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?

Teaching English online to young learners in non-English speaking countries during the Covid 19 period

English language teaching in all the non-English speaking countries of the world has been facing a new challenge since the onslaught of Covid 19 pandemic. How do you teach English to the kids  through online platforms when their  parents do not know English? It is quite easy to design online courses on ELT for the children who have enough exposure to English at home. But what about those millions of children who are the first-generation learners of English? Are the sophisticated online courses suitable for them? After going through a number of online ELT courses floated during the last two months for teaching English online without any face to face support, I have a feeling that we are the victims of a short sighted policy on ELT. There is a gulf of difference between using online resources “along” with a face to face interaction and using online resources “without” any face to face support. The pedagogical approaches to ELT designed and nourished in the  English speaking  world and exported to the non-English speaking world in the pre-Covid19  period, I think,  need a total overhauling  in the context of teaching English to the  young learners who are suddenly expected to learn English online with the remote support of their teachers.

Many school authorities have already asked teachers to teach the young learners using all the available online platforms. Efforts are on to use the radio, television, YouTube and WhatsApp to teach English to the kids just by replicating the pedagogy which was used earlier as a “support” to the face to face teaching of English.  Without an adequate orientation to the online mode of teaching a foreign language in which there is no a face to face support, many ELT professionals have started producing online  English teaching courses for  very young learners who belong  families in which nobody knows English.

Who are the young learners for whom we are designing purely online courses for teaching English? What’s their context? These are the children who have been passing through a period of trauma, socially, psychologically and academically. These are the kids of the disadvantaged sections of the society for whom the possession of a smart phone itself  is a luxury, not to speak of having a good internet connection!

Just as the practice of ‘work from home’ has converted our homes to offices and reduced our family  relationship  into  official relationship, the beginning of the total online learning era for the kids has blurred the distinction between the home and the school and this inevitable transformation has implications for the teaching of English in a non-English speaking context.  The acquisition or the learning of a new language can take place in a social context. The classroom interaction of the children used to play  a very important role in  learning English during the pre-Covid 19 period  but this is  not possible in the present situation. The kids who are the members of non-English speaking families are unfortunately deprived of an adequate exposure to English within the four walls of their homes. 

In order to teach English to the kids of the non-English speaking countries of the world, the ELT professionals should seek the support of the parents of these kids and orient them adequately to the pedagogical processes  essential for the success of a total  online mode of teaching English during the Covid 19 period. Before embarking on a project of  online teaching of English in a country like India, we should  first try to find out how many parents are capable of providing academic support to their kids in learning English online. Even in the cases of  parents capable of providing such a support, the question of economic instability due to job loss, the preoccupation of work from home and the  family loss due to Covid  19 pandemic should be taken into account.  Once this tracing of the availability of parental support to ELT is done, a  module for the orientation of the different groups of parents should be prepared. This module need not be in English, it should be multilingual so that the parents who do not know  English can also go through it and extend the required support to their kids.  “ELT with Parental Support” should  be the new ELT pedagogy during the Covid 19 period.

How can the parents who do not know English extend academic support to their  kids in learning English on line? The answer is a multilingual pedagogy for teaching English in a non-native context.   In all the non-English speaking countries of the world, online ELT for the kids should be based on a multilingual pedagogy in which  English  teachers and the parents of the kids will be equal partners. The triangular communication  among the three stakeholders will be  both in English as well as the home language of the kids, the materials presented on online platforms will also be in two languages, the lessons will be both audio-visual and written so that parents can understand them and support their kids.

The online material for teaching English to the non-English speaking kids should be project based involving the kids and their parents. Let the kids do a number of projects in which they use as much English as possible, let them use translangauging with their parents and let the parents create  a congenial atmosphere for  learning English with the online support of the English teachers. You can’t teach English online to these kids without orienting their parents to the multilingual pedagogy. Support the parents in supporting their kids in a fully online course on ELT.

A Medium of Instruction or A Medium of Facilitation ?: Need for a Paradigm shift

A child’s interaction with the world around her starts with an inborn urge for enquiry. She  starts   making  sense of the world around her through her language which happens to be either her  mother tongue or  her  home language. From learning to naming an object and to talking about the object is a complex journey that a child undertakes. Based on her perception, the child makes a mental representation of the objects, processes her mental representation and tries to make a verbal representation of that mental representation. Over a period of time  the child does not work  on her mental representation all alone, others members of her immediate neighbourhood  also work on it and facilitate the process of making verbal as well as non-verbal representation by the child.  When a child expresses something, her mother or other elders, add/ modify / correct the   linguistic or non-linguistic outputs of the child in an unobtrusive manner thereby prompting her  to work on her mental  representations. During this untutored period of early childhood, the linguistic repertories of the child need two mediums: the Medium of Perception (MP) and the Medium of Facilitation (MF).

Does a child need a language as a medium of instruction during the untutored period of early childhood?  She is an active constructor of knowledge based on her very limited world view, she is a   natural language learner who can acquire a number of languages available to her at home or in her immediate neighbourhood with apparent ease and fluency.

The language used by a child and her caregiver is the language of facilitation, not a language of instruction. But the scenario changes abruptly as soon as the child comes to school for formal education. The language of  facilitation masquerading as the medium of instruction forces the child to be at the receiving end and she starts viewing the language ( the  medium)  of instruction as an imposition on her natural process of self-expression, exploration and creativity.

Traditionally speaking, the medium of instruction in schools is the language used by teachers to impart education to their pupils. It is the language used by the more knowledgeable others to instruct the less knowledgeable learners. The choice of a medium of ‘instruction’ appears to be problematic if the objective of education is knowledge creation and not the transmission of the facts, figures and the philosophy from one generation to another.  The changed role of teachers as facilitators should prompt us to consider if we are to continue the outdated notion of a medium of instruction (MI)  in our schools or to  go for identifying the medium of facilitation (MF)  for  supporting critical thinking and knowledge creation by the learners.

The selection  of a particular language as a medium of instruction is based on the assumption that language is a central vehicle for concept formation  and it is  the only medium through which all learnings take place. “Language is not only inevitable practically for interpersonal relations and social interaction, but is also  the medium  through which all intrapersonal and interpersonal experiences of the people are structured, levelled and manipulated. Language instruction is , therefore,  a basic requirement  for all types and levels of Education”( Chaturvedi and Mohale, 1976: 7).

There is no denying the fact that language is crucial in the domain of education, but the pertinent question is:  who selects that language which  performs the  crucial role in the life of a child? What are the criteria for the selection of that language which is elevated to the status of a medium of instruction? Does the selection of the medium of instruction take into consideration the broader objectives of education or is the selection  is subservient to social and  political exigencies of the day?

The banking  concept of education ( Freire, 1968) where the learners simply store the information relayed to them  by the instructor  in a particular language in a “banking” type of environment makes the medium of instruction a powerful tool of authority and oppression. This  concept of education  presupposes the use of a dominant language  as the medium of instruction in a formal setting. A medium of instruction  used by the instructors to force the learners to “receive, memorize and repeat” negates education and knowledge as processes of enquiry.”

      Mother tongue as a Medium of instruction:

The importance of using the mother tongue of the children during the initial years of schooling got an impetus in the UNESCO document of 1951 which states,“ …it is important that every effort should be made to provide education in the mother tongue……. On educational grounds we recommend that the use of the mother tongue be extended to as late a stage in education as possible. In particular, pupils should begin their schooling   through the medium of the mother tongue, because they understand   it best and because to  begin their school life in the mother tongue will make the break between home and school as small as  possible.”  

In India, the Education Commission (1964-1966), the National Curriculum Framework (1975),  the National Education Policy ( GOI 1986), the Programme of Action (GOI 1992), the National Curriculum Framework (2005) and the Draft National Education Policy (2019) have advocated the use of the mother tongue of the child  in the primary schools of the country as it is believed that  the use of the child’s mother tongue  at the primary level  would lead to the harmonious personal development of the child  and contribute to a pedagogically sound  high level of formal education.

But the official definition of a mother tongue is fraught with dangerous pedagogical implications. What do we mean by a mother tongue?  According to Collins COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary, the mother tongue is the ‘language that you  learn from your parents when you are a baby.’ According to Cambridge dictionary, your mother tongue is the language that you learn from your parents when you are a baby. But these two lexical definitions of mother tongue do not take into consideration the political, social and emotional connotation of ‘mother tongue  which is often considered to be  an ancestral property. When a child comes to school she gets a mother tongue either on the basis of her  assigned ethnicity or on the declaration made by her parents. Again, even when  the first language acquired by a child is  a distinct variety of a standard official language, that distinct and related variety is not recorded as the mother tongue of the child. Let us take two examples. A child whose first language experience is the dialect spoken in  the Barpeta district of  Assam, for example, is deemed to be a speaker of the standard variety of Assamese even though the variety spoken by the child as her fist language is significantly different from the standard variety. Similarly, a child speaking  an eastern dialect of Bengali in the Barak Valley of  Assam as her home language  gets  the standard Bengali as her mother tongue though the related variety happens to be an alien tongue to her both phonetically as well as morphologically.  When such a child comes to school and is required to use another variety of her ‘assigned mother tongue’ she  is simply baffled by the danger of losing her ‘first language.’  When she is asked not to use the deviant form of the ‘standard language’ and is castigated for using  her mother tongue ‘wrongly’ her self esteem is threatened irreparably. Language standardization may be an interesting topic for the linguists, but it is not so interesting to a young child who is expected to have a transition from the home language to the school language. The so called corrupted or degenerate form of standardized languages  are stigmatised in the classrooms though research has shown that the use of the stigmatized variety in formal education has ‘a positive rather than a negative effect on the acquisition of the standard’(Siegel, 199:701).

    Minority Languages and the medium of instruction:

A country of more than one billion population having 428 languages spread across 28 States    and 7 Union territories has 400 odd minority languages. The education of the children of these  speakers  minority languages  is a cause of concern for the policy makers as well as educational administrators. Except for a few privileged minority language communities these children of the marginalised groups are  deprived of the benefit of getting their primary education through their mother tongues. These linguistic  minority communities  have no other option but to get their education through the languages of the dominant language groups of their respective States. In an article entitled  India’s Language Debates and Education of Linguistic Minorities published in the Economic and Political Weekly in January 2008, Rao (2008:64) has  stated the plight of the linguistic minority children as follows:

“The linguistic minority communities  had to opt for the language  of the school which is usually the dominant language  of the area  or the state  in which the school  is located. For instance, a Gond in Andhra Pradesh   gets education in Telugu and a Gond in  Chattisgarh gets education in Hindi or those in Maharastra  in Marathi……   The situation is precarious for the tribal communities  such as Gonds, Santals, etc. who are promised instruction   in Gondi or in Ol Chiki (Santali), but are seldom taught in that language.  What is worse is that  the children who speak Gondi and nothing else are taught by a teacher who knows anything but Gondi, the language of the Gonds.”

     Medium of Instruction and the Draft National Policy of Education

The solution to the vexed question of Medium of Instruction may be found in the recently published draft National Policy of Education, 2019. Recognising the paramount importance of imparting education in the home language/mother tongue of the children, the draft NPE 2019 makes the following recommendations:

  1. When possible, the medium of instruction -at least until Grade 5 but preferably till at least Grade 8 will be the home language/ mother tongue/ local languages.
  2. High quality textbooks will be made available  in home languages.
  3.  In cases where such textbook material is not available, the language of transaction between teachers and students will still remain the home language when possible even if textbooks are, e.g. in the State/regional language. (emphasis used)

The assertion that the home language of the students should be the language of transaction even when the textbooks are in the State/Regional languages implies that the  Medium of Facilitation (MF) should be the home language of the learners. If this paradigm shift takes place in the pedagogical processes used in schools, the hallowed Medium of Instruction (MI) will be replaced by the Medium of Facilitation (MF).

The use of a Medium of Facilitation (MF)  presupposes a multilingual pedagogy which will give equal respect to all the languages available to a learner in her immediate neighbourhood. It will also ensure equity and inclusion in the society by introducing the children of minority and disadvantaged groups to the predominant linguistic groups of the State and the region. By respecting the child’s language as a Medium of Facilitation in the classroom even when it is different from the State/regional languages we will imbibe the spirit of multilinguality among the children which is a must for a multilingual country like India. Once this kind of a paradigm shift takes place in the school curriculum with the help of a multilingual pedagogy, a  smooth transition from the home language to the State or the regional language is bound to take place without any linguistic animosity among the different linguistic groups residing in a State or a region.


Chaturvedi, M.G and  Mohale, B. V. (1976)  Position of Languages in School Curriculum in India, New Delhi: NCERT.

Govt. of  India.(2019) Draft National Education Policy, 2019.

Laitin, D. (1989) Language Policy and Political Strategy, Policy Sciences, Vol.22, pp. 415-36.

Meganathan, R.(2011) ‘Language Policy in Education and the role of English in India: From library language to language of empowerment’ in Coleman, H(ed) Dream and  Realities: Developing Countries and the English Language,  British Council: London.

Rao, S. (2008)   India’s Language Debates and Education of Linguistic Minorities, Economic and Political Weekly. September, 2008, pp. 63-69.

Siegel, J. (1999) Stigmatized and Standardized Varieties in the Classroom: Interference or Separation, TESOL QUARTERLY Vol. 33, No. 4, Winter 1999, 701- 728.

UNESCO. (1951) The Use of Vernacular Languages in Education: the Report of the UNESCO Meeting of Specialists. Reprinted in Joshua A Fishman (ed), 1968, Readings in the Sociology of Language (pp. 688-716). The Hague: Mouton.

National Education Policy 2019 and the Teaching of English in India

Taking note of the child’s innate ability to acquire languages spontaneously and effortlessly at a very tender age, the National Education Policy (NEP)   of 2019  has  proclaimed that “children will be immersed in three  languages early on, from the Foundational Stage.” (page 80)    As a language teacher   working in the field of English language teaching for decades , I do welcome the decision. Our everyday experience tells us how children acquire multiple languages spontaneously without any inhibition. The ‘untutored multilingualism’ of our children may be the cause of envy for an adult learner who struggles with a new language. All normal children pick up the languages spoken in their immediate neighbourhood without being asked to do so by the adult members of their society. They do it quite normally, innocently and joyfully.

The proposed exposure to three languages at the Foundational stage as envisaged in NEP 2019 is a revolutionary step no doubt, but there is apprehension regarding its implementation. For learning any language, an ‘input rich environment’ is a must and our children, as envisaged in the said document, will learn three languages from the day 1 of their formal schooling as they will be “immersed” in three languages and one of them, in all probability, will be English.  How many of our teachers in the vernacular medium primary schools of India are capable of providing the required input rich environment for learning three languages and creating the atmosphere of “immersion” for the child? Hope the Government will take appropriate  action to remove the mismatch between the “intention” and “implementation.”

A comparative study of the “approaches” to English language teaching  as articulated in the Position Paper on ELT  of National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005 and the latest draft National Education Policy 2019 makes it clear that the architects of the NEP 2019 are  more straight forward in asserting their views  than the architects of the Position Paper on ELT, NCF  2005. Avoiding the debate on the introduction of English at an early stage in  the  Indian context, the said Position Paper of NCF 2005 made a carefully crafted statement:  “The level of introduction of English has now become a matter of political response to people’s aspirations, rendering almost irrelevant an academic debate on the merits of a very early introduction.”   Referring to English, the National Education Policy 2019 states “    ……there has been an unfortunate trend in schools and society towards English as a medium of instruction and as a medium of conversation. Logically speaking, of course, English has no advantage over other languages in expressing thoughts……..” A very straightforward statement. Yes, for “expressing thoughts” English has no advantage over “other languages.” All languages are rich enough for expressing the thoughts of the speakers of the respective languages, whether it is included in the 8th schedule or not. Why, then, is this bonhomie with English ?

Citing Graddol (1997), the Position Paper on ELT 2005 claimed that  “by 2010, a surge in English-language learning will include a third of the world’s people” but the NEP 2019 categorically states that  “We further observe that English has not become the international language that it was expected to become back in the 1960s.”

While the Position Paper on ELT 2005 eulogises English and opines that “Its colonial origins now forgotten or irrelevant”, the NEP 2019  calls English a tool  in the hands of  the  “elites”  and thinks that our attitude to English has  “resulted in the marginalisation of large sections of society based on language, keeping them out of higher-paying jobs and the higher socio-economic strata.”

In spite of pointing out the evil effects of using English  in our society, the NEP 2019  made two  significant policy statements. According to this draft document  we need English  for  two  reasons:

 (1) We need English  “to help break the current divide between the economic elite and the rest of the country, in addition to teaching languages native to India, English must also be available and taught in a high quality manner at all government and non-government schools. The emphasis should be on functionality and fluency. Functionality, fluency and quality are the three key words which should be taken seriously by the teachers teaching English in all Government and private institutions.

(2) We need English as it has become an international language in certain realms such as science and technology research.  By the end of Grade 10, students should be able to speak about science  in English too. To quote from NEP 2019,   “by the end of Grade 10 they can speak about science both in their home language and English”.( p.84.) The document also states that  “it is also important for children (especially those who intend to pursue scientific subjects at a postgraduate level) to become bilingual in science and to be able to communicate science fluently both in their home/local language and in English.”

While the Position  Paper on English Language Teaching, NCF  2005  had declared that the “aim of English teaching is the creation of multilinguals who can enrich all our languages”, the National Education Policy 2019 has restricted English for pursuing scientific subjects  and recommends it for “functionality and fluency.” We don’t need English to “enrich our languages.”

Again, the Position Paper on English Language Teaching of NCF 2005  had suggested that English in India  “needs to find its place along with other Indian languages,” but the draft National Education Policy 2019   has recommended  that  “ interactions between people within India be conducted in languages native to India” (page 83) .  It calls upon the elites and the educated “to make increased use of languages native to India.” (page 82). As English is not native to India, it should not try to find its place “along with other Indian languages.”

English is an international language in certain realms only, remarks the draft National Education Policy. On page 81 of the document, it is stated that “English has not become the international language that it was expected to become back in the 1960s” but on page 82 of the document it is stated that “Of course, English has become an international common language in certain realms”. This positioning of English in NEP 2019 is quite different from that of the Position Paper on ELT of NCF 2005. This paradigm shift has significant implications for ELT pedagogy too.

It is also significant to note that unlike the 2005 NCF document on ELT, the draft NEP 2019 makes a strong plea for equity, quality, functionality and fluency in the domain of English language teaching. Hope no child in India will be deprived of quality English language teaching any more.

The Myth of My Mother tongue

The language that I first learnt to speak when I was a child was an accidental one as I happened to be born in a particular language community and the language of this community became my mother tongue by default. Like all other children of my age and locality, I had no choice in the selection of my mother tongue and I picked up the sound, the vocabulary and the idioms of this language as it was spoken in my immediate neighborhood. As a child I made the sense of the strange new world around me with the help of this language. I used this language to dream, to talk, to cry, to sing and even to quarrel with my siblings. Everything was perfectly alright till I went to school.
In the admission register of my primary school, my father declared Bengali as my mother tongue just as he had to enter my caste and religion in that register. To my horror, I came to know that the language that had nourished me during my preschool days was not a language at all, it was a dialect, a variant of the ‘standard’ Bengali language spoken by the educated people of Calcutta living thousands of miles away! It is the language of the elites of my community and if I am to climb the ladder of the upward social mobility I should give up the tongue of the rustics! When I grew up I realized that ‘mother tongue’ is an ancestral property that I inherited and it would be the marker of my identity as long as I am alive in his world.
Learning the ‘standard’ variety of my mother tongue was a nightmare for me. In the ‘standard’ language, a cat is called a “biral” but I knew it as a “mekur”, the “pani”(water) became ” jol” (water) when I brought it to school. The conflict between the “home language”, my mother tongue and the “school language” was enough to confuse me as a child. The conflict between my ‘unofficial’ mother tongue and the ‘official’ mother tongue traumatized me. As there was little opportunity of speaking the standard Bengali outside the classroom, my reading and writing ability in the official mother tongue got the upper hand. Whenever, I tried to speak the ‘standard’ variety with my friends, they would mock at me, ” Look, look, the desi kukur is barking like a bilati kukur!” ( A native dog is barking like a foreign dog.”
In retrospect, I feel that the compulsion of using another variety of my officially designated mother tongue was more threatening to my self-esteem than the requirement of using English at the Middle school stage. The experience of being scolded for using the mother tongue ‘wrongly’ or ‘inappropriately’ during the early childhood hunts me till today.
There is nothing unique in the story of my tryst with my mother tongue. Many children speaking the related varieties of an officially recognized language might have faced similar situations.
Determining the mother tongue is always problematic. I have met many children who do not have a single, easily identifiable mother tongue. Take the example of Rohan, a six year old child, the product of a mixed marriage. The father’s mother tongue is Bengali, an Indo-Aryan language while that of the mother is Khasi, an Austric language. The family has been living in Bangalore for more than a decade. The language of communication between Rohan’s father and his mother is English though both of them can speak Hindi, Bengali, Khasi and Kannada. Rohan speaks English while communicating with his parents. He understands both Bengali and Khasi a little though he does not utter a single word in those two languages in the presence of his parents or other paternal or maternal relatives. His caregiver at home is a monolingual Khasi lady who does not speak any language other than Khasi. Will Rohan’s parents declare English as his mother tongue as this is the ‘first language ’ that Rohan has learnt during his childhood? What happens to his ancestral mother tongue? If language is the marker of ethnicity, what will be the ethnicity of this boy whose mother tongue is neither Bengali nor Khasi? The common language between the parents is not the ancestral language of either of the parents.
Let me cite the case of Argha born and brought up in the multilingual cosmopolitan setting of Bangalore. His Bengali speaking parents never uttered a single Bengali word in his presence, they spoke to him in English since his birth and we also have our conversation in English whenever he was around. The first language that this boy has learnt for intra-personal as well as interpersonal communication is English. As Argha’s parents live in a cosmopolitan residential complex, Argha has learnt Hindi and Kannada along with English and he is now quite fluent in all the three languages. What will be the mother tongue of this multilingual boy? English, Hindi or Kannada? If mother tongue is linked to a child’s early language experiences, then Argha should have three mother tongues, English, Hindi and Kannada. In this multilingual scenario, Argha’s ancestral mother tongue is noting but a foreign language for him.
I have a question: Shouldn’t we give up the concept of a single mother tongue? Can we ask a child, “What are your mother tongues?” instead of asking him, “What’s your mother tongue?”

References: Gupta,A.F. (1997) ‘When mother tongue Education is not preferred’ in Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development

Textbooks in English and the mother tongue for A Multilingual Pedagogy

The Position Paper on English Language Teaching published by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, Government of India in 2005 stated that “English in India can occur in tandem with the first languages(s) of the learners at the lower primary stage, or at least in class I to III” and learning activities should be designed to create language awareness of the children exposed to English for the first time. In spite of this significant suggestion made in the said Position Paper on English Language Teaching, English textbooks used at the primary level in India often ignore the existing cognitive and linguistic abilities of the learners who are exposed to English along with their mother tongue or the school language and consequently, the English textbooks alienate the young learners who fail to make a connection between the new language and their mental world. The fact that children use languages for meaning making and making sense of the world around them is often ignored in presenting materials in the English textbooks.
The textbooks used for teaching the mother tongue or the school language, on the other hand, use the materials very carefully to prompt the learners to make a spontaneous connection between the language and their mental world. This double standard of preparing textbooks in English and the mother tongue creates a discordant note in the minds of the very young learners for whom learning English tends to be a mechanical exercise. An English teacher using a multilingual pedagogy in the classroom should be aware of the fact that L1 and L2 do not reside in two separate compartments in the mind of the bilingual child when she is exposed to a second language. L1 and L2 are interwoven in the L2 user’s mind in vocabulary, in syntax, in phonology and in pragmatics. Therefore, ‘learning an L2 is not just adding rooms to your house by building an extension at the back, it is the rebuilding of all internal walls’ (Cook, 2001:407). Using L2 along with the child’s L1 reinforces a child’s repertoire in both the languages and therefore, a multilingual pedagogy is likely to be a double blessing for an Indian child learning English along with her mother tongue or the school language. By providing space for exploring two or more languages together and prompting the children to examine the resources of their home languages in the English class room, the English teacher becomes instrumental in developing the multilingual awareness of the children.
Keeping in view the desirability of using multilingualism as a classroom resource (Agnihotri, 1995:3) for teaching English in India, I made a study to examine and explore the suitability of using the resources of the Hindi textbook, Rimjhim along with the English textbook Marigold used in class I of CBSE and many State Board schools of India. The study examined the linguistic and cognitive challenges faced by the learners in using the materials presented in Marigold and highlighted the suitability of using selected materials from Rimjhim along with the materials presented in the English textbook.
The study was s done in two parts: First, the two textbooks were evaluated using some of the established criteria of material evaluation (Tomlinson,2003) and next, the possibility of preparing a revised version of Marigold with the help of the materials presented in Rimjhim was explored from the point of view of a multilingual pedagogy.
The study used following criteria for evaluating the two textbooks. (a) Do the materials connect between the learning experience of the children in the classroom and the life outside the classroom? (b) Do the textbooks relate the new to the earlier knowledge of the child? (c) Are the language items presented in the books age appropriate? (d) Do the materials prompt the children to use the target language creatively? (e) Are the visuals cognitively demanding for the young learners? (f) Are the activities child-centric or teacher driven? (g) How authentic are the materials? (h) Do the materials presented in the textbooks adhere to local conditions and cultures so that the children can relate them to their familiar world? (i) Is there a scope for experiential learning, complete with activities and clear instructions and opportunities?
In both the English and Hindi textbooks, the units are designed thematically as thematic units help the learners to ‘interpret new language and new information on the basis of their background knowledge’ (Curtain, H. and Dahlberg, C.A, 2004:150). While the Unit 1 of Marigold is about the theme of the house and the people who live in the house, the Unit 1 of Rimjhim is about the school and the life around the school. In the Unit 1 of Marigold, words like girl, boy, grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, sister and brother are introduced while in the Unit 1 of Rimjhim words like school, teacher, park, courtyard, garden, swing are introduced. Though both the Units are theme based, the presentation of the lexical items in Rimjhim is more context embedded than those used in Mariglod.
The theme of the Unit 3 of Marigold and the Unit 9 of Rimjhim is the animal world. In the Unit 3 of Marigold, the children are asked to look at the pictures of kitten, cat, butterfly, rat, fish, seal, seagull, eel, elephant, flea, bee, lizard, alligator, whale and donkey and underline them in the poem. Words like cat, cow, sheep and monkey are, of course, introduced in the first unit of Marigold. In Unit 9 of Rimjhim, the pictures of cow, cat, rat, dog, rabbit, camel, lion, monkey, donkey and the elephant are introduced along with the Hindi words. If supplementary materials for the Unit 3 of Marigold are prepared taking the resources of the Unit 9 of Rimjhim, it would be quite interesting and useful for the children both cognitively as well as linguistically.
The theme of Unit 5 of the Hindi textbook is Transport. Words like car, truck, bus, scooter, cycle, auto-rickshaw, rail, guard and driver are used in this Unit in a highly context embedded manner. Showing the picture of a bus, the teacher tells the children about the passengers, the driver and other related facts. The theme of the Unit 10 of Marigold is primarily transport but the theme is not exploited in a comprehensive and creative manner. Pictures of a sailor, an astronaut, a pilot are given along with the pictures of a dentist, a farmer, a postman and a teacher and the children are asked “What shall I be when I grow up? Match the following: “A person who sails a ship”, “A person who flies a spaceship,” A person who flies an aeroplane.” While the lesson of the Hindi textbook takes into account the child’s previous knowledge and creativity, the English lesson ignores them and makes it a meaningless exercise. The Unit 5 of Rimjhim can be used for scaffolding the language activities of the Unit 10 of Marigold.
The materials presented in Marigold often fail to connect between the learning experience of the children in the classroom and the life outside the classroom. The activities given in Marigold are teacher driven and betray the perspectives of the teacher or the textbook writer. The child’s voice and the child’s perspectives are missing in a number of activities given in the book. In unit 10 of Marigold, for example, the child is asked to share her experience of an imaginary journey by a plane. The task is as follows: “Let’s pretend you are a pilot flying an aeroplane. (a) What will you see outside your aeroplane (i) during the day? (ii) at night? (b) What will you see inside your aeroplane?” How can a child imagine what a pilot sees inside the cockpit while flying a plane in the sky? Again, what kind of experiential learning can take place when after reading the poem, The Flying-Man, the child is given the following task? “Choose your answer: The Flying-man is Superman. The Flying-man is a pilot. The Flying-man is an astronaut. The Flying-man is Batman.” One wonders how a rural Indian child of class 1 will respond to the fictional superhero of American comic books. The poem Rosoighar (Kitchen) given in Unit 7 of Rimjhim can replace the poem The Flying-Man. The true/false tasks given towards the end of Unit 7 of Rimjhim are more child friendly and culture sensitive than the tasks given in Unit 10 of Marigold.
The visuals presented in Marigold are not cognitively demanding for the young learners, they are often contrived and do not take into account the child’s natural instinct to use language for self expression and meaning making. In Unit 1, the pictures of a boy and a girl are given and the child is asked to match the words with the pictures: Draw a line and say “I am a boy” and “I am a girl”. Why should a normal girl child say “I am a girl” pointing out at the picture of a girl? On the other hand, on page 24 of Rimjhim, there is a picture of a girl along with a question in Hindi, “What is the girl carrying on her head? Draw a picture”. This task is more authentic and child friendly than the artificial utterances given in Marigold.
The Unit 7 of Marigold and the Unit 11 of Rimjhim have the same title, A kite. Both the textbooks have poems telling the child how a kite flies and how a child feels when she sees the kite flying, and, therefore, the lessons can supplement one another from the point of view of a multilingual pedagogy.

On the basis of the discussion done so far, we may surmise that the resources available in the textbook used for teaching the mother tongue can be used judiciously, creatively and effectively for teaching English at the primary level from the point of view of a multilingual pedagogy. Be it English or any other language ,the same cognitive and linguistic process is set in motion when a child encounters a language textbook for decoding and meaning making. Therefore, teachers teaching English should not be allergic to the use of the materials available in the textbook used for teaching the mother tongue of the children. The present study implies that English textbook writers and the writers of other Indian language textbooks should develop textbooks in a collaborative manner instead of working in silos.
Agnihotri, R.K. (1995). Multilingualism as a classroom resource. In Kathleen, H A S. and Peter, P(eds.) Multilingual Education for South Africa. Johannesburg: Heinemann, pp. 3-7.
Cook, V.(2001). Using the first language in the classroom. Canadian Modern Language Journal, 57/3, pp.401-523.
Curtain, H. and Dahlberg, C.A.(2004). Languages and Children: Making the Match: New Languages for Young Learners, Grade K-8. Boston: Pearson.
NCERT (2006). The Position Paper on English Language Teaching, New Delhi: NCERT
Tomlinson ,B.(2003). Developing materials for Language Teaching. New York: Continuum.

NB. This is an edited version of my paper presented in a National Seminar organised by the Regional Institute of Education, Mysore, India in December 2017.

Language Across Curriculum: A Post Modern Trend in Language Teaching

The Master Blogger

man reading book beside woman reading book Photo by Burst on

Language Across Curriculum is a modern concept that a foreign or second language should be taught out of the traditional language classroom by using contextual and content based language teaching methodologies throughout the school hours. Hence it demands that language learning should occur in language classroom as well as other subject classrooms.

Principles behind Language Across Curriculum

The introduction of Language Across Curriculum is based on some modern studies and findings like Content Based Instruction (CBI), Content Integrated Language Learning (CILL), Skill Acquisition Concepts and the Immersion Theory of Language Learning. Some other cognitive theories also can be regarded the principles behind this curriculum.CBI and CILL are two almost same movements in language learning in America and England. These movements present the following Principles.

  1. Natural language acquisition occurs in context; natural language is never learned divorced from meaning, and content-based instruction provides a context for…

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