Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:1 March 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.


Twenty-five years ago, when I began my study of Urali, a Dravidian hill tribe in the Sathyamangalam and Thalamalai ranges in the western ghats in Tamilnadu, it was relatively easier to move from one village to another. I walked many miles all alone, enjoying the serene beauty of the loneliness in the interior, sometimes watching the wild elephants go by, and often very careful about the snakes around! People were friendly and often frank in their conversations. They, especially women, could not speak much Tamil, but were willing and able to communicate with me in Tamil. Veerappan was still not known to the outside world. The co-operative societies of the tribal people and the forest guards ruled the minds and commitments of the people. I thought, rather hoped and prayed, that a bright future was before them, perhaps within a few years. There was a school meant for the tribal children, and there was a teacher from the plains trying his best to teach Tamil and other subjects. However, socio-economic, linguistic and educational conditions then and now have not really changed. There is more than one school now, and there are more buses plying the route. There are more tribal people who can now communicate well through Tamil. From MGR, tribal people have graduated to become the fans of Rajni Kanth. The new generation, however, has not gone places. Their world is ever-shrinking, practically with no employment opportunities. Their schooling is not good enough to get even a peon's job. The drop-out rate continues to be high, and the success stories are becoming fewer and fewer.

How do we keep these tribal children in school? How do we motivate them to learn through a language not their own? How do we teach Tamil to them well enough, and early enough, that these children would use this language to study other subjects? And how do we help these tribal people to give them a pride and importance of their own? Is there any way that this small tribal group could use their own language to teach literacy to their children?


Often we tend to forget that even as the Indian Union is a multilingual nation, constituted by the linguistically organized states, the states themselves are equally multilingual. No single state in India could be called a monolingual administrative unit. Each state has a number of linguistic communities. The problem is compounded by the fact that the linguistic minorities need not necessarily be from the so-called major regional languages. There are hundreds of preliterate or tribal groups throughout the Indian Union. The socio-economic problems these communities face have been well recognized. Since these communities are small in size, the planners often assume that these people should use the dominant language of the state for their education. While this may be a good solution, there are still many other problems connected with this "solution" that need to be studied.


The script system of a literary language often happens to be rather archaic, in the sense that the gap between the spoken form and the written spelling is rather wide, and the spelling system is often chaotic. The scipt system fails to accommodate the needs of the dialects. The phonemic rules of the literary language may not be shared by the phonemic rules of the preliterate language. The script system of the literary language may have symbols whose values may not be the same as the sounds used in the preliterate language. Tamil and Urali are very closely related languages, but Urali has many vowels qualitatively different from those represented in the Tamil script. The Urali student has difficulty in associating the Tamil sound with the Tamil letter. The question is whether we should teach the Tamil script using only the words from Tamil. Can we teach the Tamil script using those words that are used in both the languages, and then slowly switch over to the Tamil words? When do we make such a switch over? Should we really make a switch over to the Tamil-only stage at all? Will the school curriculum and syllabus allow for such a freedom and flexibility?


The teacher who teaches the literary language to its mother tongue learners often relies upon the intuitive knowledge his students have about their mother tongue. The teacher whose mother tongue is a literary language and who is required to teach that literary language to the students from the preliterate (tribal) communities does not have this advantage. In addition, there does not seem to be any special training given to him to cope with the problems of teaching the literary language to the tribal children. He tends to adopt the same techniques that he used while teaching the children whose mother tongue is a literary language. He is determined to see that the Urali children use only the Tamil words and sentences in his class when they learn Tamil. He often wonders why his Urali children are not able to learn the language well. He tends to ascribe this failure to the possible lack of motivation and lack of preparation of his Urali children. Can we introduce some special training programs for the teachers sent to the hills to teach the literary language? Better still, can the language teaching syllabus of the teacher training colleges and schools be so modified that the teacher trainees get some introduction to the teaching of the literary language to the speakers of non-literary languages? This is a problem that is faced in every state of the Union.


The textbook adopts a language style that is rather unfamiliar even to the children whose mother tongue is Tamil. The Urali child has to do at least two things at the same time. He is required not only to learn Tamil to which he has been exposed only in the school, but he is also required to learn a style that is not even "remotely" connected to the style spoken in the school. Then the letters of the script do not make much sense, because of the intricate phonemic rules underlying the Tamil script system. The themes, the environment, objects, and stories focused in the textbook take the Urali child to a world not his own. It is possible for a child of the preliterate world to jump into the most advanced literate world of the twenty first century, but this can be achieved only if right steps are taken and right opportunities and training are given. Everything that an Urali child comes across when he tries to learn Tamil hinders his progress and ultimately would lead to the loss of interest in any literacy.


The language competence of the Urali parents in Tamil, the language spoken by the majority in Tamilnadu, is not adequate. And the contacts the parents have with the world outside the hill ranges are minimal, restricted mostly to their participation in the festivals in the temples around, to the cinema halls in the plains, and to their visits to the local markets. Most of these tribal people are not literate in Tamil. Urali children cannot expect any substantial help from their parents in learning Tamil. The school and the teacher would be the best source. Instead of focusing on so many things at the elementary school stage, it would be a good pragmatic policy if the focus is on achieving adequate literacy in Tamil. The curriculum needs to be modified to take care of the special needs of the Urali children. The teacher should be authorized to make suitable changes in the curriculum as he modifies the textbook and the learning items in the syllabus.


It is a good thing that, at present, there is hardly any test or exam conducted to assess the performance of these students. In fact I understand from the newspaper reports that the Government of India is thinking in terms of abolishing the exams altogether in the early stages of education. Most tribal schools follow this pattern already! Is it really a good thing not to have the tests and exams? Or should we design some progressive, assessment tests? How can the teacher be held accountable? How could the students demonstrate their attainment in Tamil? How do they know that they know Tamil adequately and that they could use it for communication? Oral expression with less interference from the Urali speech gives the Urali child certain confidence in handling his affairs with the people from the plains. Success with Tamil is an encouragement to him in many ways. The tests and the exams should focus not only on the reading and writing skills but also on the speaking and listening skills. It is absolutely important that the Urali children are given more training in the development of their speaking skill in the literary language, that is, Tamil. The speaking skill in Tamil demanded from the Urali speaking students is to be qualitatively different from the speaking skill in Tamil demanded from the children who speak Tamil as their mother tongue . We need to identify the elements of this speaking skill for the Urali children.


The Urali community should be encouraged to review their language needs. The co-operative societies which focus more on the collection and sale of hill produce should have some power and authority to get itself involved in the educational needs of the children. Often matters of education are left to the school teacher and the state educational authority. People-participation is more important when it comes to identifying and meeting the educational needs of the hill people. Can we not have a separate educational authority to cater to the needs of such smaller and isolated communities, wherein the people of the community would decide the curriculum and the syllabus with help from the experts from the language and education fields?


The few problems that I've listed above are not exclusive to the Urali community. As I said earlier, there are hundreds of smaller communities throughout India. Their linguistic and educational problems have not been dealt with effectively so far. The models of bilingual education have failed, in my assessment. We need to get the community involved in designing their own curriculum and syllabus to meet their needs. The common people of India are endowed with extra-ordinary common sense. The tribals are no exception to this general situation. If they are given the freedom to run their own schools they would be the first to decide upon the most relevant links between them and the dominant language of the state. They will come up with such standards that their children will be properly trained in the dominant language while utilizing their own genius.

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