Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 2 : 8 November 2002

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.




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    Central Institute of Indian Languages,
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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


Basanti Devi, Ph.D.


The aim of this paper is to highlight some multilingual and multicultural issues that are relevant for the proper understanding of Speech and Language disorders.

The aim of a speech and language pathologist (SLP hereafter) is to successfully rehabilitate a person with speech and language impairment. For this, the pathologist gets adequate professional training. But the question is - can professional training alone make the speech and language pathologist fully efficient?

The answer is likely to be in the affirmative in an ideal monolingual situation where the therapist and the patient share the same language and by implication the same culture. But, more often than not, the situation is less than ideal, especially so in a country like India which is a living symbol of multilingualism, multiculturalism, and multi-ethnicity. Hence SLPs, who often are criticized to be poor in discriminating legitimate linguistic differences and speech and language disorders, need to be sensitized.


Today there is global awareness of the problems of multiculturalism and multilingualism. USA, the world leader in the field of education, has recognized multiculturalism as a characteristic of their society. This is reflected in providing for multicultural learning goals in their training programmes.

An example of multicultural learning goal is the adaptation of the instructional material in such a manner that persons from minority groups can achieve their full potential as learners. An additional goal is to develop insights among the learners into the abilities, needs, viewpoints, values, and goals of persons from other groups. In USA, multiculturalism is found inextricably linked to race. However, other characteristics of the learners such as gender, social class, and age are also considered appropriate elements of learning. Some thinkers argue that poverty itself can be a plausible characteristic of multiculturalism since many of the ethnic minorities live in poverty.


If this kind of awareness and sensitization is essential with normal population, it is all the more essential to deal with people with communication disorders. Consequently, these issues have formed part of the training programmes designed for SLPs in the USA. In India too, there is a growing awareness regarding these issues, resulting in an attempt to include sociolinguistic and cultural issues in the curriculum for SLPs.


Cheng (1998) says that three C's, namely, Concepts, Competence, and Connections are necessary in global communications and transactions. They also have implications for speech, language, and hearing professionals. They are discussed briefly as follows:

  1. Developing concepts that are global in view and practical in use requires the latest knowledge about folk practices and ideas. Speech, language and hearing professionals must gain knowledge about folk and cultural practices among their diverse clientele. Information about proximity, time concepts, and use of time differ markedly around the world. So do the cultural practices. For example, white flowers are often used in China as funeral flowers, while red flowers are often used for weddings and celebrations. Sending a bouquet of completely white flowers to someone may be viewed negatively.
  2. About the second C, that is, competence, Cheng says that professional training is required to be and remain competent. Competence is nothing but the ability to operate at set standards. In order to be competent, a speech, language, and hearing professional must have current and state-of-the-art information, coupled with the knowledge of the social and political contexts.
  3. The third C is about connections. Making connections means nurturing and developing the best possible relationships with others of the same profession as it provides access to the resources of the other people and organizations around the world. Developing long term working relationship is part of the secret of success.

These three C's proposed by Cheng have global relevance. In order to acquire competence in a multilingual and multicultural set up, a speech, language, and hearing professional must be familiar with the concepts of different linguistic and cultural groups.


The picture in India is a very complex one as it is a multilingual, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious country. The linguists all over the world look upon India as a Linguistic area because of the myriad of languages it has.

There are 1652 mother tongues according to the 1961 Census of India, out of which more than 400 are tribal languages. The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India has recognized 18 languages. There are four major language families, namely, Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, and Austro-Asiatic. In addition, there are a few other minor families that have their own inherent characteristics. The Tibeto-Burman languages of the North-east are distinctly different from the Indo-Aryan languages, and so are the Dravidian languages. Languages belonging to the same language families have also developed their own distinctive characteristics due to various socio-cultural and geographical reasons.


Assamese, Bengali, and Oriya are called sister languages and are similar to a great extent. But Assamese has diverged greatly from the other two languages, both phonologically and morphologically, as a result of the influence of the neighbouring Tibeto-Burman languages.

Oriya, on the other hand, has imbibed some of the Dravidian features since it is geographically contiguous to Telugu. Though both Tamil and Kannada belong to the same South Dravidian group of the Dravidian family of languages, Kannada has several distinctive features in its diction, script system, in grammatical features, and poetics, because of the influence of Sanskrit. Tamil, on the other hand, barring some influences at the lexical level, remained invulnerable to the Sanskrit influence. Hence the language has retained many distinctive Dravidian features.


Both convergence and divergence characterize the Indian languages.

A classic example of convergence is found in the village of Kupwar (Gumperz, 1971), situated in north Karnataka where four languages, namely, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, and Urdu have been in contact for several centuries. Because of this prolonged contact, the Kupwar varieties of these four languages have developed identical constituent structures and grammatical categories, and, as a result, one language can be translated from another with extraordinary ease. All one needs to do is to convert a sentence from any one of these languages to one of the others by simply substituting the appropriate morphs in one to one fashion. One example is cited below.

In standard Urdu and Marathi, Yes/No questions are formed by means of an element which in other contexts is translatable as "What" (Urdu kya and Marathi kay). This can occur in any position in standard Urdu. But in Kupwar Urdu it occurs only in one final position. Yes/No questions are formed in standard Kannada by means of a verbal suffix - a. However, this does not occur in Kupwar Kannada which has instead the equivalent in that language of 'What' in sentence final position. Thus, the question 'Did you sell your horse?' would be represented in these languages as follows:

  • Standard Urdu              .. kya ghoDi di:?
  • Kupwar Urdu                .. ghori diya kya?
  • Kupwar Marathi            .. ghori dil∂s kay?
  • Kupwar Kannada           .. kudre koTTe ye:nu?


Linguistic diversity in India has resulted in a plethora of linguistic features which have a direct bearing on SLPs. Some of these are discussed.

The languages which abound in complex suprasegmental features may be difficult for a hearing impaired child to acquire as the acquisition of suprasegmentals depends solely on auditory perception. In English, for example, suprasegmentals play a very important role in perception and comprehension because a listener gets the cue from the suprasegmentals in oral communication. In English, stress can change the meaning and more importantly the grammatical category of a word. Critic ['kritik] means a person who judges and writes about literature, art, and film. Critique [kri'tik] means a critical review of essay. Export with stress on the first syllable is a noun and with stress on the second syllable is a verb.

Suprasegmentals may not be a very distinctive feature in majority of the Indian languages but they are very crucial for most of the North-Eastern languages of Tibeto-Burman family. These are tonal languages. In Meitei, that is, Manipuri, the official language of Manipur, tone is phonemic. The meaning of a word changes in accordance with the tone, namely, rising, falling, and level. Similarly, the tone is phonemic in Bodo, a major Tibeto-Burman language spoken in Assam.

Among the Indo-Aryan languages, Panjabi is a tonal language. There are three tones found in Punjabi, namely, rising, falling, and level. The word /kóra/ with the rising tone means 'leper', falling tone [kòra] means 'horse' and with the level tone [kora] it means 'whip'. Similarly, /pá/ with the rising tone means colour, falling tone [pà] means 'brother,' and with the level tone [pa] means 'to feel'.

The phonemic inventory of no two Indian languages is identical. Phonotactic and other phonological rules differ from one language to another.

The way in which the letters representing the consonant sounds in the Indian scripts are pronounced illustrates this point.

In the south, the consonant letters are pronounced as ka, kha, ga, gha, etc., that is, the letters are pronounced with /a/ following the consonant. In the north, they are pronounced as k∂, kh∂, g∂, gh∂ etc, that is, it is /∂/ that follows the consonant. In the eastern languages, they are followed by the vowel /∩ / (broken O) and hence pronounced as k∩, kh∩, g∩, gh∩, etc.

India is also a linguistic area where many of the highly marked sounds are found. A marked sound is one which requires more effort to produce and hence more difficult. It occurs less frequently across languages and is acquired later by children. Thus, the retroflex sounds which are a typical Dravidian feature are highly marked sounds. And, of the retroflex sounds, the lateral retroflex [L] is the most highly marked and is found only in two of the Indo-Aryan languages, namely, Oriya and Marathi. The consonant systems in the Dravidian languages are complex, but the vowel systems are relatively simple. On the other hand, in the eastern languages, especially in Assamese, the vowel system is relatively more complex. It has an eight vowel system and all these vowels have their nasal counter parts. Sindhi implosives, Kashmiri affricates and high central vowels, Panjabi plosives, Urdu velar fricatives, and Assamese velar frictionless continuant are some the rare sounds found in the world.

The concept of proximity or distance is very significant in many languages. For example, in Kannada /ivaru/ indicates proximity and /avaru/ indicates distance from the place of reference. Bengali makes three way contrast /ini/, /uni/, and /tini/. /ini/ is used when the person of reference is present in the place of conversation, and /uni/ when the person is absent. /tini/ is used to refer to a person very remote in time and space.

Oriya distinguishes between inclusive and exclusive first person plural. It is /ame/ when the addressee is included and /sie/ when the addressee is excluded.

Words of Sanskrit origin form a part of vocabulary of most of the Indian languages irrespective of their affinity to a particular language family. But these words have semantic variations across languages. A word of Sanskrit origin having identical meaning in two or more different languages is very rare. Some words have completely different meanings, whereas some have similar meanings. In rare cases, there may be identical meaning in addition to the primary meaning of the word.

Basanti (1998), while examining the Assamese and Kannada common words, found that they can be classified along seven parameters. Some of them are discussed here. For example, /lôbhi/ in Assamese means 'greedy' and its corresponding /lo:bhi/ in Kannada means 'stingy'. /a:rôgy∩/ means 'recovery from illness' in Assamese, whereas /a:ro:gya/ means health in Kannada. The primary meaning of /din/ and /dina/ in Assamese and Kannada is 'day'. Its extended meaning in Assamese is 'daytime' whereas in Kannada it is 'daily'. Sometimes a word with same meaning may have selectional restrictions in their occurrences. Assamese /g∩rbhini/ and Kannada /garbhini/ mean the same, that is, 'pregnant'. However, in Assamese, it takes only animals as its subject and never human beings. But it can take both human and non-human subjects in Kannada.

There is one important point to be noted. Some of these words having identical meaning may occur in spoken form in one language and in literary form in another language. For example, /anna/ 'cooked rice', /mi:nu/ 'fish', /pustaka/ 'book', /sna:na/ 'bath' occur in spoken form in Kannada and their corresponding /∩nn∩/, /min/, /pust∩k/ and /snan/ occur in the literary variety only. The reverse is also true in the case of some other words.


Linguistic diversity in India manifests itself at all linguistic levels, namely, phonological, morphological, lexical, and semantic levels.

Any discussion on multilingualism is incomplete if the cultures that these languages represent are not taken into consideration. A competent speech, language, and hearing professional is one who has knowledge of the cultural background of his clientele.

In some societies soft spoken persons are considered to be more sophisticated and are regarded more highly. In some societies if a girl does not cultivate the habit of speaking softly, it may even affect her marriage prospects negatively.

In India, caste is a very important factor. Asking a person about his caste directly may be a practice in some societies but the same may be considered extremely bad manners in another society. In South India, caste is a very important factor and has sociolinguistic relevance because the social dialects of the South Indian languages are related to caste.

Each language has its own ways of expressing politeness. Politeness may be indicated morphologically, lexically, or syntactically. Some of these may be too subtle for others to perceive. In Hindi, for example, when a polite officer sends words to his subordinate to see him he does not say 'ask him to come and see me'. Instead he says 'tell him that I remembered him' and the subordinate gets the message. In Assamese society one does not say, "come and have food" to a guest or an invitee, and such an expression may be considered quite offensive. Instead one says "please come inside for a while". And in marriages or other functions one asks, "have you been inside?" to confirm whether the invitee had food or not.

The way in which time and colour continuum are divided also varies from language to language. In Hopi, a North American Language, time and space are represented very differently. They view to-morrow as repetition or return of the previous day. Most languages describe cyclic occurrences (ten days, ten rings of a bell) in the same way as aggregates (ten men, ten stones) "Ten men" can be objectively perceived as ten but ten days cannot be objectively perceived. Only today can be perceived and therefore "ten days" are conjured up from our memory or imagination. Thus, in Hopi plurals and cardinals are used only for entities that form or can form an objective group. "He stayed for ten days" becomes "he stayed until the eleventh day" which becomes operational one that reaches one day by a suitable count. Hopi also does not view time as having an orderly division between past, present and future. The distinction in Hopi temporal organization is between objective and subjective. The objective comprises everything except future, i.e. past, present, historical present, etc. The subjective comprises everything that appears or exists solely in the mind, wishes, concepts, purpose, future etc. Thus, the Hopi verb is tenseless. Distance in time as well as in space is viewed as the same in Hopi.

It is not known if the concept of time and space in any Indian language is as deviant as in Hopi. But division of the day is not the same in all the languages.

It is desirable that a speech, language, and hearing professional has knowledge of the language and culture specific concepts of his clientele. He must also have a fairly good knowledge of the distinctive features of his client's language to access the relative difficulty inherent in the language. For example, languages like Punjabi, Bodo, Manipuri and many other North-Eastern Languages may be more difficult for a hearing impaired child. The therapist has to devise his strategy and make a Punjabi or Manipuri hearing impaired child to perceive the tonal differences and the contrastive rules that they play.


Basanti Devi (1998) A Contrastive Study of Assamese and Kannada. An Unpublished doctoral thesis. University of Mysore.

Cheng, L (1998) Learning from Multiple Perspectives: Global implications for Speech - Language and hearing Professionals. Folia Phoniatrica et Logopedia 50:283-290.

Gumperz, J.J (1971) Language in social groups, Stanford University Press.

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Basanti Devi, Ph.D.
All India Institute of Speech and Hearing
Mysore 570006, India