Starting with what you know

In March, I went to Sendhwa, Madhya Pradesh to visit Adharshila Learning Centre (Adharshila), a primary school of grades 1-8 for kids from local tribal communities. The students are mostly from the local Rathva community and speak Bareli, a tribal language, at home. Adharshila Learning Centre’s approach is to use the students’ mother tongue, or home language, as a language of instruction in the early years. The school is formally recognized by the Madhya Pradesh government, so the teachers have to balance use of Bareli with state requirements to teach Hindi, English, and other subjects. The founders, Jayashree and Amit; teachers; and staff believe that using Bareli helps their students learn other languages and subjects better. After all, doesn’t it make sense to start by using a language the students can follow? Put another way, “children who do not fully understand the language of instruction may be learning a dominant language by submersion but miss out on content learning” (Groff, 2016, p. 136). The Adharshila team also believe that incorporating students’ mother tongues, experiences, and community history in the classroom can strengthen their students’ sense of identity.

I visited the Centre to help place Bhasha’s Vasantshala school in the context of mother tongue approaches. Like the languages spoken by Vasantshala’s students, Bareli is based on oral tradition. Adharshila was created in close collaboration with Sangartan, a tribal organization founded in the area to advocate for Adivasi social justice. From grades 1-2, teachers speak primarily in Bareli as a medium of instruction, and they continue using Bareli in grades 3-4 while transitioning to Hindi. For example, when teaching math, one of the teachers may speak in Bareli to refer to the numbers, even if they are written using English numerals.

Class at Adharshila Learning Centre
Math in a dinosaur, Adharshila Learning Centre. Photo by Lina Khan
Bareli Alphabet in Devnagari script
Bareli Alphabet in Devanagari Script, at Adharshila Learning Centre. Photo by Lina Khan

Across grade levels, students speak in Bareli among themselves outside class. When we first arrived, the students and teachers greeted us with a lively “Zindabad!” and pumped their fists in their air. It was a change from “Namaste” I was becoming used to. Since Hindi is the state language for Madhya Pradesh, students are introduced to the Devanagari script of Hindi as a written alphabet for Bareli.

After grade 4, Bareli may be used to explain or clarify a topic. Teachers from the Bareli community who are native speakers of Bareli teach grades 1-2, and a mix of teachers from within and outside the Bareli community teach grades 3-8. The teachers and students incorporate songs, stories, plays and community history in the classroom, and talk about familiar themes from nature and the environment, such as farming. For example, in an environment class, the teacher took the students outside of the classroom and walked with them among rows of plants in the ground. He had removed his sandals nearby. When he went back for his sandals at the end of the lesson, one of his students had put her feet in them. To appreciative laughter, he waited patiently for her to step out of the sandals.

Farmland in Sendhwa, Madhya Pradesh
Farmland in Sendhwa, Madhya Pradesh. Photo by Lina Khan

For grades 1-4, teachers have chosen to use learning materials developed by Adharshila founders and staff instead of state textbooks, which are introduced in grade 5. The founder and teachers said that the state’s textbooks contain no Adivasi context or history and must be supplemented to be relevant to tribal students. They also believe state textbooks are too heavily driven by India’s Council Of Educational Research and Training requirements and are unnecessarily dense. Staff and teachers feel that the density of textbooks, along with low quality teaching by some teachers at government schools, contribute to a culture of rote memorization instead of promoting learning and engagement with the content. Their beliefs echo findings that the official curriculum in developing countries are often based on the context of an elite few, and teachers may prefer to rely on the textbook rather than adapt lessons to the needs of their students (Glewwe and Kremer, 2006).

A lot of research has been done on using students’ mother tongues as a medium of instruction and/or as a subject to help them transition to other languages over time, while helping them maintain their identity (see for example, Mohanty, 1990). The mechanisms at work that enable students to gain cognitive benefits from becoming multilingual in their mother tongue and official languages, are complicated. It involves a systematic multilingual approach over time, including teaching oral and written forms, grammar, and different registers of the students’ mother tongues (Cummins, 2009). It can be challenging to actually implement in the absence of a written grammar of a language based on oral tradition, written materials in the language, and/or native speakers who can teach it. Also, Adharshila and Vasantshala staff do not consider teaching grammar to be a priority, since in their view the students become familiar enough with it from speaking their mother tongues in their home environments.

So what can be gained, other than the fact that students can follow what they’re learning? Another theory is that by emphasizing experiences such as language and traditions familiar to the students, they can feel less anxiety in the classroom and learn more effectively (Young, 1991). Adharshila’s founders believe that preserving students’ use of their home languages and traditions can help strengthen their sense of identity, and avoid the anomie of leaving behind your culture when integrating into a new one. I can’t help thinking about my own experiences where I hear this.

I was exposed to English and Bangla at home, and I would say English is my mother tongue. But as I attempt to learn Hindi or Gujarati, I wish I could start with a foundation in Bangla first. Maybe it is wishful thinking, or maybe it is based on documented experiences, but I feel a hole in my cultural identity and language learning without knowing the Bengali alphabet or how to speak proper Bangla. As I study Hindi and to some extent Gujarati, I feel like my brain is struggling to recognize words or sounds similar to Bangla, but I don’t know enough of the grammar and have to shift to the new languages to fill in the gaps. When I try to speak Bangla now, some of it comes out in Hindi. I wonder how or when I’ll ever go back and make sure I don’t lose Bangla. Do children from tribal communities experience the same mixed up feelings? Is there the sense that what they learned from home will slowly fade into the horizon? Maybe not something so dramatic, but it makes me value the approach of starting with what the kids know as the basis for all the rest.


Works Cited

Cummins, Jim. 2009. Chapter 2: Fundamental psycholinguistic and sociological principles underlying educational success for linguistic minority students. In Ajit K. Mohanty, et al. (Eds.), Multilingual Education for Social Justice: Globalizing the Local.  New Delhi: Orient Blackswan Private Limited.

Glewwe, Paul and Kremer, Michael. 2006. Schools, teachers and education outcomes in developing countries. In Eric A. Hanushek and Finis Welch (Eds.), Handbook of the Economics of Education, Volume 2, Chapter 16, 945-1017.

Groff, Cynthia. 2016. Language and language-in-education planning in multilingual India: a minoritized language perspective. Language Policy, 16 (2), 135-164.

Mohanty, Ajit K. 1990. Psychological consequences of mother-tongue maintenance and the language of literacy for linguistic minorities in India. Psychology and Developing Societies, 2(1), 31-50.

Young, Dolly Jesusita. 1991. Creating a low-anxiety classroom environment: What does language anxiety research suggest? The Modern Language Journal, 75 (4), 426-429.


Lina is excited to join Bhasha in its efforts to advance the goals of tribal communities, including helping educate kids in a nurturing environment and prepare them for a bright future. She is looking forward to meeting children, parents, and everyone else in her community, and using her limited Bengali to begin learning other Indian languages. Prior to the fellowship, Lina assessed federal programs in international trade, security, and environmental restoration for the Government Accountability Office, and supported monitoring and evaluation of democracy assistance programs for the National Democratic Institute. She has also volunteered with kids education programs in Washington, DC and with a water pipeline project with Engineers Without Borders in Cameroon.

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