[lg policy] Reshaping language policy in our schools

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat Nov 24 11:05:42 EST 2018

Reshaping language policy in our schools
Vishnu Karthik
T+ T-

Learning the mother tongue pays   -  THE HINDU
Encouraging bilingualism in children leads to cognitive benefits, helping
them realise their potential in a competitive world

English, due to its ‘*lingua franca*’ status, is an aspiration language for
most Indians — for learning English is viewed as a ticket to economic
prosperity and social status.

Thus almost all private schools in India are English medium. Many public
schools, due to political compulsions, have the State’s official languages
as the primary school language and English is introduced as a second
language from grade 5 onwards. Some States also mandate learning of a
non-native third language from grade 6.

This lack of priority to the *lingua franca* in public schools is one of
the major reasons for high enrolment ratios in private schools.

Proficiency in English is often correlated with higher educational and
social standing. Given the parent’s preference for English, many private
schools aggressively focus on building English-speaking skills among
children right from nursery grades. Many of these schools adopt a ‘total
English pedagogy’ in which all of formal and informal school interaction is
in English right from nursery grades. Many schools also discourage the use
of native language by completely banning any conversation in native

Many urban schools encourage parents to converse in English even at homes,
as a result children have a negative attribute towards their native
languages. On the other hand, government-run public schools, where English
is introduced as a second language from grade 5, put their students at a
clear competitive disadvantage.

The current practices at the private or public schools are largely driven
by economic compulsions, market demands or political compulsions but not
based on scientific research.

This policy of focus on only one language may not be in the best interest
of the child, especially in light of recent research on bilingualism.

We are born with an innate capacity to learn any language and more than one

Behavioural studies have also indicated that if children are exposed to two
languages by age 7, then they gain proficiency in both the languages.

There is scientific evidence beyond economic or socio-political reasons to
support learning of more than one language. Bilingual has tremendous
cognitive benefits across life spans. Several studies have indicated that
bilingual children have better cognitive benefits over monolingual children
especially on non-verbal tasks, conflict resolution, cognitive flexibility
and other cognitive control tasks. Interestingly, the cognitive and
attention advantage of bilinguals over monolinguals actually increases with
age. Older bilinguals have superior cognitive control than older

There is also a linguistic cost bilinguals pay for their mastery of more
than one language. Bilinguals across life spans tend to divide their
linguistic competence across two languages and hence have a marginally
compromised lexical strength and lexical recall. But there is no variation
among mono and bilingual speakers on the school vocabulary. The variation
is only for the home vocabulary. Since vocabulary size is a strong
predictor of academic success, bilinguals do not have an academic or
literacy disadvantage.

Thus, despite some linguistic costs paid by bilinguals, they have far
greater cognitive advantage over monolinguals. Thus, bilingualism should be
encouraged in early childhood policy not just for economic reasons or
political compulsions but for cognitive benefits.
What schools should do

Howard Gardner says that just like a GPS works with the coordination of
three satellites, children should know at least three languages. Since
language learning is effective when begun early, schools should encourage
‘everyday’ use of at least two languages right from kindergarten. The
current practice of starting second language in primary school may not be
the best strategy. Schools should strike a balance between phonology and
‘whole language’ immersion. They should keep in mind that development of a
child’s brain happens in stages and many a times, a child’s brain may not
be fully developed to perceive or produce language skills. Thus, children
should be given freedom to express their language understanding in the way
they want and not necessarily be restricted to writing and speaking.

Schools should actively encourage parents to speak English and their mother
tongue right from the birth of the child. Given the extraordinary focus on
English in the schooling system, parents would be well-advised to speak in
their mother tongue extensively.

By the time students reach middle years, the school can have students
converse more formally in English in corridors and classrooms. While
parents would do well to develop mother tongues at home, middle schools
must encourage communication in English to help students develop the skills
of spoken and formal English.

The writer is CEO, Xperiential Learning Systems & Director, The Heritage
Group of Schools.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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