Thinking in the lingo

A teacher from Hindi Vidya Bhawan, Mumbai,  writes about some of the hurdles faced when teaching English to children who are completely unfamiliar with the language.

A third standard boy had written a letter which began with a salutation to his ‘Rajesh Uncle’. When I told him that it should be ‘Uncle Rajesh’ he went back to his seat and obediently made the correction in the addressed envelope which then read, ‘To Mr. Uncle Rajesh.’

That is a delightful example that draws attention to what we face when we teach children who have not been exposed to English since early childhood. These bilingual and even multilingual children in the primary classes naturally tend to construct sentences by translating the ideas in their minds literally and word for word in the same order, into English.

When asked, “How did you reach the top?” a child will invariably reply, “I slowly, slowly climbed up,” as he would have done had he spoken in his mother-tongue. Such sentences may not be grammatically correct but they serve the child’s purpose of making himself understood.

It needs painstaking effort by the teacher to correct the child. The task is difficult, but with patience, progress is certain. Children should certainly not be derided nor should this enterprise be given up as a bad job. Initially, children do not even use a verb when an adjective conveys what they mean. “My mother, very nice.”

I have come across quaint descriptions where adjectives and adverbs have been liberally used in an effort to drive home the point. One child wrote of how the rain “Started coming more and more heavily,” and so it followed that the roads were “very” flooded.

One child eagerly described his home and sounded rather poetic when he wrote, “In my home there are three bedrooms,” I soon realized that the assignment on “My Home” had about 30 children writing sentences which began with an adverb phrase, “In the kitchen, my mother cooks,”, “On the balcony, are the plants.”

In most Indian languages it is permissible to begin sentences with such phrases. The article is rarely used and sometimes neither is the verb, “Milkman has come or not?” Usually, not much progress in learning is made at home where children start speaking in the mother-tongue. They have yet to learn the English equivalents of everyday terms. The school can give them greater exposure to English through more reading periods where new books may be introduced, by audio-visuals, dramatics and general encouragement to converse in English.

One eight year old, writing about a celebration, mentioned the usual balloons, buntings and gaiety, and that his ‘cousin brothers’ (and even the ‘real’ ones) were present at the party. He ended his composition with,” I wish like them birthdays everyday come!”

This article first appeared in Teacher Plus, Issue No.4, January-February 1990 and has been adapted here with changes.

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