A few years ago I made a transition from teaching French as a foreign language to adults to making materials for teaching Hindi as a second language to young school goers in South India. Teaching Hindi to young children, brought up with one of the South Indian mother tongues, I realized quickly, was not unlike teaching them what was largely a ‘foreign’ language. Two questions preoccupied me from the outset: 1. What would be the difference in the teaching approach if one were to teach a new language to young children of say 5-6 years of age as opposed to adults? 2. What would be the basic differences between teaching a new language as opposed to the mother tongue to first or second graders? In exploring these questions I found myself gradually developing an approach to second language teaching that attempts to address the peculiar situation of a child just beginning to grapple with a new tongue. In this article I will share both an outline of the learning programme that emerged, and the process by which it took shape. I do this in the hope that my current experience in language teaching will have more general relevance to the teaching and learning of Indian languages in our schools where children often end up learning a second language other than their own mother tongue.

Learning a language – for an adult and for a child

In response to the first question, one of the things which struck me was that in most cases the adult chooses to learn the new language out of either interest in the culture, better job prospects or because he or she is planning to travel to that particular linguistic area. He or she is usually pressed for time and needs to achieve this goal in a relatively short span of time.

A young child, on the other hand, is usually in the unenviable position of having little choice in the matter. The new language that she is going to learn would probably not be of immediate and urgent use to her. But if she learnt it well, it would, I believe, deepen her sources of cultural contact and nourishment and also eventually serve practical communication needs with fellow Indians. However, though the child often does not have much choice regarding the second language she is going to learn, one thing that she does have in plenty is‘time’ to learn this language. Having established this much, I began to question the relevance of beginning to teach any new language, whether it be Hindi or Telugu or Tamil, to children through either a functional or a communicative approach (methods of language teaching that were most familiar to me as a teacher of French to adults). Could there not be another entry-point into a new language for a young child?

Mother-tongue learners and new learners

As for the second question, I found myself facing a situation that was most perplexing. While it was evident that one was teaching essentially a new language to this young child, almost all the textbooks available for first and second graders were largely those that had been made for children whose mother tongue is Hindi. (Those made by the Dakshina Bharata Hindi Prachar Sabha for non-Hindi speakers are not specifically aimed at young children.)

Compare the situation of these two kinds of Hindi learners: a 5-6 year old child growing up in a Hindi-speaking milieu and her counterpart, growing up in an English or Telugu speaking milieu. They have entirely different starting points. The six-year-old child (a typical first-grader) who is a native speaker of Hindi has, at the very least, 4 years of active experience and practice with the language (if we take as an average that children start speaking around 2). She has usually mastered the phonetics, has a command over a fairly vast vocabulary and can orally generate quite a sophisticated syntax with ease and accuracy. What she has to begin to learn is the written code of the Devanagari script, so that she is able to read and write, while enlarging her vocabulary and idiom in the language. On the other hand, the child who speaks Telugu or Tamil has to not only grapple with the relatively abstract written code of Hindi (just like her classmate whose mother tongue is Hindi), but she is also expected to learn a new set of phonetics, morphology, syntax and socio-linguistics. The materials available, it became clear to me, assume this knowledge and hence fail to address most of these levels.

Language in the very young – from pleasurable sounds to speech

All these questions came at a time when my own involvement with young children was growing – thanks to the role of a new mother, babysitter and general caregiver for my own children and frequently for the friends that they brought home. I found myself transported into a world where the children surrounding me (mostly babies, toddlers and young school-goers) were themselves experimenting with language. For the babies and very young children, speaking a language was often synonymous with the pleasure of rolling sounds off their tongues. Most mothers would agree that babies babble when they are happy, and inversely, babbling itself gives them pleasure. Babies also perhaps notice that their babbling gives great pleasure to their caregivers. So they babble more. In time, they learn to copy sounds that they hear. They enjoy rolling these sounds off their tongue. They notice that this often brings forth applause and merriment among the social group they happen to be present in. So they do so even more, and suddenly, to the delight and surprise of everyone present, they say some meaningful sentence. And lo and behold, linguistic communication is born!

This observation of the linguistic behaviour of young children convinced me that language is clearly something that gives pleasure. There is something sensual about rolling a set of sounds to the cadence of any given language. Language is something that children often play around with. Even before babies learn the language, they pick up intonations of the particular language they are immersed in and use these intonations in their nonsensical babble. Later, toddlers and young children all over the world relish repeating nonsense rhymes of the kind: ‘I sent a letter to my friend...’ or ‘Oranges and lemons, sold for a penny...’. On such occasions language, I felt, is used by babies, toddlers and young children, not necessarily as a mode of communication, but as a means of play, play for deriving and giving pleasure.

This basic motive of pleasure in the use of a ‘tongue’ (in both the senses of the term) is often not explicitly recognized in most new-language teaching programmes. Most books or materials that set out to teach a new language have either a grammatical¹, functional², or communicative³ approach. These approaches are very valuable and they have been used very successfully in teaching a new language, especially foreign languages such as French or English. But I came to feel that when we are teaching a new language whose script is also new to young children, these approaches could be deferred. Instead, the first year or so may be used largely to get the children to start enjoying rolling the new language off their tongues.

The letter "Ma"Alphabet rhymes – a play with sounds, pictures and meaning

It is for this reason that the first level of language learning that I created was one that draws consciously on the pleasure derived in repeating rhythmic cadences of the language. It rests upon a series of short four-line rhyming poems, each one consisting of many words beginning with one particular letter of the alphabet. The ‘action’ of each rhyme is illustrated in detail to convey meaning through visual cues (see Figure). All letters of the alphabet (that are used at the initial position of words) are introduced individually in this manner. Repetition and singing out the rhymes, along with jigsaw puzzles and games - all activities belonging to the domain of ‘play’ - are incorporated into this first level. My initial idea in having children repeat and memorize these alphabet rhymes was not only to introduce the various letters of the alphabet, but also to create a memory bank of vocabulary and syntactic structures, which, while not necessarily appropriated fully by the child at this level, would serve as a reservoir in her later learning.

Words have a context, words are part of sentences

A principle that I felt was essential (drawing upon my experience of being a learner of French and subsequently a teacher of French to non-francophones) was that of introducing words in a context. Whereas most beginner texts for mother-tongue learners introduce letters through illustrated single words, in a second language programme, single words, standing forlornly alone, without a family of related words that comprise a meaningful phrase or sentence, are to be avoided. Vocabulary boxes preceding the ‘lesson’ serve little purpose, for the language can be internalized only in meaningful ‘wholes’ i.e. with words presented in a context. For I felt, whether or not the child acquires the syntax at the beginner stage, he would at the very least have been exposed to it through the teaching materials, and the syntax would then lodge somewhere deep in the recesses of memory. And I felt that one should not deny the child this kind of exposure on the grounds of a so-called need for ‘simplicity’.

But equally, I felt that the context and syntax presented should not be flattened out to the ‘here is a cat’ and ‘here is a mouse’ variety. As it turned out, the 50-odd rhymes - each depicting a distinct situation the child could relate to - provided a rich and varied context as well as syntax even at this early stage. The high pictorial content gave the child clues and helped him guess the approximate meaning of the rhyme. The pleasure of decoding a pictorial sequence that I have seen on the faces of some of my students certainly gave me the confidence that I was on the right track. The relatively complex syntactic structures presented by the rhymes would, in time, find a place in this child’s memory bank even if our objectives in the ‘here and now’ do not include the syntax.

Beyond the pleasure principle…

And so we used this complete set of alphabet rhymes (including those for consonants and vowels) for one or two years in the Prep Section of Rishi Valley School. The children enjoyed repeating these rhymes. On the campus, one would sometimes hear them singing absent-mindedly ‘Ka se kaua kauvi ek..’ as they walked past or be reminded of the ‘Ja se jugnu’ rhyme when they saw a firefly. Teacher and parental feedback was positive.

Yet, at a pedagogical level, one cannot remain content with the pleasure that a child displays in decoding pictorial clues, repeating the rhymes and eventually memorizing them. The principle of pleasure cannot be the sole motor of any pedagogical approach. As a teacher, I felt that there was a need to develop a definite progression of competencies, for a spiralling lesson structure where each new lesson refers back to the previous, brings new information and then joins up with the next. There was a need for reinforcement and a need for evaluation. The Rural Education Programme of the Rishi Valley Education Centre provided me with pointers as to how these holes could be plugged in the materials I was preparing and I borrowed freely from their rigorous and well-structured approach.

Clustering letters and devising activities: a structure emerges

One of the principles used in the REC kit is to break down the content into small units of learning. Another is to have a certain specific series of activities in each of these units. I too decided to punctuate the long list of letters in the Hindi alphabet by grouping them into clusters and creating additional learning materials and activities along with each of these. Each cluster now contains 4-5 consonant rhymes and 1or 2 vowel rhymes. Accompanying these are bingo cards, flash cards, dictation texts and 2 types of evaluation worksheets, as well as a reading text.

The guiding principles for clustering the alphabets were based on instinct and what I considered commonsense: I wished to create small clusters of phonic units - consonants as well as vowels - whose combination would yield enough words to create a simple, short reading text. Another deciding factor was based on my experience of teaching Hindi to southern learners: I had found it an uphill task to get the students to pronounce the Hindi aspirates correctly, especially so when the non-aspirate and aspirate (for example, ‘ka’ and ‘kha’) consonant rhymes were introduced in the alphabetical order. Many of the children would cheerily repeat the ‘kha’rhyme as ‘ka se kargosh hai mera aaya; karbooze ka tukda kaya’... much to my dismay! Thus I resolved to introduce the aspirate and the nonaspirate forms as far apart in the progression of the course as possible.

Beginning to read, write and to understand

The cluster then became the unit of teaching. Each cluster would contain reinforcement materials - bingo games for memory reinforcement of letters and words, flash cards for recall of nouns and the like. For evaluation of vocabulary and the spelling of words, simple ‘fill in the missing letters and maatras’ worksheets were devised. At the end of every cluster, a simple reading text consisting of words that were formed with the set of alphabets already introduced was also created. These reading texts have detailed pictorial support and the child is invited, with the help of the illustrations, to decode not just the script but also the meaning of hitherto unseen words. Though the mechanics of reading is one of the simplest tasks in Hindi, the script being phonetical to a very high extent, true reading implies an ability to comprehend what one can read. It was found that children had no difficulty in reading and understanding these texts that progressively incorporate an increasing range of letters. The reading material is followed by dictation tasks based on the principle of assonance - that is to say, the child is asked to write a series of words where at least one element, if not more, is common. This whole process simplifies the early dictation task enormously for children. And slowly, any fears or inhibitions of written work that may arise, ebb away.

Engaging with ‘gender’ in the language

Hindi presents a curious problem - all the Hindi nouns are either masculine or feminine. And the sentence structure – from the adjective to the verb – are entirely dependent on the knowledge of this gender. The new learner is faced with the daunting task of becoming acquainted with the gender of thousands of words. But how is he to learn this? To my knowledge, no method or approach had addressed this problem satisfactorily. Ultimately I felt that the only place to begin is at the very beginning. Thus the notion of gender of nouns was introduced right from the first lesson of the programme i.e. from the first rhyme that is learnt, so that the child learns the gender of nouns at the same pace as he becomes familiar with the nouns themselves. A simple pictorial logo in the form of a girl’s face and a boy’s face presented along with the noun seemed to suffice. After finishing the cluster, children would be asked to categorize these nouns by copying them out in two distinct columns in their notebook, one column for the ‘girl word’ and another for the ‘boy word’. But in the evaluation phase, one needed to test if the child had actually internalized the gender. This was done through another set of short exercises where the child had to fill in either ‘ka’ or ‘kee’, depending on the gender of the second word (eg: ‘naana kee nav’ and not ‘naana ka naav’). Thus without getting into the complexities of a complete sentence, one could verify whether the child had internalized the gender of the concrete nouns he had been introduced to.


In this manner, a first level of the programme to teach Hindi as a second language emerged through an observation of the difficulties involved in the existing scenario and the need to do something about it. A close involvement with children at home and at school, my own enjoyment in writing the little rhymes and the excitement of seeing children beginning to speak and read an entirely new language, all contributed to the process. This is, of course, only the first step in mastering Hindi. Work is now underway to further develop a course that will enable children to use the language with accuracy and confidence, while retaining the sense of enjoyment with which they began their journey into a new terrain.

Pedagogical development of a cluster:

  1. Teacher presents the seven or eight rhymes of a selected cluster of letters to the children either by singing them out himself or by playing the cassette, while pointing to the relevant places in the illustration.
  2. Teacher gets children to look at each of the illustrations and talk about what they see. (Children could be permitted to use their own mother tongues, for it is necessary at this stage to simply generate a response to the picture.)
  3. Teacher sings the rhyme, (part by part or line by line, depending on the level of difficulty expressed by the children in pronouncing the sounds), and the children repeat after her, first as a group and then individually till such time as the children have memorized the rhymes (this may be done by repetitions over several days).
  4. Teacher shows an illustration and cues children to recite the rhyme from memory.

Individual work on each alphabet rhyme

  1. Teacher helps children to isolate the words starting with a given letter in the rhyme, and to associate concrete nouns with the picture given in the box.
  2. Teacher establishes the link between the alphabet, and the sound it creates. Children find various occurences of the alphabet in the rhyme and highlight these with a colour pencil.
  3. Children run their finger over the alphabet in the sequence shown by the arrows. Very young children could then be asked to trace out the alphabet in a sand tray. Slightly older children could directly trace the letter in the worksheet on the dotted line and then practise it further in their notebook.
  4. Children do the exercise of matching the word-to-word, and later to the picture. At this stage, children are not expected to read the word analytically (i.e. alphabet by alphabet), but to read it more as a pattern or a picture.
  5. Children copy out the concrete noun-word and draw a picture for it.
  6. Children categorize noun-words starting with a particular letter into the girl-word column or the boy-word column in their notebook. Revision and reinforcement work done in groups on the entire cluster
  7. Children play different games with flashcards.
  8. Children play the Bingo game.

Evaluation worksheets

  1. Fill in the missing letter or maatra worksheet.
  2. Fill in ‘kaa’ or ‘kee’ worksheet.

Further reading and writing work

  1. Assign the reading text at the end of a class for children to practise silent reading at home (for after all silent reading is the most common mode of reading).
  2. In the next class, ascertain what the children have understood of the text by themselves. Correct any errors in comprehension.
  3. Have children read out parts of the text in turn.
  4. Conduct dictation in a supportive atmosphere where any mistakes made by the child provide an opportunity for clarification of doubts. Dictation is not to be viewed as a tool of evaluation but rather as a means of learning to write accurately what one hears.


  1. The Grammatical Approach sets out to teach the language through a strict progression from what is grammatically simple to what is grammatically more complex. Thus even if a particular sentence is immediately needed, say for instance, ‘My name is XXX’, it will be taught only at a later stage, since the grammatical concepts needed would be the expression of possession ‘my’ which would come only in, say, lesson 4.
  2. The Functional Approach sets out to teach the language specifically suited to a given profession. So if French is being taught to Hotel Management graduates, the vocabulary related to the hospitality business will be incorporated from the very first lesson.
  3. The Communicative Approach, based on the speech act theory of Austin and Searl, teaches language according to the ‘acts’ that language accomplishes. For instance, the act of introducing oneself or someone else demands that one provides the name first and then one gives some supplementary information, either age or profession or relationship vis-a-vis another person. Thus, regardless of the grammatical complexity entailed, these sentences will be taught in the first unit.