What should one do in a language classroom?

Rama Kant Agnihotri*

What students and teachers should do in a language classroom is best left to them. Language teaching is so complex and so contextually rooted that except for very general guidelines, nothing may really help in the actual task. What language professionals can at best do is to make available in as accessible a manner as possible content, form and format (oral, printed, digital etc.) material about the potential of the learner, aspects of nature, structure, acquisition and change of language, features of language variation, nature of learning processes, materials, methods and evaluation procedures. In this short article, I focus only on one issue that may be of some use to language teachers: How languages of learners in a given classroom is not an obstacle in the trajectory of language learning; it is in fact a resource not only in language teaching but also in enhancing cognitive growth and social tolerance.

Most teachers and several language professionals believe that languages of students are an obstacle in the process of learning another language. Many actually believe that they cause major interference and therefore students should not even be allowed to use their languages in the class and the school. The typical paradigm in which they work could be defined as ‘a class, a teacher, a text and a language’. Nothing if you reflect for a moment could be further from the truth. All classes are by default multilingual. Examine your own and examine your own language profile and that of your friends. Secondly, languages student bring with them are and can be used as a resource rather than dismissed as an obstacle. Languages always flourish in each other’s company; they suffocate in prisons of isolation and purity. English today is rich because it keeps its doors open; so were Sanskrit and Hindi till they started closing their doors. Thirdly, it is not at all difficult for all teachers and students to appreciate that all languages are equally rule governed and rich. This is something which is so effortlessly achieved if the strengths of a multilingual class are recognized. For example, all languages will have some technique to indicate the relationship between the subject and the verbal elements. That some languages may look more powerful than others is NOT a linguistic matter but one of history, sociology and politics and these aspects can also be easily demonstrated if the teachers are open to such a discourse. Languages like Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Persian etc. were once very powerful; the power of English is only a few decades old and there is no reason to believe that it would stay like that. If you leave out china, Russia, Africa, India etc., the English speaking world is actually very small.

In any case, we do need to think why theories of interference hold such power and what’s wrong with them. These theories hold power because they are the most convenient answers to what is going on and they stop any deeper inquiry into the issues involved. It is a cosy corner that looks very attractive to a teacher who breathes some relief in saying: They will never learn; their languages always come in the way. What teachers don’t realize is that errors are necessary stages in the process of learning and what is being dismissed as interference may actually be a part of the UG driven way of acquiring a language or a milestone in the process of learning. Let’s consider some typical examples.

Let’s start with syntax. The fact of the matter is that there is actually no major difference between the basic syntactic structure of say Indian English and British or American English. All children, including those from the so-called native English communities, will make such errors as ‘he go to school’; the structural pressure of English syntax dictates that it should be so. Imagine everybody including ‘I, we, you, you plural, they’ ‘go’, why should poor ‘he, she, it’ ‘goes’!!! But if we stop comparing the behaviour of school or undergraduate learners with fluent speakers of ‘standard’ English, we will realize that all speakers of English, whether they acquire it as L 1 or L 2, learn to say ‘goes’ in due course. Take another oft quoted example of the invariant tag-question. When many speakers of the Asian subcontinent use ‘isn’t it’ with all kinds of statements, it is often pointed out as a major interference from say Hindi ‘hai na’ etc. Nobody takes the trouble of finding out how many ‘native’ varieties of English do the same. Some varieties of Canadian English certainly do it with a different invariant tag. Two points may be noted here. It may be a part of the standard commonly used Indian English and there is nothing wrong with this fairly understandable overgeneralization. In fact, in the speech of the teachers and the community, there may be no exposure to the variable tag question. Secondly, in the case of fluent users of Indian English, there may be many who actually use the variable tag question. What you eventually accept as a standard ‘correct’ usage is a matter that is located in a spatial, temporal, historical and sociological space.

Consider morphology. It is well attested that all children irrespective of whether they learn English as L 1 or L 2, go through a stage of using first ‘go, went, gone’ (as unrelated items) and then ‘go, goed, goed’ (as morphologically demanded items) and finally acquiring the exception ‘go, went, gone’. Imagine that all learners go through this stage and the set of irregular English verbs is rather large including such commonly used verbs as ‘come, cut, dig, do, eat, get, give, make…’ etc. Word formation strategies have nothing to do with interference. Yes, languages frequently borrow from each other, particularly cultural items. There is nothing you can do about it. English simply adds an additional appendix to its dictionary every year; speakers of course always move ahead of the dictionary.

Take phonology. Do all the so-called native speakers of English speak the same way? Will any one of you, unless she belongs to north of England, claim to understand a word of Yorkshire English? Or do you all understand rural Texan English? I don’t. I don’t even understand my grand-daughter studying in Malone in New York State. She finds it equally difficult to understand my Indian accent. Phonology is a marker of group identity and if you are really interested it will not come into your way after a while. But if you are already beyond 15-16 years of age, you will notice that your jaw is set and you may not get the ‘English English’ inter-dental fricatives, or the aspirated alveolar stops or the distinction between /v/ and /w/, which is really nothing to write home about unless you want a job at the BBC etc. Every variety has a right to its distinct identity.

So if languages of learners are not in our way, why do we make such a miserable mess of language teaching? At most places I know of, most learners don’t even manage to master the basic skills of reading comprehension and writing coherently. We do need to examine the language profile of our class. Every child brings a different linguistic and cultural resource to the class and these can indeed be sensitively assimilated into the teaching-learning process. The first requirement is of course that the teacher needs to walk out of the position of being the fountainhead of all knowledge and have faith in the ability of children to use their resources creatively. In actual classroom transactions it implies that the time taken by individual learners and their interactions in peer group would be much more than normally consumed by the teacher.

We today know that multilinguality is a default human situation and is constitutive of being human. Every classroom by default is inherently multilingual. Further, in a variety of ways, recent research has established how this multilinguality can be used not only as a resource but also as a teaching strategy and a goal. It correlates positively with language proficiency, cognitive growth, scholastic achievement, divergent thinking and social tolerance. It is also now well-established that levels of language proficiency enhance significantly with metalinguistic awareness which would tend to grow if we allow children to reflect on their languages.

What kind of strategies would be most useful in such situations? In fact, there is no limit and also no defining ‘models’. Freedom from the bondage of script is the first step. With very small effort on the part of learners and teachers, it becomes evident that all languages can be written in the same script, with some modifications. What we do need to understand is that all children and all their languages need to  be involved and the teachers need to create situations in which children can work in groups collecting data from their languages, classifying it into different categories, examine the relationships among different parts and arrive at conclusions and hypotheses that would account for their data. Consider for example, the making of nouns from adjectives in English. Adjectives like ‘dark, lazy, rough, kind, small, rich, soft etc’ can be turned into nouns by adding ‘-ness’. However, this is not where teachers would start; they would instead start by talking informally about adjectives and nouns for a few minutes. Then leave it to groups of children who share some languages to make list of adjectives and related nouns in different languages available in the class. Hindi may not have any such strategy; but it may have some others. Or take the case of making plurals. With very limited guidance children will themselves work out the problems of saying that the plural in English is made not by adding ‘-s, -es or –ies’; once it is explained to them that they should focus on the sounds with which a plural ends, they work out that significance of ‘-s, -z and –iz’ in making plural, themselves pointing that the plural of say ‘dog and baby’ is made by adding the same sound. Another group will come up with a strategy for making plurals in Hindi which has not one but 3 plurals for each noun e.g. in the case of laRkaa ‘boy’, we have ‘laRke, laRkoN and laRko’, being the nominative, oblique and vocative plurals respectively. Consider the case of making ‘negatives’ in different languages. It is possible that children would themselves (and so would the teacher) discover that negatives in all languages are made by putting the negative element close to the verb of the main clause and if a rule is discovered in this way, it is rather unlikely that children would make mistakes in speaking or writing negative sentences. Take the case of translation. Nothing enhances language proficiency more than peer-group attempts at translation, not the traditional type of ‘literally and accurately translating from language X to language Y’. A small poem for example could be taken from any language. Notice that the power structures in the classroom at once start getting democratised; teacher is at the back of the classroom listening like others to a poem in an unknown language which is then written and explained by children in the script they are already using. The poem is then translated into several languages in small groups. Stories, plays, cultural events, social issues etc. could also be treated in a similar way. The kind of phonological, syntactic, semantic and semiotic issues such an exercise raises is overwhelming. The idea is to go through the process, not to arrive at a final, perfect translation.

*Rama Kant Agnihotri, D.Phil. (York), retired as Professor and Head, Department of Linguistics, University of Delhi. He is interested in and has taught and written extensively about Applied Linguistics, Morphology, Sociolinguistics and Research Methods for several years. He has lectured in Germany, UK, USA, Canada, Yemen, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, among other countries. He has also been working with several NGOs across India in the area of elementary school education. He co-edits, with A. L. Khanna, the Sage series on Applied Linguistics. He was Chair of the NCERT Focus Group on The Teaching of Indian Languages during NCF 2005.


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