Tag Archives: Teaching English as a foreign language

Teaching India’s multilingual children

To miss or not to miss…

Teacher: ‘So what do you do in your free time?’
Student: ‘I like listening music!’

If you live in India then you would have heard this response quite often. Said with confidence and panache and without batting an eyelid.

And why not? Agreed that there’s a little ‘to’ missing in the response. So what? You know what the speaker means. You also figured out that English is not the speaker’s mother tongue. But then there is this case of the missing ‘to’ and whatever the rationale, it is after all a grammatically incorrect sentence. But how important is this missing ‘to’? Will it, for example, hamper the speaker’s ability to perform on a job? Should it make them feel inadequate or lesser than any fluent English speaker?

India’s multi-ethnicity is a talent for the tourism industry but a drawback if you are an English teacher facing a class of students hailing from diverse parts of the country. With 22 national languages and over 1600 unofficial mother tongues the only thing that unites Indian students in a language class is their desire to become “fully fluent in English”. Given that English is the second official language after Hindi and is used and preferred in all official forms of communication, this desire is understandable. A good command over English is also seen as a ticket to a better job, elevated social standing and a general feeling of being a cut above the rest.

But it poses unthinkable hurdles for the language teacher. Each student comes with their own set of mother tongue grammar rules and a silent translator in the head. For example, a person whose mother tongue is Hindi generally likes to end his sentences with ‘is there’. Like ‘A cycle is there’ or ‘Too much pollution is there’. This word order is common in Hindi where most sentences end with ‘hai’ and the speaker tends to directly transpose this into English. Try explaining the use of articles to someone who translates ‘train aa rahi hai’ into ‘train is coming’ that you have to put a ‘The’ before train!

In addition, a majority of Indian languages have sounds very different from English that make it very difficult for a native speaker (of the local language) to adapt and copy the sounds of the English language. For instance, a Bengali will find it very hard to say /v/, /w/ and the vowel sound /Ʌ/ (as in cup) because these don’t exist in his tongue. Therefore, missing and modified sounds in Indian English is as common as missing prepositions and articles.

While it is the right thing to strive for perfect grammar in our students I believe the approach should be more practical than pedagogical.

First and foremost we need to set the expectations right. I believe students need to accept that English is a foreign language and we don’t really need to achieve a hundred percent accuracy in it. However, this can be challenging given the competitiveness of our culture.

The goal should be choosing ‘effectiveness’ over accuracy. So long as you are able to communicate effectively and make the listener understand what you say, you are in business. For example in the US, it is acceptable for blacks, Hispanics and Asians to talk in their own dialect while conversing with people of different cultures. The listener accepts any errors and concentrates on the gist of the meaning rather than the missing words or sounds.

Furthermore, it is important to learn chunks of language useful in a situation rather than get into the nitty gritty of grammar. In teaching jargon these are called ‘useful or process language’ and they build the bank of words that a speaker needs for different situations and contexts. So while the student enhances his vocabulary, the teacher is able to concentrate on the flow of communication rather than chase the missing parts of speech. Of course, the missing parts should not hamper communication. Then, you are in the right track.

If we ignore the case of the missing ‘to’s long enough, they might be forgotten one day. Who knows? Meanwhile, do you like listening music?

Kalpita Sarkar, Teacher of English & Children’s Fiction Writer, New Delhi.

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