The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 3, 2002

Standardising basic Punjabi teaching
Jaspal Singh

IN last five decades or so since the formal teaching of Punjabi started in the schools of Punjab, almost the entire literate population of the state has learnt reading and writing of Punjabi. At present we have about 70 per cent literacy rate in Punjab that means nearly 17 million people can read and write Punjabi. The number of Punjab writers in Indian Punjab itself is equally respectable. There are nearly 3,000 writers on the rolls of various "lekhak sabhas".

Of all the languages of the world Punjabi can boast of the best writer-reader ratio. There are scores of Punjabi novelists, playwrights and story writers but the number of Punjabi poets runs into thousands. There is a saying: "If you turn a brick, you will find three Punjabi poets sitting under it". And it is precisely this lot that feels most persecuted at the neglect of the Punjabi language by government institutions.

Nobody in the government, except Amrik Singh Pooni and Nirpinder Rattan has ever understood the anguish and agony of the Punjabi poets who have been living now for years under the illusion that if the government officers start passing orders in Punjabi instead of English, Punjabi will develop by leaps and bounds as a language. They forget here that the onus for the development of any language lies with the writers themselves not with "babus" and office files. They perhaps are not aware of the fact that the Russian language developed only when writers like Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and so on presented such complex ideas in that language.


Every year hundred of Punjabi books appear on the book stalls. It is a different matter that the print order for most of the Punjabi books is not more than 250 copies per edition. A South Indian friend of mine tells that in Tamil some of the popular writers are published in hundreds of thousands. What a contrast! Nevertheless there is no dearth of the people in Punjab eager to take to the pen irrespective of the number of the readers. One thing that rankles with an objective observer is that the Punjabi world of letters is over-crowded with poets, novelists, storywriters and so on but there are very few writers who can teach how to read and write the Punjabi language. So far there is no authentic descriptive grammar of Punjabi, nor any worthwhile dictionary of Punjabi usage. The spelling system of the language is yet to be standardised. Most of the Punjab writers are indifferent to such requirements. Some of them even actively discourage the scholars engaged in this kind of work. There are very few standard Punjabi primers for the beginners which can be used to teach the language on sound linguistic principles.

An editor friend of mine once revealed that even the nationally decorated Punjabi writers commit stupid mistakes while writing in Punjabi and he has to spend a lot of time while touching up their copies for publication in his paper. Students learning Punjabi in schools have to fall back on dull and drab primers and text books printed on equally dull paper.

Many illustrious Punjabi writers and veteran professors have in recent times fervently espoused the cause of the Punjabi language in a bitter debate unleashed by the Punjab government decision of introducing English as one of the subjects at the elementary level. No doubt the decision to introduce English without creating necessary infrastructure is fallacious but the champions of the Punjabi language, despite their scholarship and passion for the cause, have done nothing in a scientific manner to facilitate the learning of this language for the children in the elementary schools.

Recently this columnist examined the papers for an essay competition for graduate and post-graduate students and was surprised to find that the students writing their essays in Punjabi (their mother tongue) were the worst. Those writing in Hindi and English were equally good, some of them every showed flashes of a brilliance. Now against this dismal background if somebody does something positive to alleviate the agony the child learner, he should be encouraged.

To write for the child is not a child’s play have many writers steer clear of it and write only for adults. A team of scholars led by Avtar Singh Dhaliwal from government college of Education, Chandigarh has brought out a series of primers and text books to provide for the need of Punjab learners in elementary classes. "Maulisiri Punjabi Path-Bodh" and Maulsiri Punjabi Path Pustak 1-5" (Orient Longman, New Delhi) are different from the other such attempts in the field in more than one way. The authors claim that while doing this arduous work they have had in mind the researches made in the field of language acquisition and language teaching keeping in view the multi-lingual socio-cultural environment of the young students in the towns of Punjab and outside Punjab.

The present day learner in the towns now lives in a strange linguistic environment where he has to handle simultaneously at least three languages. Along with his own native language, the child from the middle class has a strange dose of English and popular Hindi. The electronic media has been playing an important role in the lives of present-day children. In such a situation the child trying to acquire the four basic skills of language — listening, speaking, reading and writing needs culturally relevant matter so that he can immediately recognise the images and form concepts in the proper socio-cultural context.

The linguistic structure used in these series has been taken from the life of a middle class child in the cities. The exercises appended at the end of each lesson give an impetus to the curiosity of the child so that he can then explore the field himself which may enhance his communication potential in the language. The authors have tried to inculcate healthy values in the child by leading him closer to nature and away from the din of electronic media. There are quite a few lessons based on Indian cultural heritage but such material has been consciously handled so that the child does not become superstitious or irrational. Many traditional tales and fables have been used to make the lessons more interesting but they have been modified here and there so that a healthy attitude towards life and nature is developed among the children.

Almost every lesson has appropriate visual illustrations which make learning a little more engaging. Some lessons are from history while some others are from the world of science and technology. There are a few lessons based on adventures and explorations. Since most of the lessons have been devised keeping in view the need of the middle class town children, these series may not be very useful for the rural children. Even otherwise poor children in the villages or in town slums cannot buy such costly books. They have to depend mostly on the cheap books produced by the state education boards. Even in the production of books for children the class angle dominates. One can see the sharp division in Indian society by scrutinising the quality of text books available to different sets of children in society.

If we continue with the present system, we may not ever provide really universal education with equal inputs to all the children living in different socio-economic settings. This kind of growing dichotomy in society does not augur well and it may lead to tragic consequences in the future.