Prof. Maria Tsimpli, Chair of English and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge, talks to Bhanu Pratap Singh about her multilingualism project in India …
Q. Can you tell us about your research project in India?
A. The project is called Multilingualism and Multi-literacy in Primary Schools in India. We are focusing on children who are in classes four and five; the same children for two years to track their development. Through this project, we want to find out that why the learning outcome is not what is expected, despite the fact that these children are multilingual. For this, we have developed a set of tools and tasks which look into the basic literacy like basic numeracy. We are also testing higher levels of numeracy by testing children on mathematical reasoning, and also narratives which are indicators of higher literacy. So we ask these children to tell us stories based on pictures. These tests are supposed to assess the cognitive abilities, such as working memory, inhibition and attention.
Q. How does linguistics affect the culture or vice-versa?
A. Every language belongs to some culture; the equation of multilingualism is very closely linked to multiculturalism. What we try to do in this project is to test as much as possible languages the child speaks. Cultural comes into the variables, that have to do with the environment of the child. It depends on the school, but it also depends on from where the child comes from.
Q. Languages change from region to region and in most of the schools in the urban areas, the primary language of instruction is English, so how does it affect the English language?
A. This is the question we are trying to answer. It is not just about English; we are also looking at children whose home language is the language of instruction. In the case of English medium schools, these children mostly fall in the category where there is a mismatch between the language of instruction at home language and language of instruction at school. But we do have a lot of other children, who go to Hindi or Telugu medium schools where Hindi and Telugu are not the home languages. These children are faced with the same second language education, where the L1 (Language at home) one is different from L2 (Language at school). So multilingual education is very good and that shouldn’t be an obstacle, but there are these obstacles. The first years of school are extremely important for the child to build vocabulary and conceptual understanding.
Q. These days there are a lot of foreign languages in India that are being introduced, how is the English language coping with this kind of competition?
A. We know that children and individuals, who know more than one language, can learn a number of others. It is much easier for them to learn a new language than those who are monolingual. So there is nothing wrong and I don’t think that the other languages will be a threat in any way to English or any other language.
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