Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:5 September 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.


Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.


In my earlier paper (Applying Linguistics to the Teaching of Indian Languages - 1) , I concluded by stating that the teachers of Indian languages have always played significant roles in the social and political processes of the country, including their participation in the struggle for freedom from the British rule, etc.

Apart from teaching the mother tongue, the Indian language teacher assumes the role of a culture teacher. He functions as a norm-setter for language standardization, and is pre-occupied with the development of the language he teaches. Historically speaking, an Indian language teacher was a guru, a poet, a grammarian, a didactics scholar, and a storehouse of information relating to the traditions and cultures of the people among whom he lived. People looked up to him for guidance in several areas of social life.

Even now, people do expect such talents from the mother tongue teachers. But there is a growing disinterest in language studies all over the country, and this has resulted in the loss of some importance for the language teacher. Even as he was sought after for advice in the past, his role had also been subjected to some ridicule. A Munshi or a Language Pandit was considered to be a man not in touch with the reality, a poor and innocent person, pre-occupied with his grammar and morals, etc., and a person who was seen to be irrelevant often!

Caricatures apart, a language teacher, even in the present circumstances, plays a noble role in imparting the rudiments of our mother tongues to our children. In the on-going battle between the Indian languages and English, the Indian languages seem to be losing ground, but the school system is not going to do away with the Indian languages! Moreover, the entire country seems to be moving towards a balanced bilingualism, or, in some parts of the country, especially in the mega-cities, a sort of trilingualism, in which the mother tongue is going to play an important role.


I mentioned earlier that a mother tongue teacher/language teacher should have a good mastery of the linguistic structures of the language he is teaching. It is also important that he should have a good mastery of the language skills in the language he is teaching. One of the basic problems of our English language teachers in the country is that most of them have very poor speaking and listening skills in English. On the other hand, the problem of the mother tongue teachers is generally in the realm of reading and writing skills. They have good listening skill in the mother tongue. They have tolerably good speaking skill in the mother tongue, but their mastery of the reading and writing skills is not nearly adequate.

In order to achieve a good command of the language, it is important that the students master all the four language skills: Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing. There should be a balanced exposure to all the four skills in all the classes and in every lesson that is being taught. The textbooks, unfortunately, may not do this, but the teacher should see to it that all the language skills are dealt with in his classroom.

I have reviewed several textbooks from different Indian languages: Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, etc. I find that over the years the textbooks published by various textbook corporations and leading publishers have consistently improved their presentation, but they still lag beind in presenting an exposure to all the four language skills in every lesson.

The listening and reading skills are called receptive skills. The speaking and writing skills are called productive skills. Sometimes the listening and reading skills are called passive skills, and the other pair, speaking and writing, is called active skills. Whichever way we wish to sub-classify the language skills, one cannot deny the fact that all the four are distinct from one another, while they all function together in an integrated manner. The language teacher deals with each skill separately, identifying the errors committed by the students and suggesting possible remedies. At the same time, it is the responsibility of the language teacher to present to the students texts that carefully integrate all the four language skills. In reality, we look for successful communication, and successful communication means that all the four language skills are seamlessly integrated in langauge use.


Listening skill functions as a base for the development of all the other language skills. It is so because, before the development of the other skills, a child is exposed to various sounds with simultaneous exposure to vision. When a child listens to the sound and sees the source of the sound, she recognizes, associates, and records it her mind. This is the basic experience in listening, understanding, and recognition. When the child listens to the same sound next time, the child recollects and comprehends the meaning of the sound with or without the visual mode. We do not know for sure the number of times the child needs to initially associate the sound with the source of the sound. However, the association does take place and the child is able to recollect and comprehend the meaning of the sound with or without the visual mode. This process may be called retrieving from memory and experience and recognizing and comprehending the sound. This is an ongoing process and this takes place every time when the child listens to a sound.

Let us present this process with a four-stage illustration:

Stage One

Stage Two

Stage Three

Stage Four


The first stage is very important. In this stage, the child recognizes the sound, associates the sound with the source, works out a mental symbol not only for the source but also for the group of sounds (the symbol that stands for the source) and develops an association between the sound and the object. And he registers that association and correlation in his mind. This process becomes the base for the expeience in the language and the society that uses that language. Hence, this stage needs to be carefully crafted into the formal language learning situation in the class.

Taking advantage of the natural learning process is something that everyone agrees upon, but hardly implements. Continuous and natural exposure is the key here. But what is most important is that the exposed materials (the words, phrases, and sentences) should be relevant to the storyline, appropriate to the age of the child, and has some links with the reading and written material that would be presented to the class. The students should listen to the sounds in appropriate sequences (words and sentences), and correlate the sound sequence (words) with the meaning. Any failure to recognize the individual sounds correctly must be remedied through more listening experience coupled with speaking.

Listening to difficult sounds is made easier if we couple that experience with the production of the sounds involved. In my visits to the elementary schools, I have seen the teachers asking their students to do some chorus drills of the materials, but they have no time to engage the students in individual or individualized drills. As many of these children may be first-generation learners, their success will depend more heavily upon the individualized attention they may or may not get from their teachers. Failures in this early stage have some devastating effect not just on the listening skill but also on the adequacy of the communicative competence that the child acquires in the school.

Any flaw not remedied at the first stage may create problems for the development of the listening skill. Comprehension becomes a problem because good listening habits are not established. Students may listen to a text rather attentively, but may have no clue as to the meaning of the text, mainly because they have not developed an ability to recognize the internal composition of the words they are exposed to. Because the word or the sentence sounds new or strange, they tend to ignore such expressions and do not bother to understand the meaning conveyed by these expressions. This problem becomes more acute when there is a wide gulf between the spoken and the written forms of the language. Students get by with a general sense of understanding, but, if we ask them to pinpoint the specific meaning conveyed, they are unable to give the correct answer.

Spelling mistakes, inability to choose from a variety of possible synonyms to express the exact meaning, inability to communicate in a simple and elegant manner what is intended to be communicated, problems of articulation, problems of sentence construction are all created when the listening skill is not properly developed.

Teachers need to understand that the problems their students face in reading, speaking, and writing may be related to the inadequate listening skill of their students. Instruction is carried mainly through the process of listening, even at the elementary level of education. If the students are not able to catch the words and sentences correctly at the earliest stage, and if they are not given any training to improve their listening skill, then they will certainly have great problems in dealing with the other skills.


At Stage One, the students go through a process of marginal listening or casual listening. At Stage Two, the students go through a process of attentive listening and cross over to the level of focused listening. From this level they ultimately cross into the level of analytical listening. The teacher has the responsibility to help his students to proceed from the stage of marginal listening to the level of analytical listening, using various methods. These stages are both ontological as well as subject-related. Students may slowly develop their listening skill as they move from one age group to another. Their attention is much greater when they begin to settle down in an educational system. On the other hand, these stages nay be identified even within the teaching of a single lesson, irrespective of the age group of the students. When a teacher begins to teach a lesson in a class, the students may be at the first of stage of listening: marginal or casual listening. One of the reasons why students are usually at the marginal level of listening at the beginning of a lesson is that there may be several features in the lesson (starting from the sounds, meaning, structure of the sentences to the concepts) that are new to the students. Such new expressions are simply a background noise for what they recognize and understand.

Before the students cross over to the level of focused listening from the former levels of marginal and attentive listening, they will experience a series of processes such as guessing, anticipating, comparing, interpreting, checking, and finalizing an approximation of what they were listening to. This they do with the help of the knowledge of the language they already have. These processes are usually a part of the attentive listening level. During the attentive listening stage, students may decide on themeaning, pronunciation, and other aspects of language use. They compare their inference with that of the teacher and make progress towards focused listening. At the level of focused listening, students are more definitive and decisive about the language use and the content. Once the students are sure about what they have heard, they switch over to the next stage of listening called the analytical listening.

Analytical listening is perhaps the most important aspect of listening and more difficult than the other aspects of listening, because at this stage the students' individual capacities of all sorts will be employed. The students will analyze and evaluate each and every feature of the language and relate these features to the content expressed through the language. New insights are gained when language is carefully and deliberately used to express the content. In many walks of life, we arrive at new ideas when we attempt to re-state the content in different ways, and all these re-statements are made possible by the innovative use of linguistic elements. Analytical listening is tghe threshold for creative thinking and subsequent creative writing.

Analytical listening is the weakest element in teaching and mastering Indian languages. Because of certain cultural traditions that have always equated submission to authority and total acceptance of the sayings of the sages with a ban on the critical scrutiny of the authority and the statements made by the sages, our students fail to develop their skills in analytical listening. Implied meanings are not retrieved easily in our language discourses. Pun on the word is highly appreciated and enjoyed. Cynicism is noticed, and sarcasm is identified. But clever doublespeak is not easily identified. When a statement is made with subtle meanings, students often fail to grasp the meaning intended.

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Sam Mohanlal, Ph. D.
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006, INDIA