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The National Council of Education Research and Training lists a few guidelines on desired outcomes for children learning English as a second language in Classes I and II. These include being able to talk about themselves, follow simple instructions, requests and questions, read simple and short sentences with the help of pictures and understand them, and write simple words, phrases and short sentences
However, a recent report by the NGO Pratham shows that less that 50 per cent of children in Class I could even identify capital letters in English. The gap between desired outcomes and real outcomes is obviously huge.
Parents, especially from rural and semi-urban families, see English as a gateway to better opportunities for their children. They send their children to English-medium schools. In most of these schools, children learn Maths, Sciences and other subjects in English, without knowing English.
This situation has led to an increasing number of educators advocating that schooling should be in the mother tongue only.
There is a failure to recognise that the major elements of language are best learnt intuitively, making it an "associative" task (where you perform a task without having to single-mindedly focus on it).
When approaching the learning of language, we must make a very clear distinction between the intuitive elements of language (understanding and speaking) and the logical elements (reading and writing). Intuitive elements and logical elements of language are learnt entirely differently. This is the reason why you will find individuals who understand and speak a language but cannot read and write and vice versa.
Having said this, we are still left with the challenge of facilitating intuitive learning in a classroom. How do we bring these into the classroom?
Language learning must be considered complete only when understanding, speaking, reading and writing proficiency has been attained. The progression of learning should also ideally proceed in the same order. An indigenously developed language learning programme has demonstrated outstanding results in teaching English to first generation English learners in rural, semi-urban and tribal areas. The process is described as intuitive, immersive, non-instructional and non-linear. It mirrors the learning process of the mother tongue.
A learner is immersed into a structured language environment through a variety of interesting activities that are designed to stimulate intuitive learning. There is no overt teaching. The learner is led through different kinds of language experiences. Language is learnt using the body, through music and through stories. The programme does not teach meanings of words but allows the learner to figure it out.
With the right pedagogy, there is hope that every child can learn English and other languages enjoyably and without conscious effort irrespective of their background and without compromising the mother tongue. For this, we must look at our successfully multilingual society and draw lessons from it.