To foster sustainable development, learners must have access to education in their mother tongue and in other languages. It is through the mastery of the first language or mother tongue that the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are acquired. Local languages, especially minority and indigenous, transmit cultures, values and traditional knowledge, thus playing an important role in promoting sustainable futures.
The above is the theme for International Mother Language Day 2017, which falls on February 21. Says Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO: “On the occasion of this Day, I launch an appeal for the potential of multilingual education to be acknowledged everywhere, in education and administrative systems, in cultural expressions and the media, cyberspace and trade.”
The world acknowledges that learning in the mother tongue is the need of the hour.
…..the label of English medium is so fascinating that everyone rushes to one, notably the working and labour classes. And so we have English medium schools mushrooming all over the place, never mind their quality and credentials. These schools target the labour class comprising of maid/driver/plumber/gardener etc., for whom it is a status symbol to send their children to one. They don’t mind paying several times the fees in addition to other expenses these schools charge, for the privilege of claiming that their children also attend English medium schools like the children of their employers!
One can’t entirely blame them, for mother tongue-medium students are looked down upon as being academically inferior and less intelligent, whereas quite often, the opposite is true. Also, with so much emphasis being given on English as the medium of education, one is hard put to find enough good text books in technology and science in regional languages. And then there is the question of a career in an MNC. It is an undeniable fact that knowledge of both spoken and written English does open the doors to more career opportunities.
But one has to ask, ‘Is it worth the money spent in sending them to English medium schools?’ Compared to children who are exposed to English at home and their environment, these children have no exposure to the language at all. So it is not uncommon to find intelligent children languish in their studies because they can’t understand simple concepts taught in English. They copy the lessons from the blackboard and mug them up without understanding a word. Needless to say, this leaves them traumatized, especially if they intelligent and they are unable to shine due to the language barrier.
Remember my post about the summer school for slum children that is run in a park in our colony? Well, it is still running in the park (after a break during the monsoons) as they haven’t found a place, and the numbers have only swelled. Among the children who come to get some extra coaching from the dedicated volunteer teachers, there are a number of children who go to one or the other of these English medium schools. You can tell them apart because of their reticence to mingle freely, their faint sense of superiority and their reluctance to show that they don’t know a concept being taught.
One of the teachers** who teaches math and science to the high school kids in this school, says,
‘These kids are under great pressure. Outwardly, they have to maintain a façade of intelligence, while being aware that their peers in Marathi/Hindi medium schools are academically better than them. And the conflict shows in their faces. They are not able to learn even the basic concepts of the subjects in English at school. It is so sad to see intelligent students being reduced to duds this way. When we teach them in Hindi, they easily grasp the concepts and the joy shows in their faces.’
He explains further:
‘They spend all their time mentally translating the English words into their mother tongue till they hear a word they can recognise. This constant mental activity naturally doesn’t allow them to listen to the lesson being taught. Let us say for example that the teacher is teaching a lesson on dogs. When they hear the familiar word ‘dog’, their brain translates it into kutta/naai/kutra/kukka or whatever the word is in their mother tongue. They feel a sense of accomplishment for they know what the word ‘dog’ means, don’t they? And at that Eureka moment, the brain stops working and nothing further goes into their heads. Similarly, you say Triangle to an eighth standard student and if she understands what it means, she thinks, ‘Ah, that means tikon!’ and stops at that. It is as if they have found the validation and justification of their studying in English medium.
‘Now let’s say you are teaching them in their own language: the words they hear open up a host of images and associated facts about the subject. The girl or boy thinks about dogs, how they behave, what they look like and so on. They get interested in learning further about it, whether it is a dog or a triangle and begin paying attention to the teacher instead of switching off. Learning in one’s language stimulates the brain into thinking, imagining.’
He spends a lot of time trying to convince both the parents and children of his school that it is more important to be good in studies which would be easier for them in their own mother tongue. He also impresses upon them that some of the best brains in our country have had their education in their mother tongues.
He is quick to add though: ‘This is not to say that these children from economically deprived classes can’t cope with English. They can if they get good teaching in the school and a lot of coaching at home. Just going for tuitions is not a solution as they learn more of rote learning there too.’
What he speaks out of experience is being corroborated by studies the world over.
The consensus seems to be that unless children have some exposure to English, it is best for them to learn in the language they are familiar with, whether it is their mother tongue or the language spoken around them. Read this link for some insights.
I also found this interesting observation by Professor Angelina Kioko in one of the British Council pages.
“…when learners start school in a language that is still new to them, it leads to a teacher-centred approach and reinforces passiveness and silence in classrooms. This in turn suppresses young learners’ potential and liberty to express themselves freely. It dulls the enthusiasm of young minds, inhibits their creativity, and makes the learning experience unpleasant. All of which is bound to have a negative effect on learning outcomes.”
According to another study conducted in South Africa, “Among children in schools of a similar quality and coming from similar home backgrounds, those who were taught in their home language during the first three years of primary school performed better in the English test in grades four, five and six than children who were exposed to English as the language of instruction in grades one, two and three.”
Perhaps educators in the decades immediately after Independence the importance of learning in one’s own tongue. During my childhood, for instance, there were not too many English medium schools. Even in English medium schools, (other than the Jesuit-run convent schools), the primary classes were taught only in the mother tongue. I had my primary education in Tamil and it was not difficult for me or my classmates to smoothly shift over to English medium from fifth standard onwards.
However, it looks like English medium schools hold the imagination and purse strings of the people, whether or not their children benefit by them.
I would love to hear what your thoughts are about this subject.
** The ‘Teacher’ is none other than the L&M. Both he and his sister did their schooling in Hindi medium before going on to college education in English medium – he in Engineering and she in Science. Both were excellent students, but with a large joint family to support, their father couldn’t afford the fees and allied expenses of convent schools. Only their mother was very unhappy that her children never wore smart uniforms or spoke English like the children of her friends and relatives. It had added to the pressure, he remembers.
‘I had spent the better part of my vacation before joining college, watching Hollywood movies and reading bestsellers, looking up difficult words in the dictionary,’ he laughs remembering. He was a school topper who still had a massive complex about not being able to converse in English as his classmates from convent schools did. Still he had held his own because his grasp of the subjects was excellent and it was just a matter of time before he became familiar with the English language textbooks.
That the intervening decades have not blunted those memories makes him empathetic towards these children and their trauma of being pushed into English medium schools.
Note: The Bharatvani Project, which was launched in 2015 by the HR Ministry has digitised content in 60 Indian languages for free consumption. The languages include those which we have not even heard of – Mundari, Shina, Thadou and more!
Homepage image courtesy:Mail & Guardian