Learning English in Multilingual spaces

by Nivedita Ram

Since I’m talking today about learning and teaching English in multilingual spaces, let me tell you a little bit about the learning environment in which I grew up.

I grew up in Chennai, (it used to be called Madras and I still call it Madras) speaking Tamil at home and learning English and then Hindi in school. In the early 70s there was no television and very few movie theatres so my only exposure to Hindi was through All India Radio and the occasional holidays we spent with our grandparents in Delhi. As I grew up, I changed schools, went to Andhra Pradesh, learnt some Telugu, and later studied in Bangalore so I speak a bit of Kannada too.

Most of us have similar backgrounds, we may speak one or two languages but we have that multilingual exposure. We take it for granted. However, when I was in college I remember several bandhs that were called to protest against Hindi as a national language and at that time being rather ignorant I wondered why it was such a big issue.

I studied zoology in college and went on to complete a PhD in biochemistry after which I worked on coastal mangrove conservation for a couple of years before I got married and moved to Bangalore which had no coast and therefore no mangroves! By now I had two young kids and worked from home on a project researching respiratory allergies (the need of the hour at that time in Bangalore and all around the world) I was in charge of the project and had a couple of young adults working for me. They were very bright and competent and had no need for supervision at all except when it came to interacting with each other!!! I noticed they had very similar problems to my kids who were then 4 and 1 and just learning to communicate. Not being able to share, not being able to ask for help or accept help, important skills that I was at that point helping my children to learn.

It dawned on me that these skills were essential and more important in the long run than finding treatments for respiratory allergies. So, in the end, I quit my job and decided my time was better spent with young children, helping them to communicate and understand each other. Needless to say, as is often the case, soon enough I was given the opportunity to teach at my children’s school (which is a Montessori school)

And my time was spent working with children, helping them to enjoy communicating in different ways.

Recently, just last year in fact, I came across the Indian Democratic Education Conference and the concept and ideas were completely in resonance with the way I would like to teach. Curious about the role democracy has played in shaping Indian culture and education I started to read up on Indian education just before, during and after British rule in India. I would like to present here today some very interesting things I discovered in this process:

The first part of the talk will be about the history of democratic culture in India, including a description of the traditional schools and how they were maintained just before and during the time of the East India Company. This includes the British Rule and how the school system changed, English took a prominent role with the far-reaching consequences that we see today.

Today English has become all important. Parents want their children to have an English medium education, they firmly believe that such an education will empower their child, not only in terms of getting a good job but also helping him/ her to become a citizen of the modern world.

In the second part I will describe my experiences with teaching English as a second language and as a foreign language to both children and teachers in cosmopolitan as well as in rural areas.

Traditional schools

The British Parliament in 1813, required the Company to apply 100,000 rupees per year "for the encouragement of the learned natives of India, and this had gone to support traditional forms of education, which (like their contemporary equivalents in England) were firmly non-utilitarian.

William Adam in his first report stated that there were 1 lakh village schools in Bengal and Bihar in the 1830s. On the basis of personal observation he inferred that there were 100 institutions of higher learning in each district so therefore 18 districts would have 1800 such institutions. He also computed that there were 10,800 scholars studying in these institutions. Leitner in 1882, found that there were 1,90,000 students in the schools of Punjab.

It is important to emphasize that indigenous education was carried out through pathshalas, madrassahs and gurukulas. Education in these traditional institutions was kept alive by revenue contributions from the community. Even illiterate peasants contributed and their contribution was called shiksha and was anywhere from a handful or two of grain, to perhaps a rupee a month to the school master according to the ability of the parents. These institutions were, in fact, the watering holes of the culture of traditional communities. Therefore the term school is a weak translation of the roles these institutions really played in Indian society.

In these schools, all the castes including the lower castes were very well represented. The schools in the district of North Arcot had different languages of instruction: Grantham, Hindvee (a dialect of Hindi), Marathi, Tamil, and Telugu.

In Sanskritic schools the predominant subjects taught were; grammar, logic, law, literature, astrology, lexicology, rhetoric, medicine, Vedanta, Tantra, Mimansa, and Sankhya.

It was presumed that music and dance were taught by the large temple organizations, and that technology and crafts were learnt from the parents at home.

And how were all these institutions, ‘school in every village’ organized and maintained? The answer may lie partially in Charles Metcalfe’s observation that India ‘has mostly been a happy land of village republics.’ The basic element of this ‘village republic’ was the authority it wielded, the resources it controlled and dispensed, and the manner of such resource utilization.

About a quarter to one third of the revenue paying sources (land and sea ports) were, according to ancient practices assigned for the requirements of the social and cultural infrastructure, (including educational institutions) until the British overturned it all.

A Part of the British Empire

When James Mill took the view that the aim of the company should have been to further, not Oriental learning, but "useful learning," the indigenous system was allowed to deteriorate and in its place following T. B. Macaulay’s famous Minute on Instruction, the colonialists installed a system that was designed to provide clerks for the administration of the empire.

In 1858, India was made a part of the British empire and this act had a huge impact on Indian education. In some ways, most educated Indians today are a product of an old and complex traditional culture and westernized modernity, with the English language having a predominant role.

Later, during the freedom struggle, The Pradesh a democratic ethnically sensitive alternative to the colonial province was the basic territorial unit of a new federation. Language was to be the organizational basis of each Pradesh. Thus, sub national linguistic identities were recognized and given their legitimate due. The issue of linguistic states became the focus of popular agitation.


This calls to mind the suggestions of the ‘All India Banish English Conference’ spearheaded by Rammanohar Lohia and mentioned in his book “Language” 1965 at the time of the Language rioting in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal. The following quotations are from this book:

All India Banish India Conference

  • The first ‘All India Banish English Conference’ wholly opposed the central government’s decision to keep English indefinitely as an associate language because this decision went against the language policy declared in the Indian constitution.
  • That English is a foreign language and hurts national self-respect is a minor point compared to its effect in depressing economy and causing inequality.
  • An Indian child is driven mad right from the age of five because he is burdened with the learning of a foreign language, he hardly reaches the core of a subject and attains depth. If acquisition of knowledge is your ultimate aim, do not fritter away your time and energy on learning a foreign language. Use them to acquire a deep knowledge of subject.
  • English does harm to India not so much because it is foreign but because it is in the Indian context hierarchical. Only a tiny minority of the population achieves such efficiency in the language as to be able to use it for power, profit or wellbeing.
  • If the entire administrative work of the government and its intellectual activities continue to be carried on in the language of the minority, then whose interests will such a government defend? People’s rule is impossible without people’s language.
  • The use of English as a medium in economy depresses work output, in education reduces learning and almost nullifies research, in administration weakens efficiency and adds to inequality.

After Independence, there was a constitutional mandate for the state to assume responsibility for all citizens. With the exponential growth in population, while the family considered the birth of a child as an asset, the state considered it a problem. Commerce dictated terms and there was a sharper focus on children’s potential for affluence in the future through the choices they made in education.

The Kothari Commission (1964-66), over forty years ago, recommended a common school system based on the concept of a neighbourhood school. One major advantage of the common school system would be that it is the multilinguality of the neighbourhood that would get reflected in the classroom and the school. Languages available in the classroom would no longer be strange objects. This multilinguality would also receive automatic support from the community outside, making it far easier to build bridges between the knowledge systems that children bring to school and the ones they are expected to acquire through formal education.

The Indian Constitution obliges every state to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups. The concept of ‘mother tongue’ or home language is now defined by the census as the language mainly spoken in the person’s home in childhood. According to data from NCERT, at least 90% of rural and urban schools use the mother tongue as a medium of instruction in primary school.

The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India recognizes 22 scheduled languages, excluding English , and the linguistic policies and funding of the Indian government are organised around this information. However, this information does not adequately convey the linguistic diversity of India.

Quite possibly in response to the official language census where the tendency seems to have been to merge several dialects into a single larger language, the People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) was launched in 2010 in order to update existing knowledge about the languages spoken in India. the survey has identified 780 languages in India480 are languages spoken by tribals and nomadic tribes, while about 80 are coastal languages. Arunachal Pradesh is the state with the highest number of languages, with as many as 66 languages spoken there,[6] while West Bengal has the highest number of scripts, nine, and around 38 languages.400 million of the Indian population speak Hindi and it remains the most popular language of India, while the number of Indian people with English as their mother language has gone up from one hundred eighty-seven thousand in 1971 to 10 million in 2011.

Language Learning Today is determined by what parents want:

When Salman Rushdie wrote that he reads no Indian language well enough to read its literature but, never mind, he knew that nothing worthwhile had been written in any of these languages in recent times, he was exposing a familiar feature of the public school students personality. The regional media has virtually no place in the institutions serving the English educated elite who depend on English both for receiving news and responding to it. They have no access to the articulation of the public mind which takes place in the vernacular media and literature.

The belief shared at all levels of Indian society that an English-medium education is the key to children's prosperity is changing classroom teaching.

After two decades of rapid economic growth, landing employment has also become equated with knowing English. But it's not just private entrepreneurs who are riding the "educate your child in English" wave. In response to lobbying from parents, even provincial governments are abandoning their diehard commitment to the language of the region and increasingly supporting English.

Glory, a committed English teacher in a government school in Karnataka says that for many years she was the only English teacher in her school. When she left to live in a different city, many parents pulled their children out of the government school and enrolled them in private English medium schools. At the same time, there was increased enrolment in her new school, once parents realised that they had a good English teacher!

When the Goan government decided in 2011, that English-medium schools would get grants, the Catholic church which runs a majority of Goa's government-aided schools switched to English overnight.

The latest data compiled by the National University of Education, Planning and Administration (NUEPA) shows that the number of children studying in English-medium schools has increased by a staggering 274% between 2003 and 2011, to over 20 million students.

Educationists argue the real problem is the method of teaching, since a child can become proficient in English if it is taught properly even as a second language.

Given this background, I would like to share some experiences in the field with teaching English to students and teachers from urban as well as rural backgrounds ranging from those to whom English is a second language to those to whom English is a foreign language. The second part of my talk I will start with my experiences in

  • An English medium school in Bengaluru, where most of the students were familiar with English
  • The situation in the same school after the RTE act was introduced in 2009
  • Teaching English to a child in rural Karnataka, who was studying in an English medium school
  • Experiences teaching English to English teachers in rural Tamil Nadu
  • As facilitator in a UNICEF/ SSA program to introduce English in government schools in Karnataka

When I first started teaching at Sishu Griha Montessori and high school, Bengaluru. The first year I was asked to take remedial English for a group of upper elementary students. All of them could speak in English but, for some reason or other, were not performing upto expectation.

They were all high energy students who, I was told, were very distracted in the classroom. I started them off with different types of activities; grammar, spelling, comprehension (both listening and reading) and soon realized that they had, each in their own way, given up on learning anything interesting in school. We started off by learning spellings using very kinetic classroom techniques and then moved on to grammar and then to comprehension. The children enjoyed the classes and, I hope, their English improved as a result. However, the children mostly took the text as absolute truth and this left no space for thinking or analysing. So we spent the next couple of years reading them stories and getting them to analyse and predict the outcome of every plot.

Soon after, the management decided to separate the senior school and junior school libraries and asked me to help set up the junior school library that would henceforth be called the Reading Room. The only mandate they gave me is to inspire the children to read. Easier said than done.

We started off with classes 1 to 3 which include children from the ages of 6 to 9. The initial few classes involved reading to the children, dramatization of stories and poetry through puppets and actions etc. The children loved hearing stories, however we ran into a stumbling block when it came to them reading the stories on their own. The minute they came across an unknown word or an unfamiliar spelling they would use guesswork to figure out the meaning and if they did not get the correct meaning they would lose track of the story and of course the book would be deemed boring.

To counteract this we started doing a lot of vocabulary enrichment exercises. The lesson plan followed for such activities which starts off with introducing the topic with a couple of examples and by eliciting vocabulary from the students, they are led towards new words and kinds of language usage. Since this involves the active engagement of the students they were very interested in the activities and picked up concepts quickly.

All these classes are conducted in the presence and sometimes with the help of the English subject teacher.

Very soon the English teachers would come to us with new concepts that they were trying to introduce in the classroom and would ask that we find an interesting way to reinforce the newly introduced concept. This then became the model followed by the primary Reading Room in Sishu Griha. Though there was an overall curriculum and syllabus for each year, the activities would be tweaked according to the requirements of each batch of students. Overall the activities involved, comprehension, analysis and extrapolation pitched at the right level to challenge the children according to their ability.

With the introduction of the RTE act in 2009, this model had to be revised. Suddenly we had 6 year olds who had barely heard any English before, they came from homes where neither parent knew English and a few of them had never seen a story book before. The enormous challenge now was to teach these children everything from scratch and at the same time keep the more advanced (in English) children interested. Of course the burden was mainly on the class teachers and the subject teachers. In order to help these students catch up with their peers, we in the Reading Room felt a little extra effort might help. So we asked the class teachers to identify children who needed help with reading and whenever these children were free, we would call them individually and sit down in a cosy corner with a book. The children loved this individual reading activity and enthusiastically participated in the discussions that followed. At this point it must be mentioned that enormous progress can be made in teaching children to read in English and to further discuss the text if picture books are used. We also took the trouble to make sure that the book being read was of interest to the student and usually asked them to pick out which book they would like to read.

Since there was no allotted time for these sessions they would often take place in corridors and temporarily empty class rooms, wherever space was available at that moment.One morning while I was sitting in the corridor with a student from class 2 and discussing some book that we were reading, a high school teacher who was passing by stopped to ask me a question. She asked if I was interested in teaching children from rural areas surrounding Bangalore how to read. It appeared that she hailed from a family of auditors and had a client who lived in a nearby town. Though the client and his wife spoke no English, they had enrolled their son in an English medium school and he was now struggling to keep up with his class. In fact the class teacher had warned the parents that if he were not able to catch up by the end of the year, he might have to be detained in the same class until his English improved.

I asked that the parents call and talk to me so that I could assess the nature of intervention that would be required. The mother called me immediately and said that she would bring the child to me in Bangalore twice a week. He was at that time 7 years old. I could not imagine how tiring it would be for a seven year old to travel for 3 or more hours by bus to reach Bangalore for a one hour English class. I told her that it was out of the question and that she must find an English teacher nearby. She however persisted in calling me. Whenever the little boy had English homework with which she was unable to help they would call me. I did what I could over the phone but it was sporadic and I was not at all convinced that it was helpful to the child. However he loved talking to me in English and enjoyed telling me about his school day. So I thought why not do an audio class over the phone. After all listening and speaking comes before reading and writing in the natural way of learning a language. So I proposed that we regularise the classes and make them 15 to 20 minutes a day for 4 to 5 days a week.

And so we started, late in 2016. We would do a bit of conversation, a bit of reading, get in some discussion of grammar usage and last but not the least the homework given in school. Through all this time, I had no idea of his school syllabus and nor did he have a textbook.

What I did is ask him what he wanted to read and then found appropriate books for him. I would send pictures of the pages to his mother’s mobile phone using Whatsapp and then when he called me after school everyday, we would read the pages together. His English soon picked up and his teachers were happy, he was promoted to class 3. In class 3 he stopped going for special English classes in school. Instead his English teacher would give him books to read at home every week. Now the opposite happened. His mother would send me pictures of the pages and then he would call me to read and discuss the stories. Very soon,( in no time at all) he was reading above grade level and now in 2018, I have yet to hear from my little student. Presumably he has caught up with his class and needs no assistance in reading, writing or speaking English!

Enthused by this success I looked around for people who were comfortable in English and who would have an hour or so free in the evenings to spend teaching English to children in rural areas over the telephone. At this point I met Amukta Mahapatra who had just come to Bangalore from conducting a Montessori course in Coimbatore. She was about to start another course in Pollachi near Coimbatore and asked me if I would like to teach those teachers English. From what I could gather, they could understand spoken and written English but because it was not used much in those areas they were hesitant to use it to either speak or write. In essence, they taught English in Tamil!

So I went out to Pollachi to find a couple of teachers who might be motivated enough to take an English class after their full day at school. And what do you know, I was confronted by a room full of about 50 teachers all wanting to improve their English! It was an overwhelming need. At the first meeting I took on 5 teachers and set up a timetable for them to call me. They were teachers of preprimary (3-6yrs), lower elementary (6-8yrs) and upper elementary (8-10) from different schools that were affiliated to different boards. I thought this kind of variety was good in order to develop a comprehensive program. Slowly but surely they started calling me and asking for classroom help mainly. Activities to help the children to improve their English. Many of these children had very little or no exposure to the English language outside school. We devised a curriculum based on the way children acquire a language naturally in the home environment:

  • Every child is born with a Language Faculty that enables her to acquire as many languages as she needs. Languages can’t be taught; they are acquired. They are acquired as the child’s Language Faculty interacts with processes of socialisation
  • No amount of formal teaching of grammar can promote the levels of creativity and fluency and accuracy that a child so effortlessly displays at a very young age without any formal intervention.
  • There is no reason to believe that what works in the acquisition of first languages in childhood will not work, with some careful effort, in the acquisition of additional languages.
  • The role of the teacher is not to teach the rules of grammar or paraphrase texts but to facilitate maximal exposure to languages being used in different domains in anxiety-free situations.
  • The tasks that children undertake should have the message at their centre and children should feel engaged in activities that would challenge their thinking abilities; as thought is not divorced from language, language proficiency will automatically develop. 

  • Language is best acquired in a holistic context where a total text (it could be a picture, a couplet, a story or an advertisement) is at the centre of classroom activity.

We started off by using picture storybooks to introduce English vocabulary to the children. To start with, nouns were introduced and then verbs, since this is the order in which a child acquires words in her home environment, first naming things and people, then describing actions and so on. The children were enthusiastic as also were the teachers. At no point did I visit the classroom and all my feedback was from the teachers. I took my cues from the teachers not only regarding what would interest the children but also with respect to the best way or most comfortable way for the teachers to introduce English to their students. As the classes progressed, the teachers feedback was that though the children learned both the noun and verbs in English they used Tamil to construct sentences in which they would use these words.

We soon understood that English has a different sentence structure and word order from the home language of the students and teachers leading to incorrect sentence formation among the teachers and inability to form sentences in the students. At this point I discovered Hornby’s rules of English grammar and Jane Sahi’s wonderful books giving practical exercises that could be used with both our teachers and students Some common errors made by Indian language speakers in English

At around about the same time I learned about the idea of democratic education in which the student takes ownership of their own learning and I attended not only the INdec meeting in Bengaluru but also a talk given by Henry Redhead of Summerhill school in UK a completely democratic school. The ideas I came across here struck me as a perfect way to motivate learning and I decided to try them out with the Pollachi teachers.

As time went by, slowly, the teachers grew confident that their students were learning to speak in English ( we focused on spoken English only, since they all do too much writing anyway) We then asked the individual teachers if they would like help in improving their English. And I offered them several ways in which we could do this, keeping in mind that most of our classes were conducted after 7: 30 in the evening when the teachers energy was probably at its low point. After a lot of discussion it was decided that two of the teachers would chose texts that they were interested in reading and that we would read them together. One of the teachers was very interested in cooking so we decided to do a bit of reading followed by a bit of cooking. This would include writing down and reading recipes.

Yet another teacher felt that her vocabulary needed improving but she didn’t like to read so we decided that we would start with talking and our first session comprised of her talking about herself in English for a good 7 minutes (quite an accomplishment in itself)

Though the textswere different, we started off each session with vocabulary, word usage in sentences, overall comprehension and summarizing followed by analysis and extension or association of the text to the world around us. The first parts focused on English and the second two parts were mainly to create a spark of interest that might require follow up reading or activities. This is because at the end of the day we are all interested in reading not only for recreation but also to improve and enrich our own lives.

After a couple of months we decided to approach the schools for remuneration to encourage commitment and regularity. And though the schools were very interested in the classes so far, they had already budgeted for the year and wanted to start afresh in the new year. The teachers however wanted to continue and some of them were willing to bear the cost of the classes by themselves. We have yet to restart our classes this year and I am waiting with baited breath to see what the new year will bring.

Now towards the end of 2017, I was approached by UNICEF and SSA ( Sarva Shikshyana Abhyan) in Karnataka and asked to help out as a resource person in their pilot project to introduce spoken and written English in government schools in Karnataka. They had jointly come up with a curriculum to train teachers to teach English to children who lived in rural Karnataka.

According to this program, English is taught as a foreign language. The reason for this is as follows: when a child learns a language at home and the same language is taught in school, the syllabus in school will focus on reading and writing since the oral skill is got from the immediate environment of the child.

When the language spoken in the immediate environment and in the school of the child is different from the home language, then the school language is taught as a second language or ESL (English as a second language)

However when English is not heard in the child’s environment, a different way of teaching it has to be adopted because to such a child English is a foreign language.

Children learning a foreign language have to learn both the vocabulary as well as the concept or meaning. So the program includes teaching children words that they are already familiar with in their native language so that it is easier for them to relate the new vocabulary in English to known words and concepts.

English here is taught in two parts, one part on listening and speaking and the other part reading and writing. The activities selected are such that they would keep the children actively engaged. At a later stage the two parts come together for more efficient reading and language fluency.

This method is known as communicative language teaching CLT that emphasizes interaction as both the means and the ultimate goal of learning a language.

In India CBSE has adopted this approach in its affiliated schools. The method focuses on listening, speaking, reading and writing skills and encourages teaching focusing on conversational communication between the students and the teacher. In Listening and speaking, the focus is on increasing the students vocabulary and understanding of a new language using

  • Total physical response activities
  • rhymes
  • presentations or direct instruction
  • story telling
  • conversation
  • and language games

The teachers found the training very interesting and were enthusiastic about using these newly learned methodologies in the classroom. Since most of them were from rural environments we had many discussions regarding the challenges in the rural as opposed to the urban environment as well as government school versus private school environments. At the end of the program, in an emotional moment, one of the teachers from Ramnagar invited me to visit his school to talk to his students in English and promised that he would make me his favourite Naati Butter chicken when I came.

But what struck me the most were the conclusions arrived at by the teachers at the end of the training:

  • That rather than approach higher authority, they felt empowered to meet their daily challenges with their own creative solutions
  • That they were confident that the new techniques and methods they had learnt would be enjoyed by their students
  • That they considered the students engagement and active participation in the class to be of utmost importance in the learning process
  • They understood that positive relationships with teachers foster enhanced social, cognitive and language development in younger children.

In Conclusion

  • Every student wants to learn and yearns to be successful.
  • Students thrive when they are active participants who inquire, create, model, coach and collaborate with teachers and peers.
  • Those teachers who create a democratic space for learning by supporting a student’s autonomy, tend to facilitate greater motivation, curiosity and desire to be challenged.

To me the rewards of teaching come when I see a student take ownership of her learning, empowering herself in the process.