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NEP must tap children’s astonishing linguistic ability as a classroom resource

It is unfortunate that though the draft NEP 2020 talks a lot about “multilingualism”, it does not recognise that children arrive in school not with “a language” but with a complex verbal repertoire that may be simultaneously located in what are construed as several different languages.

Written by Rama Kant Agnihotri | Updated: December 3, 2020 6:43:40 pm
A focus on language in teacher education will go a long way in helping future teachers use this complex verbal repertoire as a resource — rather than appear to them as an impediment.

In various programmes preparing teachers for schools, language is one of the most neglected areas. It was with some difficulty it found a place in programmes such as Delhi University’s four-year Bachelor of Elementary Education programme and TISS’s Master of Arts in Education (Elementary) programme. Even there, it seems in dire straits now.

One can indeed argue that teachers should have a solid understanding of philosophy and aims of education, history, sociology, psychology, political economy and issues of marginalisation, gender and disability, among others, but it should not be difficult to see that all these are themselves eventually mediated through language. And that they demand high levels of reading comprehension in both the teacher and the taught. Yet, teachers generally arrive in schools without any understanding of the nature, structure and acquisition of language. It is not their fault. That’s the way they themselves have been educated, without putting a question mark on the stereotypes they carry about language as a part of their mental baggage created during their socialisation, schooling and education.

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It should not be difficult to find teachers who believe, among other questionable things, that children learn languages from their environment largely through imitation and practice; that dialects are significantly inferior to languages; that Hindi is our national language; that Sanskrit is the mother of all languages, at least of all Indian languages, and that it is the most scientific, expressive and beautiful language; that the script used for Hindi is far more scientific than the one used for English or German; that second or foreign languages are best learnt through a combination of teaching grammatical rules and vocabulary.

The fault does not entirely lie with the programmes in education — linguists must accept a part of the blame. For linguists, irrespective of whether they belong to the structural tradition extending from Panini to Ferdinand Saussure to Leonard Bloomfield or to the more recent tradition of generative grammar introduced by Noam Chomsky, the study of language is essentially a formal matter, closer to mathematics and physics than to society and education. It does not matter whether you believe that each language is different (traditional structuralism) or all languages are a manifestation of the same universal grammar located in the human language faculty (modern structuralism). In the former case, your focus is the set of rules that govern the specific language under consideration; in the latter, your focus is the mental representation of the principles that govern all languages. There are also not enough linguists around to take up this challenge. The departments of linguistics across the country are either shrinking or have already been closed down. How can we ensure high levels of critical enquiry without high levels of proficiency in academic literacy and how is that possible unless future teachers have some idea of the nature, structure and acquisition of language?

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Four-year-old children arrive in schools almost as “linguistic adults” — “almost” because acquisition of vocabulary and specialised registers is a life-long exercise. Since teachers are not equipped to appreciate “what” is it that the child has cracked, they fail to appreciate the potential of the child as a learner, who can abstract highly complex rules from limited and highly impoverished data. Since the nature of “what” is acquired is not understood, naïve explanations such as “through imitation and practice” are sought as justified answers to the question of “how is language acquired”.

Of the four years, a child sleeps at least for two — she has several other things to negotiate in addition to acquiring language. And notice she acquires not just one but all the languages that constitute her environment. This is possible because all children are genetically endowed with immense linguistic and cognitive potential.

Imagine a Punjabi child growing up in a family that has to move to Delhi because a parent has been transferred. Punjabi is the only tonal language in India, except for those spoken in the Northeast. The new languages this child may learn are the non-tonal Hindi and English. Punjabi and Hindi, like all other Indian languages (except Khasi), are verb final but English is verb-medial (Mohan eats an apple). Not only that, English has prepositions (on the table) but Hindi and Punjabi have post-positions (mez par). Hindi and Punjabi mark gender in the verb, English doesn’t care about this. Except in the case of third person, present tense, singular, English does not worry much about number or person either (“She walks” but “I/ we/ you/ they walk”) — only slight changes in the auxiliary sometimes. At the level of words, English makes only one plural, Hindi and Punjabi will have six forms for every noun. Consider whether larke in Hindi is singular or plural. This is just a glimpse of the verbal repertoire of our Punjabi child. Other children are no different. A child internalises these highly rule-governed systems along with socially appropriate usage automatically without any explicit instruction.

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It is unfortunate that though the draft NEP 2020 talks a lot about “multilingualism”, it does not recognise that children arrive in school not with “a language” but with a complex verbal repertoire that may be simultaneously located in what are construed as several different languages. A focus on language in teacher education will go a long way in helping future teachers use this complex verbal repertoire as a resource — rather than appear to them as an impediment. Unless we adopt this perspective, there is no easy way to concretise the slogan of “mother tongue education” given the fact that the Census itself counts at least 20,000 of them.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 3, 2020 under the title ‘Learning in many tongues’. The writer retired from Delhi University and is currently Professor Emeritus, Vidya Bhawan Society, Udaipur

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