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Language Matters In Science And Maths In Primary Schools

Choosing the languages that are to be used in primary education is therefore no easy matter, and decisions will necessarily depend on local and regional infrastructures which vary enormously

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Few would disagree that one of the most remarkable aspects of India is the rich diversity of the cultures, traditions and languages which are found among the people living in this vast country. There is no better symbol for this diversity than the ancient banyan tree with its huge structure, deep roots and many branches which give shelter to so many different living beings.

Choosing the languages that are to be used in primary education is therefore no easy matter, and decisions will necessarily depend on local and regional infrastructures which vary enormously. While many teachers intuitively know that it is important to use the languages children speak at home also as the medium of instruction in school, there is considerable parental pressure to use more English in schools. Managing and reconciling different demands is no easy matter for policy makers and evidence is needed to ensure these decisions are well-informed. For this reason, Professor Ianthi Tsimpli from Cambridge University, and co-investigators from Reading University and academic institutions in India have started a new research project which focuses on multilingualism in primary schools in India. The project – in partnership with British Council – aims to provide policy makers, teachers, parents and (last but not least) the children themselves with new evidence which can help them to make better choices about schooling. 

The MultiLila project aims to find out whether children who learn through the medium of a language which is different from their home languages have differing levels of learning outcomes than children whose home and school language is the same: do they learn more, or less, faster or slower? It also explores whether or not there are differences in the learning attainment of children attending schools in more deprived areas and between boys’ and girls’ learning of reading and maths. On a recent visit to Delhi, Professor Ianthi Tsimpli from the University of Cambridge, Principal Investigator of the project, discussed these issues with the Minister of Education in Delhi, Mr Manish Sisodia, who is keen to ensure educational policies are based on scientific evidence. Ms Atishi Marlena, advisor on education to the AAP-led Delhi government, concurred saying: ‘With this project, we are also going to be the recipients of their research. British Council India and Cambridge University will provide us with a lot of insights on this.’ 

As all teachers know, it can be challenging to explain new concepts to learners. Concepts such as evaporation or condensation are not easy to understand for primary school children, who may struggle to grasp what these chemical processes involve. This is particularly true for children who learn through the medium of a second language, which is the case in schools where English is the medium of instruction. Most children do not speak English at home, but a variety of other languages, and they are still in the process of learning English. They may be able to use some everyday words and grammatical constructions, such as ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘I like reading’ but this is not a sufficient basis for understanding abstract, academic or technical words such as condensation. An added problem is that translation equivalents may not be available or known in the local or regional languages.

Thus, one colleague present at one of the schools visited by the research team did not know the translation equivalent of ‘condensation’ in Hindi, despite being highly fluent in the language. Presenting children with translation equivalents in Hindi is not helpful if the concept itself is poorly understood. Despite these difficulties, some teachers excelled at explaining such ideas by making reference to the children’s home environment: they asked the children to think about what happens to boiling water when their dinner is prepared at home. The children know that during cooking, water turns into steam which rises up into the air (evaporation) and it may subsequently condensate against the window. This can be seen on the window in the form of droplets (condensation). According to Professor Theo Marinis such explanations are best understood when the teacher uses the children’s home languages: ‘Developing children’s understanding of science concepts and analytical skills in discussing these builds on language, as does learning in other school subjects.’ 

This is also true for so-called word problems in maths. These are short stories which contain an arithmetic problem that needs to be extracted by the child, as in: ‘Ritu walks around the playground. The playground is a square, which means it has the same length on all the four sides. The playground is 20 meters along. Ritu walks all around the edges of the playground. How many meters does she walk in total?’ Tackling such problems is only possible for a child who has a good understanding of the language used in the task, and this can be very challenging for children who learn through the medium of English. Many children will need to make use of their home languages in order to fully grasp what they need to do.

A key issue for all teachers and policy makers is therefore understanding what threshold level is needed for children to be able to take part in English-medium instruction: what is the minimum amount of English needed?  This could be specified in terms of the number of words that need to be known but knowledge of grammar is equally essential. From the available literature we know that it can take between five and ten years until children are ready to handle the complexities of school subjects through the medium of a second language, but further evidence is needed to establish what thresholds are applicable in a variety of Indian contexts. 

The MultiLila project takes place in three cities: Delhi (Professor Minati Panda), Hyderabad (Professor Suvarna Alladi and Dr Lina Mukhopadhyay) and Patna (Dr Lina Mukhopadhyay) and is funded by the UK’s Economic Social and Research Council and by The Department for International Development. ’Key partners in the project are researchers from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), English and Foreign Languages University (Hyderabad) and the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Karnataka, as well as the British Council,’ says Professor Tsimpli, ‘as they know the Indian context.’ 

Currently, data collection is underway, with around 1,000 child participants (Standard IV) in the database. The same children will re-take the same language, cognitive and maths assessments in a year’s time to establish development of skills over time under different conditions. Final research findings are to be expected to be reported in 2020.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Ianthi Maria Tsimpli

The author is Professor of English and Applied Linguistics at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.

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