Does our language shape the way we think?

It was the month of January 2020 in the pre-covid period. I was invited to facilitate a teacher orientation program in a distant place in the the East Garo Hills district of  Meghalaya. A total of 24 teachers teaching English in  classes I, I, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX and X were put together to undergo a professional development program in English language teaching!   When the  session started I requested the teachers to tell  me the names of the classes in which they taught English.  Their responses were as follows:  Teacher A: I teach from seven to one, Teacher B: I teach from ten to seven, Teacher C : I teach from five to one. To my utter surprise I noticed that all the teachers started with the higher classes and ended with the lower classes. It was not “one to seven,” it was “seven to one,” it was not “seven to ten,” it was “ten to seven”.  The responses of the teachers startled me. Why wasn’t  it “one to five” or “one to seven”?  Was  there  any special reason for using the descending order  of the numerals? 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1?

  When I used to teach in my college I used to say, “Well, I teach English in the second year and the third year classes ” NOT “I teach English in the third year and the second year classes.” Now, standing before a mixed group of teachers I wondered if the teachers attending the programme were  influenced by their  way of thinking. Did they think of the bigger number first and the smaller number next? I was  not sure, but I could not explain the way they responded…..” I teach English from  classes V to I and not from I to V”.

Musing over the  influence of language on our way of thinking I recollected the way in which some of my students speaking a particular Tibeto Burman language used to write in English: “We  live in a house big” instead of writing “We live in a big house” because in their language “ a big house” means  “a house big.” “noha (house) + gede (big)”. A beautiful girl is “ malasa (girl)  majangbi  (beautiful),  a big  man is “subung” (man) gede (big)  and two big men is “sububg (man) gede (big) saogini (two)”, the order of the words is Noun+ Adjective + Quantifier. Unlike the speakers of English and many other Indian languages, speakers of this Tibeto-Burman language of India use modifier or the adjective after the noun, not before the noun.   A strong man is referred to as “ a man strong” and a beautiful girl is a “girl beautiful.” For the speakers of this particular language, the Noun is more important than the Adjective which modifies it.  How does their language shape the way they think?

Let us think of the question of attributing masculine and feminine gender markers to inanimate objects. Traditionally, the Sun is considered masculine due to its life-giving power though the word Sun as a noun was feminine in grammatical gender. The word moon has the etymology of Luna and Selene in Greek, both female names and deities in the Roman and Greek pantheons. In many Indian languages the Sun is masculine while the Moon is feminine.  However, the moon, is referred to as ‘maternal uncle” in a number of Indian languages.   In the language of the  Nyishis  of Arunachal Pradesh, the Sun (Donyi) is feminine while  the Moon ( Polo) is masculine.   What is the correlation between the language and concept formation?  When it  is the question of looking at the world and making sense of the world, does it matter which language we speak?

The first sentence of this blog refers to a distant place of India. Well, is it really a distant place? Yes, of course, it is a distant place for me when I am writing this blog sitting at Bangalore.  The State of Meghalaya is thousands of miles away from me and therefore, it is a distant place for me. But if I had written this blog sitting in the capital city of Meghalaya, I would not have referred to it  as a ‘distant place’. My use of language is conditioned by the way I am think.

Let’s take the example of “Northeast,” an oft repeated expression used in the Indian media. It is puzzling to note that we don’t have any cluster of States in India called “Northwest”, “South east” or “Southwest” but we fondly refer to the States of Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram and  Arunachal Pradesh as “Northeast.”

Using ‘Covid 19 Pandemic’ as a theme for teaching English to young learners

The advantages of thematic planning for teaching a new language are well known to the teachers teaching English to young learners. We know that the theme creates a meaningful context and the thematic planning in a language class shifts the instructional focus from “the language itself”  to “the use of language”. A thematic unit gives the learners ample opportunities to use the target language in numerous meaningful contexts. While going through an exploration of the theme, the learners are less obsessed with vocabulary and grammar as the theme engages them in the appropriate use of the language.  They learn the target language at the discourse level and are saved from the tyranny of isolated exercises with grammatical structures and mechanical drills.

As the whole world is going through the trauma inflicted by the pandemic called Covid 19, I wonder how we can use Pandemic as a theme to teach English  to young learners  in a non-native context in general and India in particular.

Let me start with Covid itself. Is it an English word? Look at the news bulletins of the  TV channels and the regional newspapers. The word Covid is used as Covid in all the Indian languages. The word  Covid  is an acronym as it is formed from the  portions of three  distinct words: Corona (CO) Virus (VI) and Disease(D).

It is interesting to note that in India we have regional language words for diseases like tuberculosis ( ‘যক্ষ্মা’ in Assamese and Bengali),cholera( हैज़ा in Hindi), small pox (ಸಿಡುಬು in Kannada) and measles (হাম in Bengali) but no word for Covid till date.

Teaching vocabulary: from the known to the unknown:

Do we have different words to refer to epidemic and pandemic in Indian languages? Epidemic means महामारी Mahaamaaree in Hindi, ಸಾಂಕ್ರಾಮಿಕ Sāṅkrāmika in Kannada, মহামারী Mahāmārī in Bengali and అంటువ్యాధి Aṇṭuvyādhi in Telugu. Pandemic, on the other hand, has the following meanings in these languages. सर्वव्यापी महामारी sarvavyaapee mahaamaaree in Hindi, ಪಿಡುಗು Piḍugu in Kannada, অতিমারী  atimārī in Bengali and మహమ్మారి maham’māri in Telugu.

Those who read vernacular newspapers or  listen to regional TV channels must be aware of the use of  English words related to the pandemic in Indian languages. Words like Covid (ಕೋವಿಡ್ in Kannada), korona,( कोरोना in Hindi, ಕೊರನಾ in Kannada),  virus  (वायरस in Hindi)  lockdown, (लॉकडाउन in Hindi)   unlock,  quarantine( কোয়রান্টিন in Bengali),  social distancing (सोशल डिस्टेंसिंग in Hindi, ventilator, isolation ward, PPT kit, (ಪಿಪಿಟಿ ಕಿಟ್),sanitiser, herd immunity, contact tracing, containment zone, mask  are extensively used in vernacular newspapers and the day to day conversation of the Indians speaking their respective regional languages. 
Though ‘mask is’ called ಮುಖವಾಡ (Mukhavāḍa) in Kannada and मुखौटा (mukhauta) in Hindi the English word mask (ಮೈಸ್ಕ in Kannada)  or( मास्क in Hindi) is used extensively in the safety guidelines published in Kannada or Hindi. Therefore, teaching new vocabulary using the  commonly used Covid19 related English words in the Indian language can be the first step in designing a lesson on English vocabulary for the beginners.

Once  Covid 19 related Indianised English words  are introduced in appropriate contexts, the teacher can introduce  additional words related to the  Pandemic. Coronavirus pandemic has been expanding our vocabularies since January 2020  and therefore a lexical  chain of the words found in newspapers, advertisements, statutory warnings, Government guidelines on Covid 19 may be presented by simplifying the texts in which these words are used. Words like social distancing, community spread, contact tracing, self-quarantine, super-spreader, isolation, self-isolation, incubation period, comorbidity, flattening the curve, immunity, herd immunity (not hard immunity), Symptomatic and Asymptomatic person, containment area,  personal protective equipment, or PPE, screening, ventilator, vaccine,  PPE:  personal protective equipment, WFH: Work from Home, ILI: Influenza like illness.

The following words can be used to teach the differences between related words: pandemic vs epidemic, quarantine vs isolation, respirator vs ventilator, contagious vs infectious, virus vs bacteria, asymptomatic vs asymptomatic.

Picture reading: Soon after the outbreak of the pandemic and the proclamation of lockdown in India, newspapers and the social media were full of the pictures of migrant workers heading towards their home states. Select two or three pictures of migrant workers heading towards their home states on foot  or  boarding trains  to reach their destination and ask the children  to describe the pictures. Or give  another picture of shoppers waiting outside a shop maintaining  social distance and prompt the children to respond to the picture. As the pictures portray   real life situations confronting the affected people, children will find a meaning in describing the episodes and while doing so they will  use English in meaningful contexts.

Responding to graphs: You can prepare a graphical presentation of the spread of the virus across the globe with names of the countries, number of people affected, the number of people cured and the number of casualties and ask the children questions on the data shown in the graph.

Advertisements, slogans, guidelines and witty  remarks used on the screen or the social media can be used to initiate discussions in English. For example, Discuss with your friends  the following  quotes  or slogans related to Pandemic in general and Covid 19 in particular: (a)  Pandemic is an epidemic with a Passport, (b) The Corona virus has an ego, it does not come to you unless you invite it(c) If we  are inside, the Corona  will be  outside.(d)The Corona does not distinguish between the rich and the poor.

Video presentation: Short animated videos can be prepared using the following points. (a) Stay home, (b) keep a safe distance, (c) wash hands often, (d)  Cover your cough, €call  the help line if someone is sick. After showing the videos to the children ask them to prepare their own skits and do the role play.

Using newspaper reports: Newspapers are full stories of the bravery of young children during the pandemic. You may collect some of these real life stories and read them to the children. When the reading is over, ask them questions on these stories to generate discussion and critical thinking.  To cite an example, you may read  the following story published in an Indian newspaper and ask the children a number of questions to enhance their listening comprehension, critical thinking and verbal communication in English.  “An eight-year-old girl here has donated about Rs 25,000 of her savings to the poor who are struggling due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Dhiya, who dreams of becoming an IAS officer, has been saving up money to purchase a laptop, apparently to prepare for civil services exam, officials in the Collectorate here said.

 On hearing about the humanitarian attitude of the girl, Puducherry Collector T Arun invited the Class III student and her parents to his office on Thursday to felicitate her. The aspiration of the student to sit in the collector’s chamber was fulfilled, as Arun let her see for herself how an IAS officer functions.

 Earlier, the girl decided to do her bit after she was moved by the plight of the poor who haven’t had a morsel to keep them going till the lockdown ends. So, she decided to use her savings to buy provisions, essential goods and others for distribution to the suffering artists, drivers and other sections of people reeling under poverty, officials said. With the consent of her parents, the girl spent the amount on the commodities and distributed them to the poor. She had saved the money given to her as gift from her parents and relatives on various occasions. With a broad smile and amid applause by all those present including her parents, the girl got a hands-on experience of what it means to be a civil service official when she was allowed access to the Collector’s chamber.


Some suggested questions: (a) Why did Dhiya donate her savings for the poor? Are you aware of similar acts of charity done by kids during  calamities? Share your experience with your friends.(b) How did Dhiya  get a hands on experience of what it means to be an IAS officer? (c) How would you have encouraged the girls if you were the District Collector mentioned in the report ? Do you think Dhiya should get a national level award? (d) What would you have done if you were Dhiya?