Thursday, June 23, 2005

When should kids start learning English?

The Hindu reported two days ago:

English must be taught from first standard, and parents of children going to government schools in the urban areas do not agree with the Kannada Sahitya Parishat's view that it should be taught only from third standard, the Federation of Educationists and Social Organisations has said.

Starting English from the first standard is a very sensible thing to do. The report cites some research findings:

Quoting Noam Chomsky, Nataraj Huliyar of Gramarajya Vedike said children at the age of five are capable of learning three to four languages. Studies by Romain, Dryden and Genet Vos have recently proved that children exposed to more languages show better ability in learning various subjects. "With this advantage, students in private schools who start learning English at three are proficient by the time they reach fourth standard. Whereas government school children learn English only when they are in fifth standard, and they lose out on seven years, Mr. Nataraj said.

I too have read about these findings in one of those 'how to raise children' type books we received as a gift when our son was born. It clearly said children can learn several languages without any problem, as long as the persons speaking to the child consistently stick to their respective languages.

Some recent language-related posts

Neelakantan asks if the world will start speaking just one single language.

Ramanand talks about the kind of reactions he gets when he expresses a desire to learn Sanskrit and Urdu.

Finally, Sunil has a sensitive post about the plight of students who enter engineering colleges (where the medium of instruction is English) after having studied in their own languages -- in this case, Tamil -- until their higher secondary stage.

Finally, here is another post by Neelakantan.

We have seen it with our child, as well as with the children in our neighbourhood (we live inside the IISc campus, and our environment is quite cosmopolitan): the language spoken at home, the common language among the children (English) and the language of the baby sitter (usually, Kannada, but sometimes, Hindi or Tamil) are often not the same, and by the age of three or four, children pick up these three languages effortlessly. [It still leaves the rather open question of whether they are able to build on their facility with languages to read and write and become proficient in them. This question is usually resolved by the parents in favour of just those languages that their children 'need'].

Moreover, children who are transplanted in another society (like when a faculty member and his/her family spend a sabbatical year in, say, Germany) at a young age -- say, between three and seven -- have no difficulty at all in picking up that new language. Again, I have seen it with our colleagues' children who have gone through this experience.

So, all this presupposes that the language teacher is good. This is where I believe there is serious difficulty, particularly when it comes to government schools. Teaching English through the local language (like my own teachers did in my Tamil medium schools in Chennai) just will not do. Therefore, IMHO, the people who made these sensible demands to the Karnataka government should also demand that good language teachers are recruited.

When politicians oppose early exposure to other languages -- and English, in particular -- we attribute it to chauvinism, and say 'well, you can't expect them to know/say/do any better'. Now, what is it about the intellectual/artist types in our Sahitya Akademies and Parishats (not just in Karnataka, but elsewhere, too) that makes them do the same thing, which then allows the politicians to claim a certain intellectual legitimacy to their chauvinistic stand?


  1. Anonymous said...

    This is very true. I learnt all the languages I know fluently (English, Tamil, Kannada and Hindi) probably before the age of 6.......since we spoke Tamil and English at home, my mother took pains in teaching me Hindi, and Kannada was spoken (fairly widely two decades ago) in Bangalore......

    Since then, though I've picked up broken Malayalam, Telugu (and have struggled with Sanskrit), it's been really, really difficult to learn, and remember them. But it just came very easily as a little kid. I for one strongly believe that (if there are decent teachers) kids will not only just handle 3 languages at a time, but will thrive on it.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Interesting comments about the quality of English teachers in India. I found that a lot of Indian grad students in the US were pretty hard to understand (not becuase I'm not used to accents: I've lived outside the US for more than 20% of my adult life and my wife is foreign-born) because of very bad English habits picked up in India. Since they thought they already spoke English, they put little effort into improving, whereas the Chinese in my lab improved a lot over four or five years.

    There was a debate in higher education circles in the US about requirements for foreign-born TAs to speak better English. I ran across a few TAs who were disasters, but I also have little sympathy for the undergrads' complaints. I work in industry now, and it is a rare meeting indeed where four or five nationalities are not represented on a project team. It's better to get used to that at Uni than on the job, when your paycheck depends on communicating with that Indian or Chinese or Brazilian lab manager. It would help a hell of a lot if we in the US required a serious commitment to learning a foreign language at Uni. The best way to understand other people's accents is to try to get rid of your own.

    Here's a good rundown of the debate about TAs:

  3. Anonymous said...

    Looks like this post on the blogmela was wrongly credited. I have dropped in a comment abt it - hope it will get rectified soon.

  4. Anonymous said...

    This is a complex issue.Whats important? Languages you can speak,read and understand, or language in which you think and can write. I studied in Gujrati medium upto S.S.C.(Xth) but then had English as medium of teaching in Medical college.Today I can speak,read in Gujrati,Marathi,Kokani,Hindi and understand and speak splattering of Kacchhi,sindhi and Punjabi I can write only in English and not in Gujrati which is my mothertoungue.When I have to write letters( yes I do in this era of e mails)in Gujrati its very difficult to find words and form coherent meaningful sentence.I have to think in English and then sort of translate it in mind.Thats the problem Jay Wood talked about Indians in U.S.Unless children learn to think in English at young age this problem will persist. Why do you think Hinglish is so prevelent?Because we think in Hybrid English na.

  5. Anonymous said...

    It is stupid to use the excuse that a child is more comfortable learning through its mother tongue, however a child is more capable of learning more languages at an early age.Anyway a child always picks up its native language from home there is no need to learn it from school as well . We as Indians have an edge over the west considering the fact that we are multilingual, an indian is fluent in 3 or 4 languages.
    It would be a wise decision to make english the mandatory medium of instruction right from kindergarten and if the linguistic fanatics want they can make the state language a mandatory subject of study, it can be a subject just like history or geography where people can learn about its heritage.

  6. मसिजीवी said...

    Well stupidity peeping out of your anonymous.