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  Sunday, July 24, 2016  Home > Education > K-12 & Children > What's in a language!
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What's in a language!

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Payal Mahajan

Of the many languages that children are born with, the verbal is the most prized by society. As parents, we are in a hurry to teach our children to talk. We want them to have a rich repertoire of words and for them to use their vocabulary appropriately. Since most of us are not linguists, but like to read parenting and self-help books, we ensure that our child reaches not just the milestones specific for his age group but also masters those appropriate for the next developmental stage as well. As a result, we have verbally articulate kids all around us, and they grow up into adults who can speak confidently almost all the time that they are awake.

Last year around this time, my then two-and-a-half interpersonal son was fluent in English and a beginner in French as a result of his environs in Canada. One year in India and Hindi has joined ranks with English as his receptive language. In this short one year, Hindi has been elevated to the status of his primary expressive language. If I did not understand the nuances (more to do with the “how” than the “what”) of language development and the concept of whole language, I would lament at the development of one language (Hindi) at the expense of the other (English) at an age when children can learn multiple languages simultaneously.

In this context, a few observation/perceptions come to fore:

  • We tend to overemphasise verbal language, marginalizing the expressions of non-verbal or intrapersonal people. In societies like ours, we forget that language is one of the vehicles of ideas with functional, expressive and aesthetic purpose; it is not the only one. People express themselves in mannerism, art, music, dance, touch, etc – the list is endless. Sadly true, our over-dependence on the aural is at the expense of the visual and other sensorial receptions.
  • Do we teach our children how to understand and interpret these languages?
  • There seems to be a perceptible hierarchy of languages. Acquisition of certain languages is valued over others. For instance, in India, we want our children to speak English as native speakers. Realistically speaking, the environment of our preschoolers and early language learners is rich in vernaculars, be it the domestic help at home with whom they spend long hours in the absence of their parents, or didis in preschools who are their primary teachers both within and outside the classrooms. Learning of a language is a social process and the environment is a key determinant.
  • Is it realistic to believe that pre-schoolers in countries that largely speak languages other than English, like India, are socially immersed in English?
  • A fascination for a particular language is so strong that we ignore metacognitive aspects of language learning. The expressive language should clearly and coherently reflect the thought process. Our main concern for preschoolers should not be “what” language they use but “how” well they are able to construct that language to align with their thoughts. The proficiency with the “how” is going to be the linguistic base and the learning pattern that the brain will follow for the acquisition of other languages.
  • Isn’t proficiency in one verbal language, irrespective of which one it is, an indicator of success in new language acquisition?

Our first language is part of our personal, social and cultural identity. Maintaining first language is a vital factor in the educational development of your child. It doesn’t matter which one it is as long as he is well grounded in that language; because language has more to do with functions of the brain than social projection and pretensions.


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