Ask Amma

Learning to read Indian languages

In Books, How on 14 March 2015 at 3:00 am

How can our children learn to read in Indian languages?  Where do we find children’s literature in our native languages?

Many Ask Amma readers who are well-versed in several languages would like their children to grow up with them as well.  As some of us know, being children of multilingual parents, if we live in predominantly monolingual environments there is a risk of losing touch with our multilingual and cultural heritage and with the wit and wisdom expressed in particular languages.  If we speak these languages every day then our children grow up understanding them but what about reading and writing?

Prasanna Rakshasadu (The Peaceful Rakshasa).   Fun topic and font make a difference for beginning readers.

Prasanna Rakshasadu (The Peaceful Rakshasa). Fun topic and font make a difference for beginning readers.

If children become literate in English alone, then as they migrate towards the written wor(l)d, they will tend to leave their desi langauge(s) behind.  As a result, their vocabulary will not grow much beyond what they have learned in early childhood, and they will be less prepared to converse on topics that interest them as they grow older, which makes it likely that even their oral command of the language will weaken.

While the good news is that there are children’s books available in a dozen or so Indian languages, what I found in my experience was that the quality and quantity of children’s literature in, for example, Telugu was not enough to encourage growing fluency in reading Telugu at the age when my daughter discovered the joy of reading.  With some creativity and patience, we have found ways to bridge the gap and she is enjoying her re-entry into Telugu literacy today, many years after reading her first words.

How we did this has as much to do with the changing scene of Telugu children’s literature as with some of the peculiarities of our own experience.
I can still remember ruffling through the piles of books at a shop in Tenali, seeing all the Telugu translations of Aesop’s Fables, Russian folk tales and Amar Chitra Kathas.  That was over thirty years ago.   In the past decade or two, we have seen literature for children in Telugu published by the National Book Trust, Pratham, and other publishers and acquired a good variety of titles for the village libraries.

I must confess however that we faced a few obstacles when we tried to use these books ourselves.  First of all no one talks that way!  Whereas children’s books in English are written using the same phrases and sentences that people would say while talking, we could not find beginners’ literature in Telugu that used language that a toddler or young child would know.  Even the books and charts used for introducing the alphabet used example words that were out of the range of my own vocabulary, let alone that of a child learning to read.

In all the years that we took the Telugu books and story cards to the village libraries, I was the only one who seemed to raise the issue, and I took notice of it only after dealing with it first hand and realizing that these books would not be easy for me to use with my daughter.  Why hadn’t any of the students, parents or teachers raised the issue?  One teacher whom I asked simply told me, that this way they learn new words at the same time.
telugu small font

While the story is interesting, beginning readers may find the small font difficult to read.

Another problem was the small font.  Other children also express difficulty with the small font.  While it may slow them down in varying degrees, enough of them seem to get past this that no one thinks it very important to use large font.

Writing some children’s books in Telugu is certainly on my to-do list.  Fortunately today the children’s literature scene in Indian languages has grown considerably, and it is also possible to get them through mail order.  Some books are bilingual and others are available in multiple languages.  We have bought some books in both Telugu and English and read both of them.

For the first five years it was all smooth sailing.  Our daughter was fluent in Telugu, and was starting to speak English as well.  She could read Telugu before she could read English.  However once she learned English, there was so much more reading material available that her English leapt rapidly ahead.  Meanwhile it was difficult to find children’s books in Telugu.

Today however, as she is relearning Telugu, we actually have a steady supply of interesting material.  The font is not always as big as we would like but since she is older now it is easier for her to read.

As a second-generation Telugu speaker myself, I was fluent in Telugu throughout early childhood, then forgot it entirely until I relearned the language as a teenager.  If I only could read Telugu as well as I can read English, whole worlds of literature would be open to me.  My loss.  But as the number of readers dwindles, will the literature and culture be there for the next generation?  Humanity’s loss.

It is through these languages that we and even more so our parents and grandparents express certain thoughts and feelings that are lost in translation.  Through these languages they learn about the world in which we grew up, the social, cultural and scientific framework that shaped that world, and the stories, songs, foods and festivals that stay with a community even as it disperses.

Since re-learning the alphabet, my daughter pauses before any Telugu text that appears before her, be it a road sign, newspaper, or the wrapper in which the Indian Railways packs the bedding for passengers.  One facility I didn’t have five years ago that parents today have is the ability to type easily in Telugu using gmail.  It is so easy to type little messages (in large fonts!) or short stories and print them or post them to a blog where your children can find and read them.  It may seem silly but it makes a difference.  My mother started a Telugu blog called Ammamma Kathalu (Grandmother’s Stories) where she posts small notes in Telugu for me and my daughter to read.

Next on our wish list … how about read-alouds in Indian languages, like this engaging story – which Tulika has published in nine languages:

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