Thursday, July 14, 2011

Importance of language fluency in today's world

Language :

Someone once said, that travel is a great learning experience and I discovered how true it is when I came to Canada.

Immigrating to Canada, I learnt a lot and changed a lot. One of the things I learnt was the importance of language  in the growth and development of a Society.

I have written here my observations of people and why I think that Richness of  language has contributed to the rapid development of Western society, when compared to India.

People’s talking with babies & children:
Language development starts in infancy  and the differences in language development between Indians and the western peopleis apparent  from childhood itself.
   Have you observed how different people interact with babies and children? Some people talk more, some talk less; some talk only to command the child i.e. they say "don’t do that" or "Do this" while some kiss, cuddle, talk baby talk, explain things, describe things around to the babies/children. The range of people’s interactions with kids is huge and depends on so many factors.

Most of my observations are of people interacting with kids on buses, trains and in public places. From what I have seen, the malnourished, over-worked, mothers from poor sections of society in Indian villages and small towns, are usually harsh to their babies; they carry them on their waists and yell or hit the baby when it cries. They rarely if ever talk to the child or kiss. They are busy carrying things along with the baby, busy looking out for the crowded bus to appear while waiting in the hot sun or busy minding the opther children with them.

Some mothers I have seen of Asian backgrounds on the subways in Toronto sit silently and make no effort to engage their babies, talk or make them laugh.

Some women I know, who are pretty well-balanced but introverts, smile at their babies without talking at all! Some mothers talk to their babies to some extent and many say that they don’t talk as the babies do not understand, and so why should they talk.

Some parents I have seen on the TTC (Toronto public transport consisting of trains and buses and street cars) are exceptionally good with their kids and babies. They talk non-stop to them; they are positive, they sing rhymes, they point out things of interest as they pass by, they comment, they make the baby laugh and on the whole, keep the baby continually engaged! I strongly believe these babies are the most stimulated and this stimulation will foster development of these kids. I know this sounds very discriminating but I have observed that white parents in Toronto are on the whole more talkative with their babies and children, more engaging than parents of other races. This may be a unfounded view based on my random observations than based on a scientifically conducted, systematic study.

Language exposure of kids in India and Canada: I am observing the growth of children in India, Canada and USA among my relatives and friends. I have noticed that the kids growing in the USA & Canada and those who are in excellent day-cares have superior development when compared to their peers who are not in day care, who are growing in villages, who are growing in families where the parents talk little. When I first came to Canada and heard the kids talk, I was amazed by the length of sentences of babies as young as three years! I am sure that the IQ of the kids is the same across the three countries but the language development is amazingly different. I tried to discover the factors which are at least visible to my eyes, which seem to affect language development. Some factors I observed are the use of language by the adults and children in the baby’s vicinity; attending or not attending the daycare; is it a home daycare run by one lady or is it a professional daycare; television with age-appropriate children’s programs, presence or absence of age appropriate picture books and story books, music.

I find that the interaction and talk with the adults is a very very important factor. Children in USA & Canada who attend day care seem to know and use appropriately a wide range of adjectives to describe their experiences and things. The language in Indian born and kids growing in India is very very limited. Let me give an example. An American born kid, when asked if he liked his food, may say that the food was yummy, delicious, nice, great, awesome. The Indian born kid will say, nice(in my language i.e. Kannada, the word for nice is ‘Chenna-gi-de). If you ask the American born kid about his school, his clothes, about a movie he saw, he will describe them with a range of adjectives, will go into length to describe various aspects of his school or whatever. The Indian kids answer is more likely to be a laconic, "it is nice’ or ‘it is good’. The same adjective "chenna-gi-de’ is used to describe thousands of things! The range of adjectives used is so limited.

Kids of talkative parents in India, may talk a bit more but are still far behind their American peers in expression.

While western parents consider the development of children as extremely important and give a lot of time and attention to their children, many middle-class Indian men I know are busy focussing on their jobs and expect that a child’s care is a woman’s or the mother’s job; there is little participation by fathers. The poor in India are too busy making ends meet and if they feed their child, they consider that they have done their job! I know of one poor single mother in Tamil Nadu, (she had been abandoned by her husband), who daily, tied her 2 year old daughter like a dog inside the house, kept a bowl of food and went to work on a construction site! What stimulation could this child have, staying alone in her house the entire day? Fortunately this child got into an excellent residential school and did not show any evidence of psychological damage. The upper class in India hires women to look after their kids but these women are not rally stimulating to the kids. The physical needs of the child are certainly taken care of but as far as I know, most of these women are not trained in engaging kids in any stimulating ways. Most of these women have limited educations and no professional training in child-care.

Education in schools:
While kids in the west are exposed to mostly one language i.e. English, kids in India are exposed to multiple languages. Most middle and upper classes go to English medium schools in cities of south India. They speak a different language at home. If parents are of different states, they may be exposed to the father’s and mother’s language at home. From the second or third grade at school, they are to learn two more languages besides English i.e. Hindi the national language of India and the local state language(like Kannada for students of Karnataka state or Telgu for students of Andhra Pradesh) Exposure to so many languages does not necessarily make them better at expression or thinking. It is in fact a burden to many students. Many find it difficult to learn Hindi as they do not speak Hindi and need to learn it only as a school subject. Students from Andhra Pradesh, who are living in Karnataka are expected to learn Kannada and it may be tough for them as they may know Telugu better as they speak and Telugu at home. Parents also cannot help them as parents do not know Kannada too.

The Indian education system fosters rote learning rather than encouraging thinking, independent problem solving, creativity, questioning, development of rational and logical thinking. Therefore kids learn, often by heart, what the teacher has taught them of the various subjects. The Indian teachers too, lack fluency and tend to have limited vocabularies to express their ideas. I have not seen even the English teacher using a wider range of words than teachers of other subjects, to express ideas.

When we lack an extensive vocabulary to express things, we tend to be very limited in the richness of expressions and also of ideas. This constraint tends to decrease the expression of nuances. Decrease in nuances may in turn lead to decrease in expression of ideas itself. If ideas cannot be expressed, then we cannot progress. Progress depends on new ideas.

At this point, I am not blaming any individuals in India such as teachers and the adults who interact with children as being language deficient. I find that the Indian languages are deficient, in comparison to English. English language is growing day by day ever since the British started travelling the world and building colonies. As you already know, words from all languages from all parts of the world have been added to the English language. Every year, dozens of new words are added to the English language. These additions reflect the new discoveries, inventions, creations in the fields of arts, progress made in all the different fields. Even one percent of this kind growth is not seen in Indian languages. Even the new dictionaries of Indian languages, continue to have the same old words. There are hardly any new words added. The advances happening in India itself cannot be reflected in Indian languages due to lack of words or lack of creation or lack of creation and use of new words. Great Indian social and other scientists who coin new words to express their ideas are coining them in English than in Indian languages. Dr.M.N.Srinivas coined the words like Sanskritization to reflect the new phenomenon happening in India at the time.

The reason I am writing this article:
I am so happy with the serials I see on television in Canada. They may not be the greatest by fuss-pots' standards  but I love these shows! I watch mostly mostly humor and crime and each time I see these shows, I regret that shows of such quality are not made in India.
India is a veritable gold mine of subjects if one wants to make television serials or movies …there is so much of crime in India, there are such a range of amazing peoples and behaviours, that thousands of serials could be conceived of.                  BUT….

When I recall the dialogues in these American and Canadian shows, and try to repeat the dialogues in Indian languages, I find that Indian languages simply cannot capture all the nuances of the western dialogues! Indian languages do not have even half the words and phrases to express various abstract concepts! The feelings, thoughts, ideas, expressed so succintly in English, are impossible to express in any Indian language---without butchering the meaning!
 Either the serials in India should be done in English or we have to forego the rich and abstract ideas of the western serials. I have tried to translate the dialogues of English serials into  Kannada language, but I am not able to express even one hundredth of the ideas, especially the abstract concepts…..
for example, in crime serials such as Law & Order, the nuances of justice and injustice are brought out so effortlessly but it would be a laboured process with long difficult sounding words in Kannada !

In several humorous serials, the joke is not that something funny which happened but a pun or mere play on words. Though I have seen such puns in Kannada serials too, the quality is poor;
In Kannada serials,  the jokes are repetitive, the jokes are old and often obscene and often insensitive to various people like insensitive to women, the handicapped people, people with a different accent, etc. ( Impossible to find an intelligent joke in a Kannada serial today)The court-room scenes and arguments I see in the English serials are impossible to replicate in Kannada. If it is replicated, I assure, you more than half the nuances and messages will get lost or badly twisted as the Kannada language simply does not have the words and phrases to capture it. I am not blaming the Kannada writers here. I am again blaming the language.

This set me off thinking and the more I thought, the more I realized how far back India was…due to language non-development. I sometimes feel that , if the west and India , started together in a hypothetical race, at one time , now India is far behind; and every year, the west goes ahead by 2 miles, India will fall behind by 10 miles….especially with people like the great Vatal Nagraj, who are against English in India.

Everywhere I look around me in Canada, I see the richness in variety of EVERYTHING…that would not be possible if the richness in language was absent. To express ideas, one needs words. To me language is like a vessel. If you do not have a big enough vessel, you have to throw out lot of ideas and keep only the few ideas which fit in the vessel.

If vessel does not sit right with you, then let us call language as building blocks. Without building blocks there would be no ideas. More the building blocks, more the ideas.

some examples of richness of variety in Canada:
When I go to Home Depot to pick paint for my rooms, I see a whole range of paint shades, and a name for every shade. There are not even 50 Names for the different colours in Kannada, let alone the shades for one colour! Here I think there are 50 names for 50 shades for one colour!

The words to represent the new inventions and discoveries in various fields…are all in English but not in Kannada. I still remember the impossibly difficult word for computer in a Kannada movie and wonder, how can Kannadigas progress, if we reject English and stick to Kannada and expect to encompass the entire world’s knowledge base in Kannada! Can you imagine the words in ANY Indian languages to represent electron microscope, calculator, stapler, toothpick, drinking straw( I am naming objects on my table now). Can you imagine translating the text books of medicine, pharmaceuticals, architecture, etc into Indian languages?

What about words to represent ideas such as democracy, gender equality, racial discrimination in Indian languages?

When did I feel I miss good language development the most?

In India, I experienced injustice at times, but I simply did not know how to articulate my feelings and thoughts. I could feel anger and a sense of injustice, but failed to put into coherent words, why I felt what was done was unjust. I could not defend myself and ended up looking like I was the aggressor than the victim. Now I know how to express my ideas coherently. But what about others with poor language expression when confronted with a glib smooth talker?

I have seen several people who are unable to articulate their feelings, ideas, thoughts in a coherent manner to others and end us sounding brief and curt….like my sister, who will never give full details and defend her side of the case but blurt out angrily, " I want it. Don’t ask me why. Give it to me or don’t. I don’t care" This is a stupid way to ask, for example, for a large sum of money. But she is a person who never expresses her thoughts and ideas-both due to poor expression/language ability and introversion; she is also  an emotional person who had several valid reasons for asking the money! But her inarticulate and laconic talk are enough to put people against her.

  • Lack of language or expressive ability in people who are therefore denied justice;
  •  People who cannot support with articulate talk, their legitimate stories;
  •  Students who have very good and original ideas but cannot express them to the professor in the classroom
are a few language related  sad events I have seen in India.
 I have not seen someone lose due to lack of language abilities in Canada. If they don’t have the language abilities, they have strong and vocal advocates fighting for them!

Give importance to languages, expression of ideas, thinking and reasoning in Indian schools:

I am not sure if it has changed now, but parents, schools and kids gave greater importance to science and maths subjects than languages. Ambitious kids worked hard at science and maths and were happy if they passed in the languages; this was because they wanted to study in science fields at the university and neglected languages as they felt that languages were not important . They do not seem to realize that language is very very important to express ideas, to think, to reason, to deduce, to problem solve. Language is important to communicate with others and understand others communication. This early neglect of languages is felt when they go into higher studies such as Masters and are expected to write papers for publication, communicate with HR, communicate with professors from other universities, etc.

I am observing the huge difference in language ability in 10-20 year olds growing in India and Canada. I know kids in USA read at age 3! They not only recognize the alphabet but also words and can read sentences on their own. My sweetie-pies in India learnt the alphabet at 5 or 6 years! A few kids in Canada and US I know are reading the Harry Potter since they were 8 years or younger. My darlings in India have not read even one Harry Potter book at 12 years! Youth whom I knew in India, when they were 16 to 18 years were reading the children’s comic Tinkle(and nothing else) while here younger kids are reading more advanced books.

When I talk on the phone to kids in India, there is no development of conversation beyond very concrete things like what did you eat, what did you see, what did you buy. I try my best to talk of various other non-concrete things but to no avail! The conversation just dies out and teh kid wants to escape from me!

The same goes for the comparisions of Indian and Canadian or American kids' essay writings, drawings, and interests. I am not blaming the kids in India but am realizing how under stimulated they are. ( I am certainly not generalizing this to all Indian and kids growing in the west). Talking to kids from the villages in India is even more sad for me. They are shy, prefer to serve you coffee and go away and hardly talk.


I even have this language hypothesis for the wars happening in the world: If the people(i.e. Taliban) in Afganisthan and the western nations could understand each other better, then they could know exactly what each one is trying to say and negotiate accordingly. The lack of ability to communicate effectively leading to each side not getting what the other side wants may be leading to all the bombings!

But it is also possible, that the Taliban and US know exactly what the other wants but does not want to cede and so the bombings continue!

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