A Language pedagogy rooted in Indian tradition

During my childhood, my father used to ask me to get up early in the morning to recite after him an incomprehensible song
“मां निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः।
यत्क्रौंचमिथुनादेकम् अवधीः काममोहितम्॥’
“mā niṣāda pratiṣṭhā tvamagamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ/ yat krauñcamithunādekam avadhīḥ kāmamohitam” which can be translated in English as “ Hey hunter, you will find no rest for the long years of Eternity/For you’ve killed an unsuspecting bird in love.” Though the sound and the rhythm of the verse enthralled me as a child, I did not know the meaning of these two lines even during my high school days. Later, I was glad to know that I used to start my day with the first sloka of Sanskrit literature that had emerged spontaneously from Valmiki’s rage and grief.

Ours was a basic primary school modelled after Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of basic education. The school would start with two songs, one in Sanskrit and another in Arabic. As soon as the school bell rang 10 o’clock in the morning we would start singing

ॐ ईशा वास्यमिदँ सर्वं यत्किञ्च जगत्यां जगत् ।
तेन त्यक्तेन भुञ्जीथा मा गृधः कस्यस्विद्धनम् ।।
“Ishaavaasyam idam sarvam yat kim ca jagatyam jagat/tena tyaktena bhunjithaah maa gridhah kasyasvid dhanam” (The entire universe is indwelt, enveloped, covered by the Supreme Being; /Live a happy life in this world. Enjoy your existence; do not suffer.) Though we could not understand a single word of the sloka, we recited it for long five years day after day twisting our tongue to make the correct pronunciation.
Years later, when my daughter started her nursery classes in a Christian missionary school, she would start her day singing ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Without knowing the meaning of the prayer, she recited it days after days and loved reciting it just as I loved reciting those incomprehensible Sanskrit hymns or slokas taught by my father and my primary teachers.
What was the purpose of bombarding me with incomprehensible input? Was it a meaningless ritual or was it an attempt to introduce me to my rich linguistic and cultural heritage? Was it indoctrination? What was the theoretical justification? The behaviorist approach? I do admit that learning by memorization echoes the behaviourstic principles of repetition, practice and habit formation. But my exposure to poetry in an unknown language or my daughters exposure to psalms sung in a foreign language did not go in vain. They introduced us to the world of sound, music and rhythm, they enhanced our language sensitivity in a very impressionable period of our lives. It does not matter, if you are introduced to Sanskrit or English. What matters is the linguistic input, comprehensible or incomprehensible.
The notion of’ ‘input’ propounded by Krashen is not relevant in the context in which we learn languages in Indian schools. Krashen’s input hypothesis states that learners progress in their knowledge of the language when they comprehend language input that is slightly more advanced than their current level. He called this level of input “i+1”, where “i” is the learner’s interlanguage and “+1” is the next stage of language acquisition. The pedagogy used in Indian classrooms does not and cannot follow the input hypothesis propounded by Krashen. It should be “incomprehensible input +1”. Don’t we start acquiring our mother tongue with incomprehensible input? Read aloud sessions advocated by the champions of Early Literacy Programs also start with incomprehensible input.
The euro centric ELT pedagogy being followed in Indian primary schools is fraught with dangerous consequences. The elitist ELT pedagogy which is linked with the global ELT industry is alien to the Indian tradition of language pedagogy. I fail to understand how the same teacher can follow two pedagogic traditions in the same school for teaching two languages to the same students in the same class! In ancient India, knowledge was transmitted orally and a great emphasis was given on ‘Sruti’, learning by the ear. Even today, in Indian schools, language learning in the mother tongue mostly depends on verbal learning at the primary level. Supposing, as a primary teacher, I teach Hindi and English at the primary level. In the Hindi class, I follow a pedagogical approach, in the English class, I follow another. What a mockery of the language pedagogy! How do children learn more than two languages informally even before going to school? It is the oral pedagogy, the listening to learn. Can’t we replicate the context and the pedagogy in our formal classrooms in the vernacular medium schools of India?
The NCF position Paper on ELT advocates a multilingual pedagogy but it is strange to note that even after the publication of this highly acclaimed document twelve years back we have not prepared our English textbooks as per the pedagogical approach advocated in that Position Paper. Why should there be two separate periods for languages? One for the school language and another for English? Can’t we have an integrated language class where both the languages are introduced simultaneously? We learn all languages in the same way, be it the first or the second and therefore, a differential pedagogic treatment does not seem to be desirable during the early years of language learning.
Oral repetition was one of the common pedagogies used in ancient India not only for teaching languages but also for teaching mathematics. (Reference: Subramanian,J. 2012. Indian Pedagogy and Problem solving in ancient Thamizhakam, History and Pedagogy of Mathematics http://hpm2012.onpcs.com/Proceeding/OT2/T2-10.pdf. Those who are interested in exploring the traditional Indian pedagogy of language may read the article The relevance of Hinduism to English language Teaching and Learning by Bal Krishna Sharma

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