formal teaching, children can teach themselves and each other, if they are curious, motivated and left to themselves. Dr. Mitra has termed this kind of education, “minimally invasive education.”
The beginning of the project was quite simple. About 15 years back, Dr. Mitra and his colleagues dug a hole in a wall in a slum near New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected computer, with a hidden camera filming the area and left the place to find out the responses of the kids of that slum . To their utter amazement, they saw that the kids were playing around with the computer and in the process learning how to use it and how to go online, and then teaching each other.
The findings of his experiment prompted Dr. Mitra to undertake similar experiments in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh,far away from Delhi and then to other countries including the UK. He got the same result both in the developing and the developed countries.
What’s so great about ‘The Hole in the Wall Project’? Why are teachers afraid of the minimally invasive education and the Self organized learning environment (SOLE) project propagated by Dr. Mitra? According to Dr. Mitra, his wish was “to help design the future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together”. He wants to build a School in the Cloud, where “children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online.”
When I listened to Dr. Mitra’s plenary talk at IATEFL 2014 on 5th April 2014 and the subsequent ‘Question and Answer session’ held on 19 April 2014, I did not find anything dangerous for the English language teaching community involved in teaching English across the globe. Dr. Mitra did not ignore the existence of schools or teachers. He wanted to redefine the concept of teachers and teaching. The traditional notion of teachers as ‘knowledge-givers’ is going to be obsolete. They can be facilitators and managers, not the village school masters of Oliver Goldsmiths famous poem, The Village School Master! To quote from Dr. Mitra’s observations during the Question Answer session, “The teacher is no longer someone imparting information/knowledge. Mainly because we’ve managed to create an environment where uni-directional export of information is not required. We should be proud of that, that children can find out things for themselves. Should there be someone around? Of course, to encourage them, to admire them, to ask them questions.”
The dearth of qualified teachers is a global phenomenon and therefore, we have to find out an effective alternative. If the internet can provide it, why should we grudge? Why are we afraid of our identity as teachers?
There is going to be a paradigm shift in ELT and as ELT practitioners we should accept it gracefully. Those who want to know more about Dr. Mitra may visit the following: http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2014/sessions/2014-04-05/plenary-sugata-mitra. http://www.theschoolinthecloud.org. http://www.solesandsomes.wikispaces.com. http://reflectiveteachingreflectivelearning.com/…/iate…
Dr Sugata Mitra never claims that we do not need schools. He says that they need to change. The schools and the teachers will have to change, Dr. Mitra asserts, because learners are changing and will demand change. If we don’t change ourselves, we will be obsolete. That’s the grim truth and it frightens us as we are too deeply rooted in our tradition. The Teacher as a Prophet, the Teacher as the provider of knowledge, the Teacher as the dispenser and the manipulator of truth!

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On revisiting Macaulay in the context of English Language Teaching in India today

The introduction of English in India is often believed to be the result of Macaulay’s infamous minutes written in a very straightforward and unambiguous language. Macaulay said, ‘We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern— a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to redefine the vernacular dialects in the country, “to enrich those dialects” with terms of science borrowed from the western nomenclature and to “render them by degrees fit vehicle” for conveying knowledge to the greater mass of the population.’
Macaulay was a colonial administrator bent on perpetuating the colonial rule. But an in depth study of the social perception of that period indicates that in some sense, Macaulay was simply echoing the sentiments of several Indian leaders of his time.
Justifying the introduction of English as the language of instruction for the Indians, Macaulay asserted that English was better worth knowing than Sanskrit or Arabic and the natives themselves were desirous to be taught English, and were not desirous to be taught Sanskrit or Arabic. He hoped that it was possible to make natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars and this conviction prompted him to suggest royal patronage for the propagation of English in India.
Macaulay’s observations in his highly objectionalbe Minutes offend our sensibility. Like my fellow countrymen, I too feel bad that a representative of the then ruling power should speak in such a derogatory manner. Macaulay might be a good administrator, but his use of language was not good. We studied English figures of speech like ‘simile’, ‘metaphor’ and ‘euphemism’ even during our school days. Didn’t he?
Anyway, I am intrigued by his argument when he says that the introduction of English will ‘enrich those dialects.’ While specifying the goals for a language curriculum in India, the Position Paper on English of the National Curriculum Framework prepared and published by NCERT, NewDelhi in 2006 suggests that the aim of English teaching is the creation of multilinguals who can ‘enrich all our languages.’ It is really intriguing to note that the rich languages of this country are yet to depend on English for their ‘enrichment.’ Macaulay believed that English would ‘enrich Indian dialects’, the Position Paper on English of NCF 2005 of India hopes that English knowing multilingual Indians will ‘enrich all our languages.’ One wonders if the striking similarity of perception is merely coincidental! Macaulay or no Macaulay, Indians need English.
Some people call English ‘India’s aunty tongue,’ but this tongue has taught me to convey my thought to the rest of the world. Many people have a ‘love-hate’ relationship with English. But this ‘love-hate’ relationship has taught me to establish a global relationship and I’m proud of it. Aren’t you?