Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Language Learning : BASICS

This is a multi-part article around the fundamentals of language learning in early school years. Some parts of this were written around two decades ago and it is possible that you might have seen a few examples here and there. However, it has been revised and updated for contemporary use. As always, your feedback and comments would be most welcome!

In training courses, in materials written for teachers and in lectures given to teachers, we have all heard a hundred times that "language is the vehicle of meaning" or that "language is for expression" or "language means communication". However, these are only vague and general statements. Nor do they help those who have to teach children, in deciding the best course of action for the classroom.

In place of vague and general statements, therefore, what is needed is a clear examination of questions such as:
- how is meaning captured and conveyed in language?
- how is language used by us?
- how do children learn language at home, seemingly without effort?
- what are the implications of all this for teaching children language in the classroom?

In talking about language learning in primary school, therefore, these are the precisely the questions that this paper discusses. During the course of discussions many things have been left for you to sort out, extend or clarify with your resource persons. Feel free, however, to disagree with what has been presented here -- it is no sacred wisdom which cannot be challenged! At the same time, do make sure that you are advancing rational, cogent and convincing reasons for your point of view.

Language acquires meaning through CONTEXT

1. Cues around a word…
We derive the meaning of a word from words used before and after it (i.e. to say, its context). For instance, if we do not know the meaning of a word, we figure it out with the help of the words and sentences before and after it. As in the following:
  • If you don't come here right now I'll takdadum you!
  • He took out his purse and gave the shopkeeper some takdadum.
  • The moment she got the news of winning the lottery, she looked absolutely takdadum!
  • Did you takdadum the meaning of this word?!

Such a context can also be provided by pictures or actions and gestures. When children come across a new word, it is not a matter of how "hard" or "big" the word is, but the kind of context in which it is introduced that determines whether they will understand it or not. Therefore it is important to provide different cues that help children derive the meaning – by using other words or cues such as expressions / gesture that help children takdadum the meaning. This is especially relevant for situations where the home language is different from the school language.

2. The same words can mean different things in different situations
Sometimes the same thing, said in different contexts, means different things:
E.g. The sentence "The door is open" can mean differently in the following situations:
  • If someone has just knocked on the door and we say "The door is open", it means…
  • If a storm is coming, and a mother tells a son, "The door is open", it means…
  • If two people have a nasty argument, and one of them points to the door and angrily says "The door is open", it implies that….

 Yes, the sentence is the same, but the meaning has changed.

That is why it is important that children should get the opportunity to use language (as well as understand it) in a wide variety of contexts. How can you ensure that? Through exposure to stories, descriptive prose (orally), poems, role play, interview to find out information, making presentations….
3. The same meaning needs to be expressed in different forms/words in different situations
Sometimes we convey the same thing in different ways, depending on the context in which we use language.

E.g. If we have to ask for a glass of water, we use different words/sentences if we :
  • ask a little girl to get it (how would you do it in your home language? Try it out!)
  • ask for it in your boss's home (you may not even dare to!)
  • ask for it in the roadside tea shop

Once again, it is important to provide children the opportunity to use language (especially oral language) in the kind of varied contexts indicated earlier.
Thus, it is an important general objective of language learning to enable children to:
  • derive meaning from different contexts
  • convey meaning in different contexts

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