Facilitating school learning through multilingual approach - Hindustan Times

International Mother Languages Day: Importance of taking a multilingual approach to improve learning among students

Feb 21, 2024 06:00 PM IST

Most children in primary schools face learning issues because they are taught in a language that they don’t understand, according to research.

Shivam, a student of Grade 3 in Saint Agastya English Medium school in a remote part of Banda district in Uttar Pradesh, sits quietly listening to his teacher read aloud a lesson from the environmental studies book. He seems distracted and only speaks to respond in a chorus to the teacher when she says, ‘The earth is round like a ball, what is the earth like? Ball ki tarah hai ki nahin?’ His eyes brighten up a little when the teacher repeats parts of the lesson in Hindi. Children like Shivam face a double learning disadvantage since they must try and learn a new language and also simultaneously try and learn through that wholly unfamiliar language.

Considerable research evidence shows that learning through a familiar language that children understand well results in better comprehension and learning in all subjects, and promotes self-esteem and confidence that is crucial for early learning,
Considerable research evidence shows that learning through a familiar language that children understand well results in better comprehension and learning in all subjects, and promotes self-esteem and confidence that is crucial for early learning,

About 35 percent of children enrolled in primary schools in India face a moderate to severe learning disadvantage because they are taught through a language they don’t speak or understand when they first join school.

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These include children belonging to tribal communities in remote habitations, children in inter-state border areas, children of migrant labour including seasonal migrants, children who speak languages that are considered ‘dialects’ of the standard language used at school, but are really different languages (e.g., Bagheli, Wagdi, Bundeli -speaking children who study through Hindi), and of course, those children who study in English medium schools without an environment of support for the language at home.

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Almost all learning in schools happens using language, whether it is children talking, listening, thinking, collaborating with other children, reading, writing, etc. Considerable research evidence shows that learning through a familiar language that children understand well results in better comprehension and learning in all subjects, promotes self-esteem and confidence that is so crucial for early learning, supports the learning of additional languages, makes classrooms more active and learner-centered and promotes creativity, expression, higher order thinking, and reasoning.

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 and the National Curriculum Framework for the Foundational Stage (NCF FS) 2022 emphasize the use of children’s first language or the most familiar language as the medium of instruction (MoI) in the initial stages of education. Additional and less familiar languages can be added sequentially over time.

The NEP also promotes natural exposure to multiple languages for children from an early age since children have the ability to acquire oral languages easily. The NEP and NCF extol the virtues of multilingualism and its use in the classroom. However, these policy formulations are not easy to implement, given the complex language situations in India.

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Also, there is little reliable data available about languages that children understand and speak when they first join school at age 5 or 6. Speech patterns change over short distances. It is sometimes difficult to assign a specific language label to the languages spoken by children as they are influenced by a few local/regional languages. There could also be multiple home languages spoken by children even in one classroom! To complicate things further, it is estimated that about 15% of primary school teachers do not understand or speak the language that is most familiar to children in their schools.

Since all languages spoken by children cannot be made the medium of instruction, it is important to ensure that when a child is studying a language that she does not understand or speak well, her strong or familiar language is given space in the teaching and learning process formally, at least in the oral domain.

A lot of conversation, higher-order thinking tasks, and expression by children can initially be in the children’s strong language, slowly shifting to a higher usage of the language used as MoI, while never removing the children’s strong language from the classroom.

One of the strategies that work best in the initial years of schooling in situations where children are emerging bilinguals, gradually learning a less familiar language, is for the teacher and children to use a mix of languages that are most suited to the language repertoire of children at any point in time. This will help children comprehend better, express themselves freely, and promote their emotional adjustment which is crucial for better learning. Such an approach to teaching requires the creation of a strong multilingual awareness in the education ecosystem that promotes the simultaneous development of two or more languages.

While societal multilingualism is the norm in India where most people use two or more languages (or in a mixed form) in everyday life, our schools often do not reflect this multilingual reality in the teaching and learning process. Languages are taught in isolation and ‘mixing’ of languages is frowned upon.

The NEP 2020 specifies that children should learn three languages with reasonable proficiency, at least two of which should be native Indian languages. A multilingual society requires a multilingual approach to teaching and learning.

Strong communication skills with logical thinking and reasoning, fluent reading with deep inferential comprehension and an ability to express oneself in writing are skills at the core of success for our children and youth in this century. This will require an overhaul of language teaching practices in our country and the centre-piece of this reform has to be a multilingual approach to education.


(Dr. Dhir Jhingran is a former IAS officer and the founder of Language and Learning Foundation and member of the National Steering Committee for the development of the National Curriculum Framework. The views expressed are personal.)

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