Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:3 May 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.


An important goal of education is to impart the universally recognized moral values to the individual and integrate these with the ethnic-specific eco-centric values, cultural norms, and worldview. When this is not done, a gap between the education system and the society results. This gap is often a result of using a language other than the language of the society as the medium of instruction. The curriculum, syllabus, teaching methodology and content of the lessons not suited to the genius of the society contribute to this gap that leads to an increase in the school dropout rate among the minority linguistic and less-privileged communities in India. A nation that is inherently multilingual, multiethnic and culturally pluralistic must meet this challenge if the rulers wish to deliver justice to all.


The Gudalur valley, in the Nilgiri district of South India, is situated in the trijunction hill tracts bordering the three Indian states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamilnadu. This place is the home for five tribal communities, namely, the PaNiyaas, the MuLLukuRumbaas, the BeTTakuRumbaas, the KaaTTunaayakkaas, and the IruLaas. These ethnic communities speak their respective languages in their homes, namely, PaNiya, MuLLukuRumba, BeTTakuRumba, KaaTTunaayakka, and IruLa. In addition, a sizable number of non-tribal populations living in and around Gudalur speak Tamil, Malayalam, and Kannada.

Since Gudalur is a part of Tamilnadu, the official language of Gudalur is Tamil. Tamil is the dominant language of education in the area. Tamil is used as the dominant medium of communication also in other walks of life. Children belonging to the tribal communities acquire their respective mother tongues in their home domain and later continue to use these in most instances in the community. Tribal children are comfortable with the use of their mother tongues in their own communal locale. However, when these children come out of their homes and their neighborhood domains, they are very much bewildered to see that many other languages are used in the area.

In their contacts with the outside world, they recognize the implicit low status they and their parents are accorded, probably because of their low economic status. This sociolinguistic situation seems to contribute to a psychological setback for these children. They are not afforded any help to develop smooth switch over from their home language to the language of wider communication, that is, Tamil.

Despite such a handicap, the children do acquire some spoken Tamil because of their parental contacts outside their home domain. Lesser the parental contact with the outside world (there are many families who never have an opportunity to venture out) weaker is their skill in comprehending and using the language of wider communication. However, even in this bleak situation, tribal children could develop some competence in Tamil because of the close cognate relationship between the preliterate tongues and Tamil. Their competence, if any, is restricted to a smattering of spoken Tamil.

When they are enrolled in the local school, they are required to learn a different type of Tamil: written Tamil that is rather distinct from spoken Tamil. The rules of conversion between the two are easier for children whose mother tongue or language of childhood experience is Tamil. Tribal children have great difficulty in recognizing, mastering and using these rules of conversion.

The initial knowledge of spoken Tamil these tribal children have is totally inadequate to learn the formal variety of Tamil in school. So, a child coming from a preliterate society (tribal community) is learning Tamil only as a second language in his school. In this context, tribal children experience a total psychological setback in the social environment as well as in the school environment.

This setback has certain consequences for their personality development. Tribal children withdraw themselves more heavily from outside world contact than Tamil speaking children. They become least interested in going to school. They develop non-cooperative behavior and attitude and become less communicative. Because there is no proper parental and social guidance to overcome such consequences, tribal children often enrolled in the school system much after the normal age for school admission. Parents seem to wait until their children are capable of handling the school on their own in some sense. Dropout rate is much higher because of total incompatibility between the students and the use of language in the textbooks, language used by the teachers in the school, and the contents of the text that are often not eco-friendly. In other words, the contents of the textbooks do not have any relationship to the tribal children. In Gudalur Taluk, there are around 20,000 tribal persons living in fairly remote areas, spread over an area of approximately 740 square kilometers. The literacy rate in these areas is as low as 5%.


I've been personally disturbed by this alarming situation for nearly twenty-five years. My doctoral dissertation was on Urali people living in the areas adjacent to the tri-junction tribal belt. I've spelt out some of my concerns in my earlier article (See Language in India, 1:1, March 2001, While I enjoy describing the structures of various languages, I also have a desire to use such information in a practical way to help people. We must love our neighbors as ourselves. My desire has been to help these tribal people not only to acquire literacy but also to retain it and use it effectively for the betterment of their lives through effective communication. So, we at the Central Institute of Indian Languages joined hands with the Linguistics Departments of Annamalai, Bharathiar, and Tamil Universities to develop a format for a pre-school textbook in collaboration with two non-governmental voluntary organizations, ACCORD and Gudalur Adivaasi MunneRRa Sangam.


The format had the following objectives:

  1. Create awareness among the tribal communities regarding the importance of education. Tribal education should be a mass movement. Enthusiasm for education should spring from within the community. Subsequent involvement in educating children and others in the community should come from within the community concerned. In other words, the textbook, curriculum and the teaching methodology should motivate the children as well as the community concerned to take part in the process of education. Only then the ultimate goal of enabling the tribal communities to become partners of the wider community for social, cultural, and economic development can be achieved.
  2. The content of the textbook, and the teaching methodology should be so organized that the tribal children, after their initial exposure to school education through their mother tongue, will switch over to the dominant language of the area in a phased manner. The teaching methodology should be so adopted that the tribal children become bilinguals without having to give up their links with their home language and culture.
  3. The textbook should have texts that pave way for the children to immerse in educational activities without any strain or stress. Thus, the book should be so designed as to attract even the late starters. This is possible only if the content of the textbook is familiar to the tribal children.
  4. The textbook should have a format that easily links together the pre-school components and the primary school curricular activities. 5. The textbook should help preserve the ethnic distinctness of the tribal population while linking each individual to the wider community in a phased manner. The textbook should help bring a harmony between preserving ethnic identity and the practical functioning of the tribal mother tongue in a multilingual and multiethnic setting.
  5. The textbook should recognize that learning a dominant school language that is not the mother tongue of the students involves far more than the acquisition of a new set of symbols and rules for communication. The processes of learning the mother tongue and the dominant language of wider communication have potential cognitive and intellectual consequences for the acquisition of other subjects.

Though the PaNiya pre-primary textbook is to be framed in such a way that it can reduce the psychological mismatch between the tribal community and the education system. It should take advantage of the cognate or genetic relationship between PaNiya language and the language of wider communication, Tamil.


Keeping in mind the objectives listed above, the pre-primer on PaNiya was prepared and launched in four stages.

  1. Stage-I Materials production and curriculum formulation.
  2. Stage-II Printing the textbook.
  3. Stage-III Training the teachers.
  4. Stage-IV Introduction of the books in the schools.

Stage-I Materials production and curriculum formulation:

Four important steps were followed in this stage:

  1. Language analysis and script formation.
  2. Selection of the ecofriendly themes.
  3. Extensive discussion with the various PaNiya tribals, and identification of proper words and grammatical sentences accepted by the PaNiya ethnic community as a whole.
  4. Presentation of the text.

Language analysis and script formation

Linguists, educationists and tribal resource persons reviewed the already available grammars on PaNiya. A suitable script for the language was devised using the Tamil script. This PaNiya script is very close to the script used in the language of wider communication, namely, Tami. Only a few modifications were found necessary. For instance, modifications were found necessary to represent certain voiced consonants that are not distinctly represented in the Tamil script. For example, PaNiya language have voiced consonant phonemes such as /b, d, D, and g/ that cannot be represented with the available letters of Tamil. In such instances, the appropriate letters that represent similar sounds in Tamil are taken as a base, and the shape of the Tamil letters is modified to assume a new sound value. Hence in PaNiya, for the sounds /b, d, D, and g/ the modified letters are /b, d, D, and g/ respectively. The voiceless sounds /p, t, T, and k/ are represented in PaNiya by the equivalent Tamil letters p, t, T, and k, but their corresponding voiced sounds are represented through a modification of the voiceless base letters of Tamil. The sound /j/ is represented by the Grantha character /j/.

This step for the preparation of a tribal language primer is very important because of the following reasons. If meaningful sound units are not represented orthographically, it will be very difficult for the teachers as well as for the students to teach and pronounce the letters properly. Adoption of the basic dominant language script is encouraged because the tribal children have automatic accessibility to the dominant language script through the signboards and other public writings available in their environment. Hence, it is very helpful if we adopt the dominant language script with relevant modifications if necessary so that the transfer of the tribal language script to the dominant language script in future will be smooth and will involve less strain for the children.

Selection of the ecofriendly themes

The ecosystem in which the tribal children are born and brought up was studied in detail to provide the relevant content and context to the lessons. We aimed at linking the proposed curriculum with the environment of the child. The major eco-friendly themes selected for treatment in the textbook are rain, animals, sounds, forest and garden, works and handicrafts, etc. Aspects of science, arts, numeracy, literacy, etc, are taught using the eco-friendly themes.

This kind of learning creates opportunities to understand their own environment, and to increase the learners' spirit of enquiry. It increases the ability to interact with others, and to raise questions and provide answers on through self-effort. It helps the learners to be more creative and productive in their learning process.

Broadly speaking, each selected theme comprises of the following components: A language component, a science component, craft activities, pre-numeracy and numeracy components, and art activities.

Functioning of each unit

The content took the form of a song, folk tale, a riddle or a proverb drawn from the environment and the culture of PaNiya community. For example, while introducing the theme of rain, it is first introduced through a song, story, proverb or discussion. The teacher then finds out from the children all that they already know about the topic and then teaches the children all the other aspects that they would like to know and learn about. The teacher is expected to use different ways and methods to expose the children to the various aspects of the topic. Some of the methods recommended for adoption include collecting materials from the environment, observing different situations, interacting with others in the community, working as a group in the class, experimenting and working out solutions silently and so on.

In this process, the teacher introduces the words at the spoken level. The very same words will be used with specific reference to script learning as the activities move forward. With a lot of emphasis on associating words with relevant meaningful activities, children become familiar with these words that will be used for script learning. Hence, reading or writing letters and words become much easier, and through activities these are repeated adequately help internalize the words. Additional activities to help reading and writing have been included in such a way that the children see them not as a separate activity but as something within the idea of the topic. Hence, the method of teaching is essentially to start with what the child knows, what he/she is already familiar with. The learning begins from there.

Involving the community during the preparation of the textbook

PaNiya tribal persons were identified and selected from different age groups living in and around Gudalur. These individuals were actively involved in community work and in the community co-operative society. They were told that they would be engaged in the preparation of a suitable textbook in their language for the benefit of PaNiya children. They are the authors of the textbook and we are there only to help them achieve this task for their children's sake.

A second category of individuals helped the authors of the textbook to capture the old language forms, concepts, folktales, beliefs etc. They were asked to identify the new language forms and concepts that have entered their speech as a result of their expanding contacts with the Tamil speaking communities they have come into contact. They were encouraged to evolve an approximate standard PaNiya speech form that can be used in the textbook so that the textbook would be comprehensible to people from all the PaNiya villages.

Although it was not easy to explain these ideas, the PaNiya participants quickly understood the purpose of the workshop. Through a process of trial and error, we were able to arrive at the sound sequences, words, grammaticality of the sentences, concepts, folk tales, songs etc. that can fit in the themes selected. The lessons were written with appropriate eco-friendly visuals.

Presentation of the text

Each theme was allotted eight pages. Bottom portion of every page presents clear instructions to the teacher as to how he or she should handle the theme. For instance, when the theme related to garden is being handled, the teacher should start with giving the song/story from the culture and cover all the five learning components, namely, language learning component, science component, craft activities, pre-numeracy and numeracy components, and art activities. While covering the above said components, as per the instructions presented in the text, the teachers are expected to do the following.

  1. Teacher should teach a song/story about the garden.
  2. A brief interaction with the student about the concept of different gardens.
  3. Differences between coffee plantation and tea plantation (ecologically conditioned).
  4. Elicit an ethnic specific story about the ginger plantation from the students or the teacher will narrate the story.
  5. Reinforcement through retrieving the story and the song learned by the students while learning the previous theme.
  6. Activity oriented exercises: Drawing the picture of leaves, flowers. Placing stones on the sketches of the leaves, flowers, the letters to be introduced in the present theme. Making different artefacts by utilizing the materials available in the classroom and in the neighborhood. (Main thrust is on making the models of the garden equipments.)
  7. Exercises related to identifying the names of the objects in the picture and also identification of the words related to the picture.

STAGE-II Printing the textbook.

Care was taken that the size of the book was considerably bigger. The letters are reasonably bigger. All the themes-related pictures are as far as possible presented in multiple natural colors.

STAGE-III Training the teachers.

Once the textbooks were available in print, the teachers were given an orientation about the book and how they use the textbook in their classes. This was a very important step because the attitude of the teacher and how he presents the textbook to PaNiya children will greatly impact the outcome of learning. Non-tribal teachers were motivated to know the tribal culture and their language. Also, they were informed about the type of preparation they should make before going to the class because activities in the class involve collection of many materials that are necessary to present and teach the themes. Also, sufficient thought must be given to class organization, anticipating problem situations, unexpected questions, etc. Only then will it be possible for the teacher to reach out to every single child in an effective way. During the training period all the ethnic-specific stories and songs that have to be used to introduce a theme were given separately with tips for proper pronunciation and intonation. In addition to this training, the teachers were taught to acquaint themselves with and analyze and evaluate the teaching methods adopted here and to solve problems that they may come across in the classroom. Provision also was made so that this teacher training would be an on going process, as the teachers were new to this kind of teaching. They might encounter many problems and need constant reinforcement. Moreover, as feed back from teachers, students and the community begin to come in, many aspects of this enterprise may change and teachers may need to be constantly put through refresher courses.

STAGE-IV Introduction of the textbook in the schools.

The textbook was introduced in several schools of Gudalur through Gudalur Adivaasi MunneRRa Sangam. As a result there was total involvement of the community in the project.


During the process of preparation of the pre-primary reader, we had involved many PaNiya community people and had incorporated all their names as the authors of the book. This involvement of PaNiya individuals in the preparation of the textbook made a tremendous impact on the community as a whole. The community recommended a title for the textbook after discussion among themselves. The name suggested by the community is PaTTola, which means guardian spirit. As per the folk tradition, the name paTTola is a sanctified name because it means the guardian spirit of the ethnic community as whole, individual members of the community and the guardian spirit of their dwelling place. This readiness to adopt this textbook as their own and to give it a name that fits in well with their own ethos shows the extent of community involvement. Subsequently at every stage starting from releasing the book to teaching it in the schools, the society's involvement was total. For instance, there was a mass movement initiated from within the community for bringing the children to school for studying their own language. Even the adult illiterates were impressed and convinced to get themselves educated in the written form of their own language that would subsequently make them literates in the dominant language of the area.


  1. Teachers noticed improved and regular attendance in the schools where this book was introduced.
  2. The textbook helped develop more confidence among the children. As a result, the teacher student interaction is more and healthy.
  3. Since the classroom interaction is in their mother tongue, children comprehends what is taught and their learning is faster.
  4. Children have a sense of cultural rootedness even in the school.
  5. The process of becoming bilinguals in the tribal language and in the language of wider communication is accelerated and children could gain more confidence to interact in both the languages.
  6. The pre-primar, its handling in the classroom, the performance of the students who learn the primer became a matter for constant appreciation in the tribal community meetings and the suggestions of the community were constantly communicated to the school teachers. This has helped in improving the teaching methodology and the revision of the text, even as it fostered a healthy community-teacher interaction.

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Sam Mohanlal, Ph. D.
Central Institute of Indian Languages
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