The many paths to language

Kavita Anand

The acquisition of language is a fascinating process. From listening to motherese in the cradle, to beginning your babbling in return. From the sense of “I” that develops in relation to the mirror image as different from the ‘(m)other’ and the excitingly painful sense of separate-ness. From the time you realise the delicious use of new words to beginning to understand their ‘root’ and appendages and placement in a grammatically correct structure and then their colloquial usage that enables you to break those very rules. It’s a definition. It’s a relationship, an acculturation. It’s a transaction, a communication, a creation, a symbol. It’s mother tongue, foreign tongue, the language of domination and subjugation, the dominant language and the vernacular, the scripted language and the one without a script. The lost, the extinct, the borrowed and the eternal. And now, a global language, generally referred to as English.

Is English a singular noun? Or does it refer to the various forms, the permutations and combinations that encapsulate the different Englishes that are known and spoken across various countries today? The efforts made by a community to arrive at and use a derivative of the English language would possibly be euphemistically known as different methodologies to learn English. When the community happens to be a school, these would be described as methodologies to teach English.

We learn English and teach English by ‘doing’ English. We do it badly by repetitive learning of the grammar (is there a “the” grammar or an “a” grammar of a language that is accepted within a community as a convention?) We do it well by using LSRW (Listening, speaking, reading, writing) sequentially and even better by doing all four together. We do it using textbooks, grammar rule books, class work books, blackboards, electronic boards, dictionaries, audio tools, video tools, fiction and other books, drama, songs, rhymes, oral use, listening, artwork, written use and reading letters, signs, symbols, words, sentences, paragraphs and essays.

The adequate use of the tongue is an authentication of the individual that enables his or her acceptance into an ethnic group. The loss of the tongue is the loss of a tradition that alienates the individual from the ethnic community. I wonder whether the over-emphasis on mother tongue could become a parochial way of ensuring that the acculturation is oppressive and totalitarian. The beauty of plural tongues creates a hybrid quality and improves the chances of the child’s usage of a richer set of registers of multiple languages. In other words, a child learning multiple languages inherits many cultural mores.

The author is the Executive Director of Shishuvan, a school in Mumbai. She can be reached at [email protected].

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