Towards a multilingual approach to teaching

Pooja Singal

Language is one of the most dynamic, organized and systematic symbolic tools used by human beings defining not just their identity, but lending a meaning to their existence. The universal ideas contained in all the languages and the uniqueness of expression in each language appeal to us and surprise us equally. It is interesting and intriguing to understand how a child acquires a language and starts using it for meeting his various needs in the most playful and flexible manner. The social interactions attended to by the child inform his thought process and help him in cognizing the world around him in a culturally specific way.

A classroom presents a different kind of reality for the child. Indian classrooms are a reflection of the huge diversity that India represents and stands for. Language is one of the defining factors of this diversity, for there are about 1652 mother tongues as per the 1961 census and 22 languages scheduled in the VIII list of the Constitution. People in India display ‘translanguaging’ with ease, i.e., people have the ability to negotiate multiple interaction events in multiple languages, and yet the multilingual character of India lends a certain complexity to the educational context here. In schools, it is mostly the standard language or the dominant regional/international language that is used to disseminate all information and knowledge. A country where language changes every ten miles, sadly uses only 33 languages as the medium of instruction to impart education to its primary kids.

From the point of view of the science of language, there is no difference between what is variously called standard language, pure language, dialect, variety, etc. In spite of the fact that all languages as abstract systems or subsystems are equal, because of the complex ways in which history, economics, sociology, and politics interact with language, some languages become more prestigious than others and become more associated with socio-political power. It is generally the language of the elite that acquires power in society and becomes the standard language.

The dominance and widespread presence of English confuses the situation further. As a country, we still have not been able to resolve our stand with respect to English. Although constitutional provisions, backed by research, mandates the use of the mother tongue to be used for instruction in primary classes, facilitating a gradual move to acquisition of English as a second language, we find a large number of schools opening every year claiming to impart English medium education right from the beginning. English is considered most crucial for social mobility and economic prosperity. It is unfortunate to observe that the control and grasp that a person has over spoken English is now seen as the marker of one’s intellect. Children speaking minority languages suffer the most, as many tribal languages do not have a written script and these languages are clubbed under the major language of the region.

Considering the above discussion, one would feel that the multilingual reality of India is actually a problem in the classroom, whereas several recent studies point out a highly positive correlation between bilingualism, cognitive flexibility, and scholastic achievement. Bilingual children not only have facility with several languages, but also tend to be academically more creative and socially more tolerant. The wide range of linguistic repertoire that they control equips them to negotiate different social situations more efficiently. However, we have yet to realize the potential of multilingualism in our classrooms. The language of instruction has a direct bearing on the comprehension and conceptual repertoire of children. In the absence of their own language being used for communication, children are not able to make sense of the curricular material, and hence suffer with regard to the development of their literacy skills.

It is time to re-conceptualize our understanding of language teaching and learning. In primary classes, all learning is basically language learning, hence a language across the curriculum approach needs to be thought through. The diversity that the children bring with themselves with respect to their experiences embedded in their unique expressions should be respected and tapped into. Some of the things that teachers can do to facilitate learning in a linguistically heterogeneous classroom are outlined below.

Conduct a language survey of the class: Many a time we are not aware of the diversity that is present in our classes. It would be worth an attempt to conduct a linguistic survey of the class to understand the learners’ linguistic backgrounds. Sometimes, a student’s silence due to incomprehension is understood as an act of defiance. Knowing the home language of the child empowers the teachers in the selection of the appropriate material for the learners.

Greet in many languages as a routine: Establishing a routine practice of greeting children in multiple languages opens up possibilities of further discussion on cultural practices in the communities of language speakers.

Thought of the day: To begin the day with a relevant saying, or quote or a proverb from different languages enables the learners to become aware of the ways of expressing in multiple languages while giving them something to ponder upon throughout the day. Important life skills can be discussed using this strategy.

Poem corner in multiple languages: Poems are the most natural form of expression in all languages. The combination of rhythm, words and images has a lasting effect on children. Poems sung in the classes create an aesthetic pleasure and are remembered for a long time by all. The lyrical quality of poetry breaks the barriers of languages and hence, creating a poem corner in class displaying poems from different languages on topics of interest to children will be a worthwhile attempt.

Class library with bilingual books: It is absolutely necessary to have a class library in all primary classes. With the booming market of children’s literature in India, teachers now have plenty of options available for selection of good children’s literature for their libraries. Many publishers come out with bilingual picture storybooks for early readers. Many bring out the same titles in multiple languages. Exposure to literature in multiple languages at the same time allows learners to form their own responses and experiences around the books of their choice. Activities conducted around the class library – read aloud, shared reading practices, independent reading time – will all enhance the multilingual capacities of the learners.

Integration of languages/subjects: In primary classes, it is rather difficult to compartmentalize knowledge under strict disciplinary boundaries. Themes like water, nature, culture, food, transport, books, etc., run through both EVS as well as language textbooks. Integrated teaching of subjects will allow learners to see the linkages between different concepts and construct knowledge in an organic manner. Integration of subjects and languages while teaching also builds students’ repertoire in different languages.

Invite scientific analysis of similar items in different languages: In all schools, two-three languages are a compulsory part of the curriculum. To enhance metalinguistic awareness of all languages among children, teachers must take up some topics where students are invited to observe and analyze, compare and contrast similar features in different languages. For example, while discussing ‘idioms’, how similar meanings are conveyed in different languages can be discussed.

Invite learners’ experiences in EVS and mathematics classrooms: Teachers usually tend to make EVS and mathematics classrooms conceptually rich, overruling the subjective experiences or cultural responses that many themes may invite. EVS and mathematics classrooms can be excellent sites for gaining an insight into how things are named in learners’ own social and economical milieu. I distinctly remember a class where learners shared what the different instruments for farming are called in their own village dialects.

Flexibility towards errors: When children learn their first language, they make many mistakes and errors which are never corrected by the parents or elders around them. While learning languages in the formal setup of school, suddenly the pressure of getting it right from the beginning is built on the learners. A little flexibility and tolerance towards the errors made by the learners while learning to read and write in different languages will hugely help boost the confidence of the learners. The meaning contained in a language should be given primacy over technical aspects of language.

It is essential for teachers to understand the deep relationship between language, cognition and comprehension. Practices rooted in multilingualism, incorporating learners’ experiences and voices will eventually lead to strengthening the fibre of democratic citizenship.

The author teaches language courses in the B.El.Ed Department at Lady Shri Ram College for Women. She can be reached at