A delegation from the Universities of Cambridge and Reading visited the Minister of Education in Bihar, Dr Ashok Choudhary, in April this year to discuss a new research project on multilingualism in primary schools in India.
The delegation visiting the Minister in Patna consisted of:
- the Principal Investigator, Professor Ianthi Tsimpli from the University of Cambridge
- two Co-investigators from the University of Reading, Professor Theo Marinis and Professor Jeanine Treffers-Daller
- and a representative from the British Council India, Joydeep Bordoloi [see picture].
This new four year project, entitled Multilingualism and Multiliteracy in Primary schools in India (Multilila), looks at progress in learning and teaching of language, reading and maths in primary schools in India over a period of four years. As part of the project primary school children in Hyderabad, Delhi and Bihar will be invited to take language, reading and maths tests, and to carry out tasks that measure their attention levels. The project aims to make recommendations for the development of Multilingual Education and to identify good pedagogical practice in primary schools in India.
Support for home languages in Indian schools
It is well known that children who use more than one language in everyday life can have advantages in attention and learning skills. Most Indian children are multilingual in that they use more than one language on a daily basis but not all Indian children experience the advantages in attention and learning skills that have been found in other contexts.
A key focus point of the project is how children’s understanding of the curriculum content is supported through the use of different languages in the classroom. While Hindi is the language of education and official matters in Bihar, some schools that the delegation visited in Patna make very good use of the children’s home languages, such as Magahi or Majthili, to explain difficult concepts in the classroom. Teachers who are not from the area are given word lists with translations of key terms in the children’s home languages to help them bridge the gap between school and home languages.
In other Indian contexts, for example in areas where children have immigrated from other parts of the country, learning through the mother tongue is more challenging because of the wide range of languages that are spoken by the children.
These findings will also be relevant for the UK, because classrooms in British primary schools are increasingly multilingual too. Professor Tsimpli explains:
“There are important lessons to be learned from the Indian context for teachers and policy makers in the UK interested in improving support for children who speak more than one language at home and in school.”
The UK researchers work closely with a team of Co-investigators in India, consisting of:
- Professor Minati Panda from the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University
- Professor Suvarna Alladi from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences Karnataka
- Dr Lina Mukhopadyay from the Department of Training and Development at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad.
Research assistants from these three universities are currently carrying out a pilot study in Delhi before the start of the first round of data collection in July. An important project partner will also be the A. N. Sinha Institute of Social Sciences in Patna, which has a wealth of experience in studying the socio-economic and educational context in Bihar.
“The interdisciplinary composition of the team is a key strength of the project”, says Professor Marinis, Director of the Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism. “It is only through truly interdisciplinary projects such as this one that we can hope to gain further insights into why some children flourish and others struggle in multilingual contexts in India as well as the UK.”
By Professor Jeanine Treffers-Daller of the University of Reading, Institute of Education.