PRIMARY EDUCATION IN THE MOTHER TONGUE
An Intellectually Enriching Experience?
Mariella, aged three years and three months, can read and recite the English alphabet without much difficulty. With ease, she will read the letters and name the pictures or symbols pointed out at random from her ABC picture chart. When it suits her interests and mood, she will press any key of her musical toy with pre-programmed musical tunes and dance to the tune replayed as far as she can help it, solo. And she seems to take much delight both in the different, at times complex, developmental tasks. Someone, being sufficiently exposed to Konkani both in the home and in the immediate environment in an urban setting, Mariella talks in Konkani with a limited vocabulary but appropriate for her age. Her parents also talk to her in English and Portuguese at leisure, and she responds to them with “telegraphic speech” in both of these foreign languages. She is also picking up Hindi from the TV screen at her own pace.
On her completing pre-primary or kindergarten, her parents who are committed Catholics will have to make a choice: either to enroll her in a Konkani medium Diocesan school or in any English medium school for her primary education. What will actually be the important factors at play when it comes to making the crucial decision to enroll Mariella for her primary education?
Does the thought of sending your child to a primary school where the Medium of
Instruction is in the Mother Tongue throw you into a panic? In other words, are you afraid if not ashamed to send your child to a primary school where the Medium of Instruction is the Mother Tongue and not English? What really prompts many parents to send their children to English medium schools even at times when they cannot afford to pay the fees? Does the Medium of Primary Instruction in the Mother Tongue really matter as far as children’s academic performance and educational outcomes are concerned?
With the increase of Catholic schools providing opportunities for Primary Education in the Mother Tongue (Konkani), and at the same time, with the availability of educational facilities in the community for Primary Education in the English Medium in many parts of the State, many Catholic parents have the privilege and responsibility of making informed decisions concerning their children’s early education. To make an appropriate choice of school for Primary Education, concerned parents do give much thought to it from the time their children get out of the diapers and almost complete pre-primary education in the nurseries and or in the kindergartens.
In the face of both pleasant and unpleasant possibilities, parents try to be the best they can even in the midst of diverse and sometimes confusing advice as to what is best for their unique child. For example, many Catholic parents in conformity with their Christian values strongly feel they should send their children to a Catholic primary school if at all they are to expect anything good to happen. But, at the same time, these parents are ambivalent and feel highly insecure. For these parents to expose their child to a Konkani Medium after spending preprimary school years in English the decision is a tough one and they are scary of the outcomes. Moreover, some of these parents have been talking and exposing their children to the English language at the expense of their Mother Tongue on the assumption that if they talk with their child only in English from the very beginning will help their child perform better socially and academically at a later stage.
Still, for many parents it is not necessarily always the Medium of Instruction that is an issue or the final deciding factor. A sizeable number of parents spend a lot of time to study the school they should choose for their children to a Konkani Medium of Instruction will undermine their proficiency in English and lead to intellectual deficits and as a consequence, poor academic performance. So, they prefer to send their children to an English medium school.
On the other hand, there are those who think that for parents whose Mother Tongue is other than English to send their children to a primary school in the English medium is culturally inappropriate and doesn’t serve any purpose if at all we are committed to promoting the cause of our mother tongue or native language and culture. Yet, at the same time, they are quick to send their children to an English medium school when their turn comes. In a way, they too assume their children have much to gain in the English medium primary school for their intellectual enrichment.
The assumption held by many parents that children can perform academically better in an English medium school but not in a Konkani medium school is inconsistent with research findings relating to elementary education of children in bilingual cultures. Contrary to fears of English-speaking parents, latest research studies (and findings) indicate that there are no negative consequences when children are exposed to an early bilingual experience. Which means, even those children who have been exposed early to only English at home and or during preprimary education are not likely to show any intellectual deficits if they are educated in a primary school where the Medium of Instruction is in the Mother Tongue, provided the learning environment in the school concerned is developmentally appropriate?
According to some child developmental psychologists, bilingualism – exposure to two languages simultaneously or even sequentially – has intellectually enriching experiences. When compared to monolinguals (children exposed only to English or only to Mother Tongue from infancy), balanced bilingual children show “advantages on tasks of analytical reasoning, concept formation, and metalinguistic awareness – the ability to think about and reflect on language itself” (Laura Beck, 1989). Based on the evaluation of the effects of bilingualism, it is concluded that children exposed to more than one language even at an early developmental stage do not experience any difficulty in mastering or in developing proficiency in any one language the child is exposed to.
In one recent study conducted in the United States, Kinborough Oller (1995) compared a group of children from bilingual families, where they grew up speaking both English and Spanish with a group of children from families that spoke only English. Surprisingly, contrary to earlier beliefs, no differences in learning the languages were observed between those exposed to two languages. As observed by Oller, “At three years of age, bilingual children performed as well in Spanish as children who spoke only that language, and they actually performed better at English than English-only children.”
Of course, these findings are based on research in “additive settings”; that is, in settings where the second language is added as “an enrichment to the native language and not at its expense”. Research findings debunk the prevailing myth among many educated Goan parents. That if they talk early with their children only in English at the expense of the mother tongue, their children will be more proficient in the English language. These parents need to know that till date “there is no evidence that the native language should be eliminated as early as possible because it might interfere with learning a second language (such as English). Instead, higher degrees of bilingualism are associated with cognitive flexibility and improved concept formation” (Santrock, 1997).
The overall situation in Goa is such that many children in urban and rural backgrounds are exposed from early childhood to more than one language at the same time. Even in such a situation where parents choose to talk with their children only in English at the expense of the Mother Tongue, these children cannot escape from being exposed to more than one language in their cultural milieu. Even the many children who live in rural communities in addition to mastering the native language of the family to communicate effectively at home, at a later stage have to master the English language to make their way in the larger society. All these children equally need educational programs that provide high quality language experience for their development. Bilingual education is the recommended solution to meet the developmental needs of such children.
Bilingual education refers to programs for students whose mother tongue is other than English and instructs such students in their own mother tongue part of the time and includes instruction in English as a second language. According to developmental psychologists, such bilingual educational programs serve as “transitional programs” and are “necessary to support students learning in mother tongue until they can understand English well enough to function in the regular classroom, which is taught in English” (Santrock, 1997).
In our educational system in Goa at the primary level, bilingual programs vary extensively in content and quality. At a minimum, they include instructionin English as a second language for students acquiring their primary education in their mother tongue. For example, both Government and non-government schools introduce English as a second language at the primary level beginning with the third standard and not earlier.
Given the fact that a large number of children coming from poor rural areas are exposed only to their mother tongue during their preprimary and primary education and there being no provisions for their exposure to English as a second language at an early stage, these children are certainly at a disadvantage when they enter the Middle School to learn in the English-only medium. Such children find themselves handicapped in the English medium middle school because they have not yet learned or developed the needed English skills, unless the school organizes remedial classes in English as many of the Catholic schools in Goa have been doing.
In one recent investigation, Grace Yeni-Komshin (1995) found that the individuals who began speaking English at about 6 to 8 years of age “were proficient in neither their mother tongue nor in English”. Abrupt submersion of the child in an English-speaking environment in the Middle School without any earlier exposure to English, prone the child to be at risk for “semilingualism” – “inadequate proficiency in both languages for a period of several years”.
Disadvantaged non-English speaking children and those speaking only-English in a multilingual culture are at a special risk for semi-lingualism when schools provide only-English or only-Mother Tongue instruction. Bilingual educational programs during the pre-school years and in the primary schools can help disadvantaged children prevent the “cognitive and educational risks of semilingualism”. In the valid opinion of the psychologist Laura Berk, “bilingual educational programs are committed to maintaining children’s first language whilst fostering mastery of English. By providing instruction in the native language and gradually introducing English as children become ready for it, bilingual programs communicate that one’s native language and culture is respected”.
If there are schools imparting preprimary and primary education in the Mother Tongue without at the same making provisions for introducing English as a second language at an early level need to keep in mind that they should make such provisions possible. The number of bilingual and trilingual children is expanding at such a rapid rate in our country that they constitute an important subgroup of language learners that society must deal with in every single State of our multilingual Nation. The need is, therefore, to develop a National Policy to guarantee a “high-quality language experience” for such children through the development and implementation of quality bilingual programs.
As argued by the United States Commission on Civil Rights in their rationale for bilingual education (1995), “lack of English proficiency is the main reason language minority students do poorly in school; bilingual education should keep students from falling behind in a subject while they are learning English”. Rather than simply urging parents to send their children for primary education in the Mother Tongue only, the educational authorities concerned will do well to motivate unwilling parents to change their negative attitude towards primary education in the mother tongue by implementing and gradually improving the quality of bilingual programmes”.
In our multilingual culture, both the Government and those concerned about the facilitation of cognitive competence as well promoting native language and culture should keep in mind the need for quality bilingual education as a “right of every child to be fully educated, and that beyond this, it provides one of the best examples of how language, once learned, becomes important tool of the intellect and fosters cognitive growth”. As suggested by one educational psychologist, “the goals of schooling could justifiably be broadened to include the development of all children (students) as functional bilinguals, with the aim of promoting the linguistic, cognitive and cultural enrichment of the entire populace” (Hakura, 1986).
Even though direct “Casual relations between bilingualism and cognitive or language competence are difficult to establish” in general, “positive outcomes are often noted in communities where bilingualism is not socially stigmatized” (John W. Santrock, 1997).
Therefore, the need for Primary Education in the Mother Tongue and bilingual education at an early level is even more prominent for children who are exposed to more than one language in their immediate surroundings and, accordingly, have to learn to cope with the stress caused by multilingual cultures and media exposure.
Taking into account or cognizance of the many advantages of bilingualism, English speaking parents need not feel hesitant to send their children for Primary Education in the Mother Tongue, or even to talk with their children in the Mother Tongue if they can take it well.
And, whether we like it or not, we need to accept without any bias, the fact that the cognitive advantages of bilingualism provide strong justification for the introduction of Mother Tongue in the primary schools in Goa.