Wednesday, August 7, 2019

English teaching at primary level in India– Cultural Interference (published in HT Lko 5-8-19)

English teaching at primary level in India– Cultural Interference
(published in HT Lko 5-8-19)

It goes without saying that a language is embedded in culture. Let’s take the simple examples of two very common words – pranam and shanti. Can the whole matrix of these words be translated into English? The English words ‘greetings’ or ‘peace’ are but poor approximations to pranam and shanti. Even a  poet-philosopher of the stature of T S Eliot failed to get an English equivalent and used the Sanskrit word as it is – ‘Shantih shantih shantih’ in his great poem – The Waste Land. A language, thus, cannot import the subtle connotations of another language.

The effect of cultural interference is clearly felt in the teaching of English in a vernacular setting such as the state of U.P.  The fact is that in the rural hinterlands English is not even the second language; it is practically the third language, as the local dialects (Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Braj…) are the first and, Khadi Hindi (standard Hindi) is the second language. In this scenario, where even the teacher is essentially a Hindi speaking person (though may be knowledgeable in English); the language-reinforcement crisis for the child is so evident.

Culture and communication are intertwined and it determines how people encode messages, the meanings they have for messages and, how they get interpreted.  For instance, as different from the West, in our country,  a teacher or elder is not addressed by his name/surname, instead, family friends are identified through some relationship – 'Uncle', 'Aunty', 'Chacha', 'Mama' etc. and, in Hindi, there are two different ways of addressing an elder and the younger – 'Aap' (for former) and 'Tum' (for younger). 

Associative contexts in which a word is used in a place might evoke a different understanding of that word. The word 'darling', I remember, raised shy smiles among us when a teacher addressed a student lovingly by this term. As 10 years old, in the early 80s we had heard it being used in the Hindi films in only one connotation. The various nuances of meaning given to the word ‘sexy’, ranging from obscenity to aesthetics, are only a matter of one’s cultural environs. Can someone in India, whose experience of a summer’s day is of a scorching sun and hot loo, compare his beloved like Shakespeare does in his sonnet- ‘Shall I compare thee to the summer’s day’!

All our educational philosophers have been advocates of primary learning in our mother tongues.  Tagore, in his celebrated essay “The Centre of Indian Culture”, wrote that a foreign language makes education 'nebulously distant and unreal, (because it is) so detached from all our associations of life, so terribly costly to us in time, health and means, and yet so meager of results.’

Researches all over have showed that the second language can be best learned at an older age.  Broadly speaking, different life stages give us different advantages in language learning. As babies, we have a better ear for different sounds and thus we don’t learn a language but we acquire it. As adults, we have longer attention spans and crucial skills like literacy that allow us to continually expand our vocabulary, even in our own language. This is known as ‘explicit learning’: studying a language in a classroom with a teacher explaining the rules. Young children are very bad at explicit learning, because they don’t have the cognitive control and the attention and memory capabilities while adults are much better at that.

The fact is that English teaching in a vernacular scenario cannot be divorced from its vernacular ambience. Both our teachers and books are to be aware of this.  We should remember Tagore’s caution -  ‘The diversity of our languages should not be allowed to frighten us; but we should be warned of the futility of borrowing the language of our culture from a far-away land, making stagnant and shallow that which is fluid near its source.’

 Our English teaching has to go side by side along our vernacular and the content has to be drawn as much as possible from the children’s everyday environment. Only this can help in an effective teaching-learning of English and also let the mother tongue thrive. 

Dr Skand Shukla
(Officer of the U.P. Education Services )