Dr Dripta Piplai, Jadavpur University
Author, “Nijer bhashaye galpo” (Stories in one’s own tongue)
A close observation of the everyday language use of children in India reveals many instances of code mixing. Children can mix and switch between two or more languages. Children acquire more than one set of codes based on different situations at their surroundings. Acquisition of multiple set of codes is observed in both rural and urban children of India. In reality, absolutely no child will be found as an ideal monolingual in this country. Children regularly get access to multiple codes through school, market, television and playgrounds. In fact, it can be argued that every child is bilingual or multilingual as default. It can be stated that children use one set of grammar and borrow linguistic items from other known languages. It is also possible to claim that instead of simply borrow from a language, children utilize the structures and lexical items of two or more languages and to use mixed codes. As Tom Roeper (1999) has pointed out, there is a ‘Mini Grammar’ inside every child’s head. Thus, every child is bi/multilingual.
There is a need to understand the nature of this bi/multilingual grammar of children. We can assume that there is a multilingual grammar inside ever child’s head. There is an obvious question related to the assumption: how are the different codes arranged inside the head. (Like different emotions were arranged inside Riley’s head in the Disney movie ‘Inside Out’) There are different possibilities. We can argue that there are different slots for different languages in our mental grammar (Universal Grammar, to put in a Chomskyan way). As children modify the building blocks of languages (or features), different set of codes are obtained and the codes are mixed often.
If one observes the playground talk by children, it will be clear that during play children use lot of mixed codes. In reality, code mixing is a strategy for negotiation during play. A detailed understanding of the code mixing in child language can be obtained through playground talk.
Why do children negotiate at playground? How does the negotiation process use code mixing? One important answer, perhaps, is that children mix codes to assert certain identities and deny certain identities while interacting with other children.
Code mixing has a direct relationship with language variation. Children use codes that are variants of certain linguistic items. For example, a rural child uses variants from his/her home language and the regional standard (the so-called ‘prestige language’). The same child also uses a variant from the link language (or language of the marketplace of a village). There are continuous switching and mixing utilizing these three sets of codes or three variants of a same linguistic item.
The following sentence has been uttered by a Rajbanshi speaking child from northern part of Bengal, in India:
- EkTa haS khacche murgiTa dekhtese
‘One duck is eating and a hen is watching that’
The sentence above has two verbs. The first verb ‘khacche’ (eats) uses Bangla verb inflection –cche. The second verb ‘dekhtese’ (watches) uses inflection –ese in an inflection which is neither from their home language nor from the regional language. But children are mixing two sets of codes in a single sentence.
- Ek hate noukaTi nise ar arek hate ghuRiTa niye dekhche
‘(He/she) has taken the boar in one hand and a kite on the other hand’
The first verb ‘nise’ (has taken) is a so-called non-prestigious verbal form. The second verb ‘dekhcche’ (watching), on the contrary, is used from regional standard.
Negotiation and assertion of identities through playground talk represents instances from a larger domain. It can be assumed that different set of codes are representation of different identities. Thus, when rural children want to identify themselves with a teacher from a city, they tend to use codes from so-called prestigious varieties. When children want to play among close-knit group members, the language use tend to focus on the home language.
The teachers in rural schools (also in urban schools, but I am focusing rural school for the present purpose) are often not aware of this default multilingual nature of the children’s mental grammar. The teacher mostly assumes that children primarily use the regional standard and their home variety (which is a less prestigious form and thus cannot be used in schools). The fact that children naturally mix codes very often in day to day conversation is not considered by many teachers. So, teachers do not utilize the multilingual codes for classroom tasks.
Apart from that, there is an understanding from the teachers’ side: children should always use one language in classroom. There is a misconception that mixing codes or utilizing multilingual codes can be cognitively ‘bad’ for children. According to Perez and Nordlande (2004): ‘when children switch between or mix their two languages, it may seem that the children do not have good skills in their either language’. But Cummins (2008) has mentioned that multilingual children are cognitively more demanding. It has been found that children naturally tap linguistic resources, using rules and vocabulary from both the languages (Genesee, Paradis and Cargo, 2004). Ironically, the potential for using multilingual codes or utilizing children’s mixed code utterances is not considered as doable task for regular classroom.
There are possibilities of using code mixing utterances of children as resource of the classroom. Recorded peer talk narrative comprising different codes can be used to design activities based on various skills: e.g. listen to the text and answer/discuss. Spontaneous storytelling and retelling, describing an event, pretend play tasks can be designed by teachers. Theatre activities using code mixing can also be done by allowing children to create dialogues using code mixed grammar.
The use of default code mixed constructions of children in classroom has benefits. As the actual utterances of children are the target texts for various uses in classroom, no imposition of ‘ideal’ text can be feared from these situations. In other words, using code mixed grammar or default grammar of children in classroom can lead to joyful learning experience for the children too.