When an ‘apple’ was shown in a kindergarten class and asked what it was, the question was greeted with silence as the children had never seen one before. But when they were shown a mahua flower; they all came up with numerous answers and experiences associated with the fruit -- it is sweet, we all collect those, mother makes delicious stuff with that, the fruit ripens in March, it is soft, so on and so forth. The atmosphere in the classroom became charged with animated chatter. The fruit being an integral part of the children’s life, its taste, season, description and uses could easily be elicited from them. It became possible to teach them the seasons in such a manner that they could integrate new information with the old seamlessly.
The children in the school belong to the Madia community. Madia are a Gondi tribe, of Dravidian race, descended from the Abhujmad hills to the plains of Gadchiroli, originally hunter-gatherers and now doing crude rice-farming. They are indigenous people, predominantly oral, largely monolingual, with minimal culture contacts.
The first school in the plains was set up in 1976 by volunteers of Lok Biradari Prakalp. Till then the concept of a school was unheard of. Since the area was made a part of Maharashtra State the state language was made the medium of instruction. These people have been a part of Maharashtra since the formation of the new State in independent India. Their language, however, is of Dravidian origin. When states were formed on the basis of language no one bothered to ask our brothers and sisters what their language was. The huge forest land became Maharashtra and the tribe was cut in two, separated by river Indrâvati – one in Maharashtra with State language Marathi and the other in Chhattisgarh where the State language was Hindi – both Aryan languages when their mother tongue was a Dravidian language.
The problem started when students were made to go to school and learn all subjects in the State language which was completely alien to them. Not only were they expected to learn the script but also follow the text books which were made keeping in mind the Marathi speaking children who by the age of five (Class 1) have gathered a minimum vocabulary of some 1,000 words. On the contrary the Madia children do not know a single word in Marathi and they are expected to learn maths, environmental science, social sciences and all subjects in the foreign language in addition to learning the language itself. This puts immense stress on a five year old.
New schools are being started and huge funds allocated in each budget with the utopia that it will bring better days for our children only to be disappointed and dismayed by the poor academic performance and lack of interest among tribal students. As it is, the child is intimidated by school and new teachers and to top that she has to enter a completely new world, unknown language and references never heard of. There are numerous instances of children running away from school and many parents send them to school to have one mouth less to feed at home. But in the process, instead of being educated, children are being driven away from education itself.
Language becomes a major issue in early years of education as it is not just a medium of communication but a link to the entire culture and values of a race. Language is not neutral; it carries the virtues and contexts of the culture it has originated from. It has a very close connection with the ‘known’ factor of children and this nexus proves to be a catalyst in developing an interest in education.
In the early years of education, one’s mother tongue (MT) has been thought to be the most effective medium of education as instruction in MT helps build the cognitive ability of students. If the children have never seen, known or experienced something, how can they learn the word for it?
Besides, the poorer and backward sections of society tend to think that the state language is a tool to move upward in class and caste hierarchy, that the local, indigenous language is inferior and imitating the upper classes will elevate them in the societal hierarchy. To break this myth, Lok Biradari Ashram School plans to change the language of instruction for kindergarten students from Marathi to Madia. In accordance to The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, a Multi-Lingual Education programme will be started.
The Class 1 students will be taught less of their mother tongue and more of the state prescribed syllabus gradually. The curriculum has been developed according to the village calendar and all themes are related to community life and culture. The story books and curriculum have been developed in such a way that the students will learn the Devanagari script in the first year of school but not the language. Only in the next year (Class 1) when the children are familiar with the script and a few action words, they will start to learn the language.
All the teachers and programme supervisor are from the community to reduce anxiety and intimidation related to the new school.
(The writer, along with her husband Aniket Amte, grandson of Baba Amte, looks after the tribal school in Hemalkasa.)
A multilingual education programme in Hemalkasa, Gadchiroli aims to inculcate in children pride for their mother tongue