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Mother language education and the teaching of the mother language

These days there is so much talk in so many forums by our linguists, language pedagogists, language activists and many intellectuals about the advantages of education in the mother language -not just in Odisha, in most parts of our country as well.By the way, “mother language” in this context has come to mean “regional language” but let us leave this important matter for our present discussion. The question is, who they are trying to persuade. In Odisha, Odia has been the medium of instruction at the school level – from the primary to the high school – for decades. The vast majority of parents who are sending their children to these government schools obviously are not going to benefit from this talk. Neither are those who are sending their children to the private English medium schools. Theyfall into two categories: (a) those who are highly educated and economically well-off and (b) those who are mostly half-educated or even scarcely educated and are not economically comfortable, the vast majority of them working in challenging conditions in the unorganized sector in the big cities.

Whether the parents of the first category know about the benefits of education in the mother language or not, as things stand now, they are not going to shift their children from the English medium schools to the Odia medium schools because of the advice of the experts. Those who are unaware of the learning advantages through the mother language medium, i.e., those of the category (b) make great personal sacrifice in order to help their children to live a better life. They believe that economic opportunities at both the local and the non-local levels come to those who have English education. They know that upward social mobility is a natural consequence of economic prosperity. So no amount of lecturing on the merits of mother language education is going to change their decision.This apart, lecturing to them would amount to telling them,” Look, we know what is good for you. Don’t do what we do. Do what we ask you to do.” This isn’t good social ethics.

So the idea of mother language education up to Class VIII a least can be implemented under the prevailing circumstances if the parents belonging to the category (a) send their children to mother language medium schools, which, to repeat, are government schools in Odisha. If they do so, those belonging to category (b) will follow suit. But this will happen when the condition of the Odia-medium schools are improved in terms of infrastructure and in other ways: there must be properly qualified teachers in adequate number in all subjects on the staff, relevant technology tools (computer, for instance)must be accessible to the students, etc. In sum, mother language education programme is not going to succeed if quality education in the government (i.e., Odia- medium schools) is not assured. Everyone knows this but there seems to be no strong societal will to make the above happen, as of nowat least.

One problem, which we think is extremely serious, but is hardly talked about in the public lectures or media discussions is this:Odia is being poorly learnt by the children in the Odia-medium schools, which are not restricted to any particular region or regions of the State. Children after two years at school do not know the complete alphabet and after even three years, cannot sometimes pronounce a word. They would pronounce each letter of the word and then the word. For instance, if they are topronounce “kalama”, then they would pronounce each letter in the given order and then the word. Many Class IV children cannot read a sentence with the expected fluency; neither can they write a grammatical sentence containing five or six words. Many children at Class VII cannot write a paragraph containing three or four sentences. No wonder, as the Editor of an Odia TV channel told me four years ago,they cannot write a letter to their mother. Incidentally, this situation is unlikely to be true of Odiaalone. If this is the general situation, then talking about the huge advantages of mother language education over education in the English medium till Class VIII at least would be an entirely unrealistic proposition.

This situation with regard to the learning of the mother language, could, a considerable extent, be due to the neglect by not only the Government but also the society as a whole, of the government school system, i.e., the Odia medium school system. Besides, unfortunately, mother language learning is taken for granted. It is also taken for granted that if the teacher is an Odia speaker, he (she/them) can teach Odia. That’s qualification enough for the Odia teacher.

Mid-day meal, with or even without an egg, free text books, good class rooms, teacher’s visits to the child’s home to meet his ( her/ their) parents and the like are all very welcome steps to improve the present state of primary education, but these constitute only the necessary, but not the sufficient condition.“Sufficient condition” would include careful planning of the syllabus, competent and qualified teachers, good reading material and regular monitoring of the child’s progress, not “pass-fail” tests.We know that there is no detention at this stage; we have most unfortunately ignored the fact that there is almost no monitoring of the pupil’s work, either. “No detention” at this stage may be all right; “no monitoring” is certainly not.

It is well-known that when the child joins the primary school, he already knows his mother language, to the extent that he knows it well enough to satisfy his communicative needs. What he has to learn is literacy skills: how to write the language and how to write the formal variety of his mother language. He has to learn the alphabet, the spelling of the words, pronunciation of the written material, writing two or three word sentences,use of the full stop, polite forms of verbs and use of polite pronouns in speech – in short, he has to learn the “standard”.Incidentally, ungrammaticality of sentences, spelling errors and the use of impolite forms may not affect communication seriously but this is not to say that incorrect spelling, pronunciation and grammar should be ignored. What is meant is that instead of punishing the child, the teacher must engage with him so that he learns the acceptable, i.e., the standard form. 

Interesting language exercises for spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, etc. must be available and the teacher must be trained to use the same and the child must be given a book of such exercises for practice. As things stand, the language exercises that given in the text booksare unsatisfactory. Most of the teachers, who teach the language are unaware of how to teach the language skills mentioned above. The necessity of training for the language teacher at this level has not been appreciated at all, when it comes to the mother language.If one knows arithmetic or hygiene or geography, and there are suitable text books, one can teach the subject reasonably well. This is not the case with teaching language skills.The training under reference can be short – just about for three weeks at most, if it is intensive and is properly conducted.

Turning to the matter of content, we suggest that information-based teaching material at the level under reference (say, Social Science for Class IV and Class V children)should containa good deal of conversation-style writing, not merely because it is more interesting than impersonal descriptive writing; it is also because it has been, in some sense, the “natural” mode for receiving information for him at the pre-school stage. It is mainly through conversation that he has acquired information about the world in the home environment. He would therefore respond to this mode better than the descriptive mode in the early years at school.

For the child, acquiring competence in the mother language is very important. There has been a great deal of talk on the advantages of mother language education but attention has hardly been paid to the fact that as of now, mother language is being very poorly taught. Remedial steps must be taken at the earliest.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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