English important, but not at cost of mother tongue: British Council

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New Delhi : The British Council, which is working closely with the Delhi government to improve the English skills of students in government schools here, believes the language is important in the present scenario but not at the cost of one's mother tongue.

"English is not a replacement for the mother tongue, but is important (in the context of) the present global situation," British Council India Director Alan Gemmell told IANS.

The British Council, along with the University of Cambridge, is running "The Language of Education in Multilingual India: Exploring Effects on Reading and Mathematics" project in Delhi government schools to explore and develop the multilingual learning and cognitive abilities of the students.

"Appropriate use of English in education systems has been part of our global charter. English has one of the highest numbers of loan words from Indian languages and it is only natural that it has become one of India's languages. It has also become an essential skill in the 21st century, an 'operating system language' across the world," Gemmell told IANS.

This research project, he said, will provide further evidence for their belief in multilingualism and the role the mother tongue plays in early years of education.

The project started in 2016 to find out whether children who speak a language at home that is different from the medium of instruction in school, have lower learning outcomes than children whose home and school language is the same.

Apart from Delhi, the project is also running in Hyderabad and Patna.

"One of the reasons for choosing the three cities was that we have our collaborators present in all these cities. In this project, the British Council is the strongest partner," Ianthi Maria Tsimpli, Professor of English and Applied Linguistics at the University of Cambridge, told IANS.

Data collection is underway with about 1,000 child participants and the findings are expected to be reported in 2020.

There is also another challenge.

"The challenge is children are coming to schools and not being able to adapt language skills. The system has failed in teaching the children how to read, learn and express in language. This makes it difficult for them to use the language in other subjects as well. When a child finds it difficult to read a language, he will find it difficult to learn social science, science and other subjects in that language," Atishi Marlena, former advisor to Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia, told IANS.

The basic of any system should be that a child should be able to acquire the first language, she said, adding: "When he is comfortable with the first language, only then will he be able to learn all other things."

Tsimpli echoed the sentiments: "Being able to communicate is the first step of learning. Until you are able to communicate in a language, you cannot learn in that language."

Another issue arises here. The children in government schools are mostly first generation learners who do not have any exposure to the written language. Even their exposure to the spoken language is less.

"Their parents are often engaged in making their ends meet. They do not have time to even talk to their children," Marlena explained.

Speaking about other key issues in the learning process, Tsimpli said: "The size of the classroom matters in learning. It is difficult for a teacher to teach and at the same time to keep the focus on 50-60 students."

"When we came in, there were classes with over 150 students," Marlena said.

One of the problems government schools face is the discipline issue.

"The teacher asks the student to stand out of the class over discipline issues, but they failed to realise that the child is creating the disturbance as he is not able to pay attention to the class. He failed to learn the basic language skills. They will not access the happenings of the classrooms if they cannot read the things written on the blackboard or in a textbook," Marlena said.

"The minute they start acquiring what is happening in the class, the minute they start understanding what the teacher is saying, they will pay attention and the system will transform. The challenge before us is: How are you going to make them learn," she said.

(Nivedita Singh can be contacted at nivedita.singh@ians.in)