Multilingualism vital for across the curriculum

Multilingualism vital for across the curriculum

Even though it should be obvious, most educational programmes do not even take note of the fact that language is central to all domains of knowledge. The understanding that language is just a means of communication has, indeed, done a lot of harm.

As Edward Sapir (1921) said long ago, language is capable of empowering an elevator but we generally use it only to feed an electric doorbell. Since most of the time most people use it to gossip or for phatic and frozen communication, it is perhaps natural that we should underestimate its overwhelming significance in the transmission and construction of knowledge.

Though our educational systems do provide space for learning two or three languages, the focus of school curricula is rarely on the role of Language across the Curriculum (LAC). Even those who do pay some attention to this phenomenon, look at it largely as an alternative technique for better language learning since it would, it is argued, ensure the use of the target language across subjects.

It is expected that the oral skills, emergent literacy and reading and writing abilities would improve with this approach. But as we know it is not one language that is at stake and it is not one subject that is our primary concern. LAC should actually be seen as an alternative pedagogical approach which alone can assure proficiency in multiple languages and understanding content of different areas of knowledge.

In the process of constructing knowledge, enhancing language proficiency, cognitive flexibility and social tolerance, the twin perspectives of multilingualism and language across the curriculum should appear as recurrent themes. We forget that all classes have children with different voices coded in different verbal repertoires and all of them bring certain systems of knowledge to the school. Recognition of multilinguality and child’s potential are thus essential. Any educational programme that ignores these facts is bound to fail.

Secondly, all new systems of knowledge that we wish children to acquire are coded in specific registers of language even though they may share a common syntax. What is essentially required for enhanced levels of proficiency in languages is often the acquisition of shared patterns of syntax of increasing complexity and highly differentiated sets of words, phrases and expressions. For language proficiency in a variety of languages and registers and acquisition of new knowledge, the recognition of language across the curriculum is necessary.

LAC would first of all imply that the school faculty chalks out a plan to implement practices subsumed by this approach. They will also need to meet regularly; say once a month. The basic idea is to reinforce the increasing complexity of syntax across subjects and strengthen the lexicon and subject-specific registers collectively.

Syntactically, let’s say, the structure being focused is conditional clauses; it should not be difficult for a social science or science or even mathematics teacher to reinforce these structures in the class. The case of mathematics is indeed interesting because it is a language in its own right. Yet mathematics teaching is not conceivable without the use of natural human language.

All new words, expressions, phrases and idioms, etc are learnt not in isolation but in the context of some content. Language proficiency automatically gets enhanced when the focus is not on language; the focus should always be on the message. It is when all content and all languages available in a given classroom cross-fertilise each other that both the understanding of content and language proficiency will be assured.

In fact, it will be fascinating for children to learn how the same words or expressions may mean different things in different disciplines. Consider the use of ‘force’ or ‘mass’ or ‘gravity’ in science and other subjects. This also means that performance encoded in mixed codes, code switching, translanguaging, undercoding and the use of languages a child knows, irrespective of what the target language might be, would be welcome. These are normally looked down upon in the context of the ‘normative’.

Most people forget that all languages are fundamentally mixed. English for example borrows its structure and lexicon largely among others from Germanic, Latin, French, Greek, Hindustani, Arabic and Persian sources which in turn borrow their own from other sources and so on.

Language as message

Language as message is best negotiated in different subject areas where the teacher and children are sensitive to different voices and different ideas. Cross fertilisation of language proficiency and different domains of knowledge inevitably enhances the knowledge and use of language and the understanding of conceptual architecture of different subjects. The behaviourist theories worked around the Stimulus-Response and reinforcement models in which the creativity of the child was minimised; today all cognitive theories of learning recognise the contribution that a child can herself make to the process of learning.

The role of meaningful language exposure to work on is acknowledged by all cognitive theories of learning. What plagues our education system is not the multiplicity of languages or the quantum of content but the burden of sheer incomprehension which happens primarily because voices and ideas of children find no place in our curriculum.

One would expect initial resistance from teachers as they might feel that in addition to teaching their subjects, they are becoming language teachers too. They are actually by default language teachers anyway. What one is suggesting here is to plan the curriculum in such a way that subject-specific content and the multiplicity of languages available in the classroom cross-fertilise each other. This proposal in no way violates the principle of domain specific conceptual architecture and structural composition of a content area.

There is no reason to believe that stories that hang by, say, Fermat’s last theorem, Hardy-Ramanujan mathematics encounter or the reverie that is a part of the structure of Benzene or the sociology or history associated with a Ghalib or Kabir, should not travel across disciplines manifested in carefully planned content and multilingualism crafted across the curriculum.

(The author retired as Professor of Linguistics from the University of Delhi)

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