Don’t teach English to your children in Class I

A recent news report highlighted the fact that only 48.3% of Indian children in Class 1 could read the English alphabet, even in big capital letters. The annual education audit by the NGO Pratham showed that Gujarat had the worst record: only 25.3% of Gujarati children could read capital letters in English, and only 8% could read English sentences. To rectify this, and join the globalisation bandwagon, the Gujarat government proposes to teach English in Class 1. Other states are making similar moves.

Yet this is an error. Global research shows that children should learn reading and writing in their mother tongue first. Only after they can read fluently at a minimum of 45-60 words per minute can they absorb what they are reading. Such fluency is most easily achieved in the mother tongue. Once that is established, learning a second language becomes much easier.

Premature teaching of a second language — like English — can prevent a child from learning to read fast enough in its mother tongue. Early reading and writing is vital: children that cannot do so fluently by Class 2 will likely never catch up with classmates in higher classes.

These insights flow from research on the neurological foundations of learning. In “Efficient Learning for the Poor: Insights From the Frontier of Cognitive Neurosceience”, educationalist Helen Abadzi shows that human short-term memory works well for up to 12 seconds. So, within 12 seconds, a person should be able to read a sentence (or complete grammatical unit), process its meaning, and classify and file it within his or her mental library (what experts call “cognitive networks”).

In a separate work, Abadzi writes “people must be able to read one word per second, or per 1.5 seconds at the outside, to be functional readers. If they read more slowly than that, they find that they have forgotten the beginning of their sentence by the time they reach the end.” Children struggle to decode letters of a new language. If they cannot read fast enough, then all their mental attention is taken up in decoding the letters, and no attention is left for grasping the meaning of the text.

If a child cannot read quickly, it cannot follow what textbooks or teachers are conveying. All schooling can bypass such children. They can spend eight years in school and remain functionally illiterate. This, alas, is common in India.

this is not an argument against learning two or three languages. Indeed, children under 8 earn new languages most easily. But research shows that proficiency in one language makes it easier to master a second. Learning the first language expands the cognitive networks of a child’s mind, making it easier to grasp the same concepts in a second language.

Rich children with pre-school education enter school with a vocabulary of 3,000 words, but poor children may have a vocabulary of just 500 words. So, poor children already struggle to keep up in Class 1. Their struggles can become intolerable if they have to learn a second language.

Abadzi recounts an experiment from Zambia. Initially, children were taught both English and the local language from class1. In an experiment, some schools taught only oral reading in Class 1 and English writing from class 2. The results were astounding. Earlier, reading scores of children were on average two grades less than the standard benchmark in English, and three grades lower in the local language. But once English was introduced at a later stage, reading and writing scores shot up 575% above the benchmark in class 1, 2,417% higher in Class 2, and 3,300 % higher in class 3. Scores in the local language showed similar upward leaps. The system was then extended to all schools in Zambia.

This holds a lesson for India. English skills are undoubtedly important, and give us a big edge over China. Poor parents are keenly aware that English language skills improve earning ability, and so many have switched their children from government schools to private schools claiming to teach in the English medium.

Gujarati parents say, “My child already speaks Gujarati: why teach that again in school? Why not English?” That logic sounds impeccable, but is mistaken. Once a child has become good in Gujarati, it will more easily become proficient in English. The issue is not one of Gujarati versus English. Rather, good Gujarati is a sound foundation for good English.

Faced with half-empty classrooms in government schools, some state governments plan to introduce English from class 1 to win back students. That would be a serious error.

English is important. But even more important is reading and writing in your mother tongue.

5 thoughts on “Don’t teach English to your children in Class I”

  1. The importance of learning mother tongue is very well explained here. But .. who’s belling the cats here? Many linguistics have been urging parents to promote learning their mother tongue for kids, but there seems to be no one interested to listen to them. I think it has reached to a suicidal level now and we have been successful in creating 2-3 generation of ‘illiterate’ generations. How do we reverse the effect now. The challenge lies in practical implementation of this .. not in proving the theoretical analysis. Even though many parents agree to the fact that they are choosing the wrong way, they don’t want to go the ‘minority’ or ‘unpopular’ way. There is no logic involved in this decision but simply a blind following. I think unless the upper mass of our society get convinced and change their preference, the lower masses won’t be ready for a compromise. And in my opinion it is a thing that makes/breaks Indian subcontinent in the next decades/centuries to come. Unless there is a step by the central & state governments to control the private schools (which is very unlikely anyway) there seems to be no other solution. And people who are are thinking in these lines are becoming minority day-by-day. Parents decisions are not based on long-term sustainable plans, but directly driven by economic & social motives. As a society (including governments, families and individuals) we fail to understand this and break the pattern by making the right decisions and thus causing this suicidal act of creating alien generations, who end up into 3rd grade quality creatures in terms social, philosophical, economical and other aspects of life. There seems to be no solution and this is simply a ‘forest cry’.

  2. It is important to acquire knowledge in mother tongue rather than in other language.
    Children in England have to get basic education/knowledge in English, Germans in Deutsch, Japan in Japanese
    Similarly Kannada for children in Karnataka, Odiya in Orissa….
    Most of the people in India are unaware of the achievements done by Japanese, Germans, French, Korean, Chinese etc by learning in their mother tongue
    (In fact peoples in such countries hardly knows/use English)
    One who learns in his/her mother tongue is clear about the basic “CONCEPTS” compared to one who learns in language other than his/her mother tongue.
    It is important that Governments with involvement of community takes necessary steps to provide good education in mother tongue.

  3. Prabhushankar, Bangalore

    I agree with Swami about starting the education in mother tongue language. Koreans are very good example for this and they teach their children Korean language before teaching English. Language is not picked up in the school, but it is imbibed in child’s mind & body by his/her mother since beginning of life in it.

    Today our education is more focusing on teaching words/grammar compared to building a system within the child to creatively think, visualize and reproduce. Putting many constraints of foreign language from the beginning will not help to develop above said system within the child. With mother tongue language learning will become more easier and make the child to enjoy, which will enable development of confidence. Confidence make the child to learn more & more and creates a natural interest to read and write. This is much sufficient to rekindle the power within the child to take studies more naturally than forcibly.

    I am in favor of giving education in the language of mother tongue for first 5 years. And include English from class-3. Till class 7 system should give more importance to language skills related to reading, writing and expressing independently.


  4. One of the comment mention the necessity to teach mother tongue, and this is not what it is about, if you need to teach it, then it’s not your mother tongue. Your mother tongue is what ever you speak at home and with your friend, not what your parent speak together or with their own parents. The topic is not really about cultural concervation as it is about efficiency of teaching and learning. A lot of languages are also intrinsically easier to read than English, because of their transparent spelling, which should also be considered while choosing the medium of instruction for early literacy.

    Isabelle @ et4d

  5. Gobinda Prasad Samanta

    In my opinion mother tongue is the one which is spoken between the children and their parents. It is not the state or regional language. To support the above statements I would like to lay my own experience. My age is 50years. I am married and I have a son who is doing engineering. I have two brothers and two sisters. I am a tribal: Munda and my mother tongue is Mundari as my parents spoke to me in Mundari when I was a child. But, for my brothers and sisters, their mother tongue is Odiya as my parents spoke to them in Odiya as my father moved to Odiya speaking location as he was under Odisha government service. When I got married I started speaking in Hindi as my wife is from Jagannathpur in Jharkhand. So my son’s mother tongue became Hindi. Now I am doing an experiment with my nephew who is 3 years plus. At present his mother tongue is odiya. But , I want him to speak English fluently in his childhood itself. The result is encouraging, when he is with me he speaks English. He knows most of the household articles, names of animals & birds, even some sentences and phrases in English like, give me my pencil, give me my book, I am eating, this is a dog (for those are dogs) etc. But he is yet to learn how to write.

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