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How to understand the idea of First Language?

What is a first language? The language one learns to speak with meaning outside the classroom can be termed as the first language. In this situation learning language happens with constant engagement in any sport or work related activity and the need of dialogue gives way forward to learn a new word and put them in the smaller structure of the sentences. For example, when a child says the Hindi word आओ or आ aao… only it is his/her first sentence.

Kamal Sridhar brings out many dimensions of language and gives us a glimpse of the overall situation of language from constitutional lenses. He very well mentions that all language policies promote the use of the mother tongue at the primary level. He wrote in his paper, “Traditionally, the mother tongue has been considered the obvious and optimal medium of instruction in schools, at least at the elementary level. The rationales for the use of the mother tongue are both educational and sociocultural. UNESCO recognized the importance of the mother tongue as the best medium of education and stated it thus in its decree of 1957.” In this article, he mentions that there are various reasons behind India’s multilingual background.

While engaging with various articles and discussions in the first language classroom I came to know that many children are not allowed to speak their first language in the classroom. Because the language of the class is pre-decided. How one can deal with a child in the pre-decided readymade way! This is an act of deviating from the first step to accept the child with his/her language irrespective of the region he/she came from. I also got an opportunity to understand sometimes this happens because the state language is different from the language of the community who live on the border of other states.

At this moment we realize that idea of forming a state on the basis of language was a very unfair idea for the children who speak another language than the state language. The readings of Sridhar talk of Ganesh Devy and discussion based on that gave me a chance to reflect on the idea that if Rajasthani becomes the state language then what will happen with the tribal children who speak Garasia in Sirohi and Bagdi in the Dungarpur district of Rajasthan. These discussions also made it clear that there is no difference between Bhasha and Boli both are one and equally important.

The politics of power and dominant people or region’s language get domination over another form of language that was clear from the Marathi acceptance of the Pune version. The struggle of Konkani to establish oneself as language was also crystal clear to us. The question of purity in the language is a method to silence others who want to speak or say something. This very idea of purity is undemocratic in nature and when survey or population senses took place then-dominant languages overshadow other languages. How many people are really multilingual? This question is still unanswered. If this data has been available to us only then we might have been able to say that India in a true sense is a multilingual country.

Dhir Jhingran wrote in his paper, ‘Hundreds of Home Languages in the Country and many in most Classrooms: Coping with Diversity in Primary Education in India’ that “Language is not merely a means of communication. Language, thinking, and learning are inextricably linked. When children are forced to study through a language they cannot fully understand in the early primary grades, they face a serious learning disadvantage that can stunt their cognitive development and adversely affect their self-esteem and self-confidence for life.”

There is no denial of the reality he presents in his paper. In this context, another idea presented by Professor Rama Kant Agnihotri, “You do find a large number of people who enjoy Hindi poetry as well as English, Urdu and Bangla poetry. So multilinguality is not something you can say that there is enough of multilinguality now and let us proceed to master language.

There is one important aspect of Dhir Jhingran’s paper. Where he mentioned that according to the 2001 Census1652 mother tongues were grouped into 122 languages. But mother tongues (or languages) grouped under one language could be very different from each other. For example, the mother tongues of Sadri, Lambadi, and Chattisgarhi are grouped under the language—Hindi. While reading these lines the reality of such exercise which is really used for policymaking becomes very clear before us.

In this continuity, the article by Maxine Bernsten ‘Standard and Non-Standard Language: The teacher’s stance’ was worth reading and reflecting. That gave a new dimension to our thinking that language changes in time and space. That change is real and this change gave way too many other languages. For example, Marathi, Hindi, and Gujrati originated from the Sanskrit language. She very aptly said that standardization of any language is a political process and gave the example of Marathi. She mentioned the process when people start following any particular form of language and this expands its base. There is a gap in the language of textbooks and the language of children. This gap demands our attention and if we observe then we will find that children are looked down because of their language and this situation should change and the school should be ready to accept the language of children and made them part of the teaching-learning process. All cultures are not vocal and speaking always doesn’t mean communicating the essence. We are developing a civilization where people who speak less are considered less intelligent this false assumption needs to change.

‘The importance of the act of reading’ article by Paulo Freire is written in the context of adults for whom reading is a political act and understanding becomes a way to act on the reality to bring change in society. In this article many insights are present and some of them become clear during discussion. The term Reading is not over indicating the importance of reading that this is not limited to decoding only. Text is word and context is the world, this emphasizes the importance of context in reading. When a reader has prior experience then the text becomes easier to comprehend. According to Freire, reading is not for intellectual pleasure this is for taking action for changing the harsh reality of life.

In the end, this can be concluded that we need to be more sensitive to the first language. That demands the ways of collecting data regarding the exact situation of multilingualism. In the domain of education, multilingualism should be the way of education. That should not be limited to primary grades only. Textbook availability should be ensured in the first language. Opportunities to study other languages like link language and English should also be available so that people can go for higher study. At the same time, content creation in the local language other than the mainstream language is very important that is the way to enrich the local knowledge and language as well. Children’s mother tongue or first language should be accepted in the schools as a basic norm and they should not be discriminated against based on their language. This is possible only when teachers have that understanding and when this knowledge becomes available for them in debate, discussion, training, and policy document at the same time.

References:

  1. Sridhar, K. (1996). Language in Education: Minorities and Multilingualism in India. International Review of Education / Internationale Zeitschrift Für Erziehungswissenschaft / Revue Internationale De L’Education, 42(4), 327-347. Retrieved January 27, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3444906
  2. Hundreds of Home Languages in the Country and many in most Classrooms: Coping with Diversity in Primary Education in India by Dhir Jhingran
  3. Flattening Diversity: Educational Planning in India, 29-30 May 2008, collection a seminar organized by Vidya Bhawan Society and Azim Premji University, paper – Curriculum statements, textbook, and multilinguality – Rama Kant Agnihotri.
  4. ‘Standard and Non-Standard Language: The teacher’s stance’ by Maxine Bernsten
  5. ‘The importance of the act of reading’ article by Paulo Freire

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