Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:4 June-July-August 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


N. Nataraja Pillai, Ph.D.


In some languages like Tamil, there is a wide gap between the spoken and the written varieties. While there is certainly a link, an explainable, rule-bound link, between the two, the gap between the two is not easily covered without some conscious effort. Such a situation, but somewhat qualitatively different in some sense, prevails in most Indian languages because, often, the written variety borrows heavily from a classical language such as Sanskrit. Also, in some contexts such as those prevailing between the starndard Hindi and the variety of Hindi spoken in a region, children are required to pick up the standard Hindi variety through a formal schooling process, not very much different from the Tamil situation.


In this paper I propose to discuss how the introduction of the children's literature helps or hampers the development of concepts and language in young children brought up in a diglossic situation. This study restricts itself to Tamil situation, although the conculsions drawn in this study may be relevant to most Indian languages. Thirty students from the third standard and thirty-two students from the fourth standard studying in a Tamil medium school in Tamilnadu were chosen for this study. 50% of the students in each class were given the story in the spoken form of the language, and the other half of the class was given the story in the written Tamil. Comprehension of the stories thus given was tested by 10 obejective questions. The students were asked to "produce" the stories by giving 10 open-ended questions. The result showed that the students were able to comprehend and produce the stories in their own way if the story was given to them in the spoken language.


Language development, in general terms, refers to the "expansion of the child's lexicon and the proliferation of syntactic structures" (Dore 1979:130), after the acquisition of the language. A question arises as to how the conceptual, communicative, and linguistic inputs interact to determine the language a child acquires. A good number of linguists argue that the children are endowed with suitable learning mechanisms that may be characterized as a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) (Chomsly 1957 and 1965). While many studies support this view, the Indian language acquisition-learning situations warrant raising two important questions:

  1. Whether the LAD helps the child to acquire simultaneously the varieties of a language? In other words, does LAD help child exposed to the diglossic situation and how this help is generated? If the LAD has no role to play in this context, does the child automatize the school language/writtenh Tamil (WT) separately when it is exposed to that environment, after acquiring the home language/spoken Tamil (ST)?
  2. How does the introduction of children's literature in the classroom help the chilren in developing the language?

The diglossic situation in Tamil poses several learning problems for the child. The home dialect of the native Tamil-speaking children is invariably different from the dialect that they are required to master when they begin to learn reading and writing in Tamil. The child first acquires the ST using the LAD. The child is not without help, however. A carefully prepared text often tries to employ those lexical items that are common to both the varieties. Yet the syntactic inflections and related idioms and usages are distinct. The early concept formation takes place using the home dialect, and when the child comes to the school she feels the difficulty to cope up with the WT. Early Tamil learning or education often turns out to be an attempt at learning the written Tamil that is used for the higher level of thought. Since thought and language cannot be separated at this level (Nadaraja Pillai 1979), the child finds it difficult and inconvenient to think in written Tamil.

There is an unfortunate mismatch between the children's literature in Tamil that is usually presented in written Tamil and the early concept formation that is carried out through the spoken variety. This mismatch hampers the quick and steady development of conceptual, linguistic, and communicative competence.


"When through experience we get a mental picture in our minds one of the objects or forces which make up our world, we have a concept, which ... becomes our 'set' for ... further perception of that something" (Woodruff 1962:64). The experience that a child undergoes is through the spoken Tamil. So, concept formation occurs primarily through the home dialect (spoken Tamil). But the children's literature in Tamil tries to help the child in her concept development through the written variety that is unfamiliar to the child. In addition, certain communicative aspects such as social and other environmental interactions, paralinguistic features, and the expression of emotions that are not dependent on linguistic elements, etc., cannot be taught effectively through the written Tamil. In the initial stages, children need reinforcement through appropriate linguistic (spoken) and non-linguistic channels to develp their communicative competence. But this reinforcement is readily available to the children through the written variety. Thus, there is every chance that the children's literature presented in the written Tamil fails in its effort to develop the conceptual, linguistic, and communicative competence. This may have have some serious consequence for the cognitive development of the children.

On the other hand, the use of written Tamil in the children's literature has certain other benefits! School education in Tamil focuses on the development of relevant concepts by using written Tamil. Early exposure to the written Tamil through children's literature helps develop the perceptual and manipulative skills in children. The linguistic competence that is required for successful performance and learning in the school is strengthened by the children's literature! It is important, however, to carefully work out how these two (spoken and written varieties) be integrated in order to reap the maximum benefit.

I propose that the cognitive development gets strengthened initially by the spoken variety and subsequently by the written variety, primarily because there is a single cogniitive organization that underlies the linguistic rules of both the spoken and written varieties in Tamil. This cognitive organization begins when the child learns the spoken variety and gets more elaborate with the introduction of the written variety. The phonological, morphological and syntactic differences between the two varieties are reconciled through a cognitive, perceptual and production, strategy. The process of reconciliation begins with the process of elaboration when the child is exposed to the production and comprehension of the written variety.


The conceptual growth of a child in a diglossic situation may be eplained using three of the four principles given by Kagan (1966).

  1. Intelligence is defined as the possession of the operatons or rules of transformation.
  2. Since intelligence has a direct bearing on the grammatical rules, the child, who is in the process of internalizing the grammatical rules of the spoken Tamil, should not be given the literature that is written in the written Tamil. If the child is exposed to the written Tamil simultaneously, three sets of rules, one pertaining to the spoken variety, another pertaining to the written variety, and the third providing a link between the two, have to be mastered. An early introduction to the written variety before the stablization of the rules relating to the spoken Tamil has all the potential to misdirect the child in his language acquisition. The child's ability to switch over from the spoken to the written variety is likely to be deficient and may result in characteristics that are not easily remediable.

  3. Development is associated with the passage from one stage of operations to another.
  4. As language development is directly concerned with the proliferation of syntactic structures, we notice a rapid growth of the spoken variety in the initial stages of language acquisition. If a suitable proliferation of the syntactic structures does not take place at the spoken variety level, the passage from the spoken to the written variety is bound to be rather deficient.

  5. The passage from one stage to another is a function of both experience and maturation.
  6. Adequate exposure to and experience in the spoken variety is not ensured if an attempt is made to move from the spoken to the written very early in the process of language acquisition. It is important for the child to have an adequate exposure in the first stage (spoken variety) before the child is encouraged to move to the next stage (written variety).


Pedagogically speaking, we need to prepare the children's literature in diglossic languages like Tamil with greater care and understanding of the inter-relationship between the spoken and written varieties of the language than usually warranted in other languages. We should take advantage of the basic similarities at the lexical, syntactic, semantic, and age-related communicative strategies between the spoken and written varieties of the language. A process of gradual increase in the use of the lexical items drawn from the written variety will begin with a careful control over the phonological rules. If it is a question of choosing between the spoken and written variety lexical items, then our preference should be for the spoken variety lexical items presented with the phonological inflections from the written variety. We should postpone the use of the written variety lexical items using the written variety phonological inflections to a much later date, perhaps not until the children reach the third standard or so. We should recognize that in spite of the similarities between the two varieties there is quite a bit of differences between the two. The structures such as the relative and complement clauses have less frequency and the passive constructions are completely absent in the spoken variety of Tamil. The person-gender-number inflections need to be carefully presented, and a correspondence between the spoken and written forms pointed out in a subtle way.

I would suggest a useful strategy that will be entertaining to the children. Certain characters would use the spoken variety as a mark of their characterization, whereas certain others would use simpler writtetn Tamil inflections. If humor and purpose is built into such a distinction, children would subconscioulsy internalize the various forms. They would recognize that their language uses two distinct varieties for distinct purposes. This strategy is as old as Bharata's Natya Sastra and Kalidasa's Sakuntala! However, in classical and modern plays as well as movies, the purpose is mainly to distinguish the characters based on social variables. Our focus is not on the social variables, but on the progress of the story.

Yet another strategy could be an insightful adoption of the phonic method used in many first or second language English teaching textbooks. A group of words that sound alike is presented to the students for practice. Various visual representations of the differences in spelling are exposed to the students. Students internalize the fact that although certain words have different spellings they all sound alike, etc. The problem with this method is that it may not be wholly useful in the diglossic situation because the ultimate goal of teaching Tamil in our school system is to enable the children master the written language and write it well. While through the method a correspondence between the two varieties may be established, it can also lead to the use of the spoken inflections in the written variety. And this is not our goal.

HOME PAGE | Language(s) in the School Curriculum | Language and Culture in India's Foreign Policy-2 | What Happens in a Linguistic Junction? | Applying Linguistics to the Study of Indian Languages-1 | CONTACT EDITOR

N. Nadaraja Pillai, Ph. D.
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006, INDIA Please mark Attention: N.Nadaraja Pillai in the subject line.