Linguistic challenge

June 25, 2019


The writer teaches communication skills at Amity University, Dubai.
The writer teaches communication skills at Amity University, Dubai.

ANYONE who has grown up in Pakistan in the ’80s and ’90s would have heard school-going children ‘playing’ Oranges and Lemons and London Bridge is Falling Down. They would have also noticed how the lyrics get distorted in multiple ways. Children growing up in a postcolonial society use words in a way that makes sense to them. Sociocultural theory of communication describes this as appropriation of a language through meaning assigned to words based on personal experiences. If the experiences are far removed from the language of communication, we suffer the double-layered task of understanding the content as well as the language in which it is expressed.

In our classrooms where the medium of instruction is English, this decolonisation struggle continues to this day. Teachers are faced with multilingual children whose intelligence is perhaps filtered by their ability to find appropriate words to express meaning and understanding. Language continually intervenes in the process of learning, making it twice as hard for those who have struggled with command over the English language. The problem is compounded by the teachers’ own linguistic limitations in decoding meanings which often becomes a barrier to dialogue between students and teachers.

Whether we should have English as the medium of instruction in classrooms has been a debate for long, and the fact that English remains a language with immense social power globally implies that it is here to stay. Denying its importance is not going to solve our class equality issues, nor will instruction in Urdu raise the standard of our education to meet international benchmarks. In fact, the global power of the English language perhaps makes it necessary for us to equip our children for their digital future by learning to use it intelligibly.

As a society, we tend to look for ways to subvert the challenges of English-medium instruction primarily because it becomes a struggle at different levels and teachers often fall prey to mistaking problems of expression for lack of comprehension or intelligence. This is a bridge that still needs to be crossed in our curriculum delivery, and ways to overcome it might provide the means for more organised, rigorous instruction. Children who are reading English for the first time in schools and have little to no exposure to it at home may need visual representations to start them off.

Language continually intervenes in the process of learning.

Teachers often tend to rely on translations and paraphrasing which has never been useful for meaningful learning. Extensive research on STEM subjects shows that visual representation has the advantage of bypassing the hard task of ‘text literacy’. Very often, teachers encounter students who can grasp very difficult concepts but are unable to express their understanding through the written word. Their expertise can be seen in demonstrations in the lab, hands-on projects, sharing ideas verbally or expressing themselves through artwork. Alexander Graham Bell, for example, first relayed his idea of a telephone through artwork. Most experienced teachers know the value of visuals in helping students in problem-solving methods. In fact, visual representation and problem-solving have been age-old partners in the integral engineering design process.

Strategies can be successfully implemented to help those whose classroom engagement is hindered by linguistic limitations. Classrooms that employ an Integrated Stem Literacy system find that students progress rapidly when a link is established between text and visuals. The strategy is further supported by the concept of ‘lead learners’, which is not a new one.

Students are divi­ded into mixed-ability groups where those who are quick to learn a concept, use visuals to bring their peers up to speed. In this way, classes become more student-centred and learner autonomy is encouraged, taking the pressure off a teacher who no more has the sole responsibility of shepherding all students at once.

What emerges in such a classroom is participative teamwork which helps develop linguistic facility by learning from each other, with visuals for support. A teacher does not need to be an artist to illustrate simple concepts; symbols, images and even emojis can be powerful tools to tell a story. In fact, storytelling coupled with graphics has been the foundation of knowledge-sharing since time immemorial.

The acquisition of language skills requires a connection with the learner’s personal experiences. Language is not an ‘accumulation’ of ideas; rather, linguistic development occurs in an environment that moves beyond the stringent focus on grammar, vocabulary and spellings. ‘Orange is a lamon [sic], sold for a pamin [sic]’ heard in a children’s playground might sound idiosyncratic, but it is a powerful representation of the learners’ ability to accommodate it in their personal lives and make it a part of their experiences.

The writer teaches communication skills at Amity University, Dubai.

Twitter: @nedamulji

Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2019