Keynote Address: Multilingual Conference-7th September 2016

Ethiraj College for Women

International Multilingual Conference

7th September 2016

Keynote Address by Prof. Dr. G. Poornachandran

Dear Chairman, Ethiraj College Trust, Dear Principal, Dear Kausalya Devi Aparao of the French Embassy, Dear Professor Narayana Raju and other dignitaries, Professors and my dear students,
I am very pleased to deliver the keynote address of this important conference and I thank you all for providing me this opportunity, especially Prof. R. Mallika of the Tamil Department.

As the keynote address, my speech will touch upon all the aspects given in your invitation, namely
a. Some technical aspects in teaching, b. Online and digital resources, c. Innovative ways of teaching grammar, d. Teaching the oral components in the class room, e. Strategies for teaching literature, and finally f. The art of teaching language. I shall take very few minutes for each topic. Sometimes I shall provide examples from Tamil literature and grammar as I presume that you, though belonging to various departments, all know Tamil very well.
It is my humble opinion that imparting basic language skills belongs to the primary and secondary education fields, and not to colleges or universities. But only after seeing the invitation I found the rationale for this conference: apart from Tamil and English, the other three languages taught here are working only at the basic level. Also, it is not harmful for those at a higher learning level to go to the basics occasionally.
This conference is on multilingualism. The case of India is a specific one with its pluri-lingual and pluri-ethnic context. A significant proportion of the population is multilingual even if the repertoire of the other languages is limited. Different languages are used in different walks of life. There are many contact languages that are used in inter-group communication, which are often hybrids of other languages. There are constant language shifts that are taking place. In most parts of the country, I am afraid, language assimilation is taking place resulting in homogenization, especially in many tribal areas. There are several diglossic patterns also. For example, in many families, parents use regional language or English when they speak with their children. But when they speak with their elders they use some ancestral language. Capturing and documenting all these patterns of speech found in India is almost impossible.
The 2001 Census of India identified 1652 ‘mother tongues’ in the country. In the same census, all these languages were rationalized and classified into 122 languages. For example, Sadri, Lambadi and Chattisgarhi were grouped under Hindi. I am certain that speakers of these languages will find Hindi (the standard dialect) very hard to comprehend. But this is the way things are happening now. Bodo, Dogri and Santali, which were grouped as nonscheduled languages earlier, also came under the sway of Hindi in 2001. Hence Hindi has ‘422 mother tongues’ grouped under it and some 420 million people speak them. This sort of linguistic globalization is going on in India for a long time. Mostly under Nationalist discourses. But these problems might not concern you here, as only the technical aspects of teaching/learning are taken.
But language and culture are intertwined, and one does not go without the other. Often these cultural conflicts arise because of Hindi or Samskrit, and those who oppose this kind of assimilation are branded as ethnicists or even terrorists.
In most of the English medium schools in the principal cities, children are not allowed to speak in their mother tongues or first languages. This is another kind of domination which has arisen because of the corporate sale of education in India.
These will show their ugly effects not immediately, but only after a generation or two, when everything has been lost, like our villages which are going arid now because of the corporate exploitation. What most of the people forget is that acquiring knowledge, for which language is used, is not only an individual quest, but also a social quest.
Now I switch to the topic which is the first one in your schedule. What I say on each topic is my own ramblings, beginnings for a discussion only.
1.A few technical aspects in teaching languages at a basic level
Learning a language is the development of the four skills – speaking, listening, reading and writing. Usually teaching aids are used to reinforce spoken or written communication with concrete images. They provide perceptual images which are the bases to learning. Their benefits can be summed up as follows: They add interest, involvement and bring the world into class room; Make learning permanent; Provide greater understanding; Stimulate self activity; Foster continuity in thought; Make teaching efficient; Help in overcoming language barriers; Provide a variety of methods in teaching.
Primary Audio materials have been developed for Class 1 to 5 for English in our country. Each lesson of each class has a series of audio files to be played in the classroom via media players and speakers. The audio fragments are full of drama and lively stories. These include Dialogues, Songs, Rhymes, Games, and so on. Each lesson has a story based on the existing textbook content, which helps students achieve the learning objectives of the targeted lessons, and often additional language skills.
New technologies have opened new possibilities to use multimedia visual aids in the language class room. [But in our country these aids not fully exploited. Leave our college campus, and go to some village public school. You can scarcely find a blackboard, chalk piece box or a duster!]
Visual aids, when integrated into the lesson plan, attract students’ attention to the topics presented. We live in a media world. Most of the information is provided by visual input, through different technological means. It is said that teachers must bring the real world into the class room. We all know that the impact of visual images is superior to that of texts. Filmstrips, video and audio recordings, slides and class room presentation when they go along with the text books have the maximum impact.
Set of wall charts containing useful vocabulary, colour coded phonetic charts, tapes, drawings and pictures, worksheets and transparencies – I am proud to say I used all these aids even in the year of 1970 for teaching English in the XI standard class in the Model High School in Saidapet, attached to the Teachers’ College where I studied B.T. (1970-71).
We could use mostly Flash Cards at that time to ensure language practice through games and to impart words, numbers, spelling and pronunciation through pictures.
Video tapes are the most appropriate aids now, which were not available earlier. Real communication skills can be developed using the objects found within the school or college campus and outside it. Gestures, pantomimes and photos go with them. Magazine pictures and kinesthetic aids can also be used. Imagery and visuals speak directly to us as our own experiences. Visuals help in building mental models. Teachers can also use puppets, mascots and toys. Class room libraries are a must in the collegiate level. Internet and youtube might help in providing visual aids. But these should be used very carefully. Also, I should regret, that these are not well developed in Tamil and many other Indian languages. Many types of visual presentations are available for Tamil in the Youtube. But their quality is questionable.
It is up to you to discuss what type of technical devices you can use in language teaching effectively.
2.Online and Digital resources

The digital language laboratory occupies the most prominent place. It is useful for assessing the students’ speech. It provides the students with the technical tools to get the best samples of pronunciation; Acquisition and maintenance of aural comprehension is helped; Oral and written proficiency and cultural awareness are also assisted. It offers broadcasting, television programs and web assisted materials and video taped recordings. Such a laboratory was built in our Bishop Heber College, Tiruchi in 2005. In the same year I had to go for an inspection at Dhanalakshmi College in Perambalur for the creation of a language laboratory.
Usually the audio and video resources for teacher’s professional development are uploaded on the media players and provide model classroom activities, helping teachers to conduct such activities in their own classroom.
Audio scripts are printed versions of audio files that are on the media players. They function as a reference book for the teachers in using the audio.
Nowadays the smart board is also used. It is an interactive white board combined with computer, a projector and some collaborative software. This allows the user to work with large amounts of information.
3.Innovative ways of teaching grammar
I can trace my some of my own experiences here. Teachers usually fall into what we call the text book trap. Especially in B.A, or M.A. Tamil, text books become the primary instructional material. For example, the student has to memorise the Noorpas of Nannool, Tholkappiyam, or Yapparungalak karigai or Dhandi Alangaram. Treating the text book as a tool for acquiring knowledge has not come into force. But what is the use of memorizing the sutras without any understanding? Grammar always should be linked to the context or external environment.
The old grammars should be modified to suit the needs of the children today. For example what Tamil grammars say on the use of u as indicative morpheme-உகரச் சுட்டு can be deleted. Nobody uses this today. Nowadays the language has changed. For example, You cannot find any grammatical rule for
எனக்குக் காபி பிடிக்கும்
in old tamil. what is the subject of this sentence? if you say காபி there is no predicate for it. காபி is obviously the object of the sentence. Will you say நான் is the subject of this sentence? But it is here in the dative case. There are so many new constructions like this in the present day Tamil, for which we have to write a grammar yet.
I have been telling for the past thirty years at least, the case system in Tamil should be taught relating to the spoken dialect. You can see in the Tamil text books from high school classes to colleges, that the cases are eight in number, Ok. Ask any boy or girl what the are: ஐ ஆல் கு இன் அது கண் they will say The subject has no case marker. Boys just memorise these without even asking what is இன் and what is அது or what is கண். In these, some are used even today, but some are not at all used. The fifth case marker is இன். Who uses ‘இன்’ in the meanings of the fifth case, which are leaving from a place, and comparison today? Nowadays we use il-irunthu, ai-vittu and ai-vida for expressing the fifth case. But these are not taught in the classes. If you connect the day to day use of language with the existing grammar, the students shall never forget what they have learnt.
Grammar is looked upon as a nightmare by many. My first duty in the classes were, to dispel this notion. All of us know grammar implicitly, but we lack the metalanguage to express the concepts. That is easy to develop. For example one who says ஊரே திரண்டு வந்தது knows that it is a correct construction in Tamil, but he does not know that ஊர் here is called ஆகுபெயர் in grammar books.He also does not know what an ஆகுபெயர் is. In a similar way we all are using language in a correct grammatical way, without knowing what grammar is or what the grammatical terms are. If you make the students understand this, they get a confidence and easily come to terms with grammar, in any language.
4.Teaching the oral components in the class

I learnt Hindi very early. I think hearing Hindi film songs of old days have enriched my musical skill and spoken Hindi also. In Hindi, you write hai, but pronounce it like he, you write par but pronounce it pe, etc. You write kahna rahna pahnana etc. But pronounce it kehna, rehna, pehnana. at the same time saying that there is no e sound in Hindi. If we go to English, teaching spoken English is very hard. When I was a small boy I had many doubts which were not cleared by the teachers: why should I pronounce daans rather than dance?
The most important of all the doubts was this: It is quite convincing that one should use a capital when beginning a sentence. Differentiation is the point. But why shoud i be always with a capital, I? I came to learn from the English people that I am the most important of all, because you or we or they does not go with a capital. So I am more important than we, or you or they. This is what the English culture teaches us. This is the ideological basis, the other side of language which we do not go to explore often. Similar ideological components might be found wherever you see in the grammar. For example one of my students worked on the thesis that Tholkappiyam contained themes that make women subservient to men.
5.Strategies for teaching literature
I had been teaching literature for a very long time, at least from 1975 to present date. I used to teach Sangam literature, for example, and modern literature also. When you go to the Akam poems, usually the students memorize their thinais, kootru-s, and if you go to the Puram poems, you learn thurai along with thinai. This hampers the creative learning of poems, especially Sangam Akam poems. [A Sangam poem is analysed here.] you yourself have to find who is the speaker, to whom she/he speaks, and at what kind of situation. If you have found all these, then you can enjoy the poem. You have a sense of exploration, getting inside the poem yourself. Instead, memorizing that it belongs to Kurinchi thinai and thozhi kootru etc. does not do you any good. The same method can be used to enjoy modern Tamil poems also. (eg. Anru veru kizhamai, Gnanakoothan).
Instead of enjoying a life experience, you end up in mugging up certain things for your examination. I mean, literature should be enjoyed first, and then other things may come. In Tamil departments, as I have seen in all the places, Tamil professors kill the happiness of reading poems and make the classes a drudgery. That might be the case with English literature and other literatures too.
Another important thing is, we look at literature in more than one view, in alternative views today. We can deconstruct any poem or short story (which are easier to do than novels and other prose writings). I have written a few books on analyzing how we construct a text and also how a text can be deconstructed from various angles.
6.The art of teaching language

Apart from the technical aids mentioned in the first section, when we come to think of teaching language, I am afraid we have to improvise new ways of doing this. Story telling is the best method of teaching. My grandmother used to tell the story of Mahabharata (and other stories) in my childhood days which I remember till today. But the pity is that I cannot do the same to my grand child who is busy even at the age of three doing daily home works.
Language, any language for that matter, is conservative and held by tradition, though there is scope for logic also. Most of the isolative languages like English, and agglutinative languages like Tamil go mostly by logic. But even then there are non-logical, tradition bound items of language, which are hard to digest. For example, one boy asks me, ‘Sir, What is the plural for box?’ I reply, ‘Son, the answer is boxes’. I understand where he comes to. Then he asks in the same breath, ‘what is the plural for ox?’ I have to say ‘oxen’. Why that? Traditionally people have used English that way, and so you must also do the same. This is what we call customization in sociology. People of past have done some things without questioning, and so you should also do the same without change. This is quite arrogant and opposite to innovation, creative and critical thinking. I shall allow the boy could use oxes in his writing. How many times will he have to write that word in his whole career? Just think. Only a very few times. If the usage is accepted, it shall become another type of English, like American or Australian, say Indian English. Why should we use King’s English when we have become democratic?
But we insist that only you write in the old way. So Grammar is nothing but omnipresent and omnipotent, extending its arms around all of us. As I told you previously, grammar is also omnipresent in another sense i.e. it is present inside us as langue. That is why Nietzche said, God will not die until there is grammar. Because grammar – the langue – is God. You can deviate to a certain extent, that’s all. When these deviations are creative, you become an scientist, poet, or a writer. Hence my request shall be, let the children do all kinds of mistakes and deviations they like and enjoy them, do not punish them in the name of God (grammar). Perhaps you might be killing a great scientist or innovator or writer in the bud. All learning is not learning Vedas, which permits only memorizing and repeating, without any innovation or change. Change is the rule of life. It is well to remember we also change from infancy to old age whence we pass away.
The one thing we left out so far in this discussion is Teacher education or Teacher training. Students can’t be expected to learn a language from the teachers who themselves are deficient in communicating in that language. And that must be taken care of on priority in education. Usually a general practical guide for teachers is provided by Government or teaching agencies, but that is inadequate. You can continue with this discussion. That’s all for the given agenda.
I once again thank one and all for the opportunity. I Hope you have enjoyed a little bit of pedagogy here. Be happy that we are learning all through our lives.