By Kitty Chevallier
The English-Hindi Conversation Exchange project is one of the library’s newer undertakings. As the name suggests, the aim of the programme is to develop and encourage a two-way language learning process, in which all parties can improve their confidence and fluency in producing and understanding language – be that spoken English, or conversational Hindi. The project has been a fascinating and educational process for all involved, and its goals – and the broader goals of the library as a whole – are of particular importance and interest to me.
I am a student from the UK, and have not been in India long. For anyone travelling and living abroad, the experience inevitably forces you into confrontation with just how many things you take for granted with your life and your surroundings. For me, being in India has made me realise that certain things I am used to back home can’t always be relied upon: trains that run on time, pedestrian crossings, and toilet paper are just a few examples! But it works both ways: conversely, in the last few months I have come to regard other things as normal: delicious masala chai available on every street corner, beautiful warm evenings for sitting outside (even in November!), and the never-ending friendliness and curiosity of the people I meet.
Throughout my life, however, there is one thing I realise I have always been able to take for granted: books. At school, at home, in well-stocked public libraries: I have been lucky enough to have always had books on hand, to have been able to draw endlessly upon their resources and entertainment. Which is why the idea of a community library, a project that fills so vital and fundamental gap, meeting the needs of children who aren’t provided with something that has always seemed so basic, attracted me as a cause I would love to help with.
Having said that, my role here, running the conversation exchange, does not revolve around books at all. With the exception of a few key words and phrases written down here and there for memory prompts, written language does not feature. What we are trying to do is bring language alive, take it off the page of the textbook and the classroom whiteboard and into real, spontaneous speech. We hope to eliminate any fear that the children might attach to English conversation and render it merely that: the tool for holding conversations that will prove so helpful in everyday life and in many of the jobs they might go on to do. At the same time, the ‘exchange’ element is fundamental to this project: the children are well aware that for many of the volunteers (myself especially!) speaking in Hindi and learning from what they have to teach us is every bit as important as passing on English skills to them. My own faltering construction of sentences and hugely limited vocabulary makes it abundantly clear that we all have a great deal to learn, and we it’s a learning process in which we can all guide and help each other.
Indeed, one of the core rules of the project, explained in the opening session and regularly referred to, stresses precisely this: do not be afraid to make mistakes. We don’t care if the verbs are wrongly conjugated, if the pronouns are the wrong way round; it’s about being brave enough to open your mouth and get your point across, in whatever form that might take. The other rules are equally important, and remind us to listen to each other, value other people’s point of view, talk with respect, and make allowances and adjustments for differing levels of linguistic ability and comprehension.
So it is with these guidelines in place that I sit down each day with the children, in groups of two, three or four, and we begin to talk. We have been discussing a range of topics, from books to the world of work, from food to school life, from fashion to friends and family. There is no set format to the sessions, but they usually begin with some prompt questions to open up a discussion in English; after 20-30 minutes, we switch to Hindi. Sometimes I have included some audio-visual stimuli, like films and songs, and have introduced a few word-based games to keep things varied and interesting. Using games has been especially rewarding, because I have found that children who might feel shy and tongue-tied when asked to deliver a sentence in response to a direct question, are often much more at ease with something more creative and imaginary, less personal to them. And it’s amazing how much you can put children at their ease if you’re prepared to make a bit of a fool of yourself!
I’ve learnt a great deal from this experience and from talking to the children, not only about the story behind Diwali and the personal life of their favourite actors, about the ways their brothers and sisters wind them up and how to make perfect parathas – but also about how to engage with language-learning in interesting and dynamic ways, how to inspire confidence and get everybody speaking together. I hope that the children have learnt just as much, about how to speak more fluently in a language which will help open doors to them, a language that doesn’t have to be daunting, formally taught and stringently assessed, but can be natural, spontaneous, flexible – and fun.