Story of Hindi Ki Duniya Project

A Personal Account - Dr Chandrika Mathur

In 1996, I was the mother of a 3-year old and was looking around for good books in Hindi for my daughter.  There were very few good books available for toddlers in Hindi then (the situation has thankfully changed dramatically since then!).  I began to make little rhymes for my daughter using the principle of alliteration rather than formal rhyming.  She enjoyed repeating them with me and I found that she started recognizing some of the Hindi letters, simply because I used to sometimes wave the letter when we repeated the rhyme.

At that time, I used to teach French in the Rishi Valley School.  The students used to begin learning French in the 8th or the 9th standard and used to become quite proficient in speaking and writing French by the time they were in the 10th.  Once, in a casual conversation, the Director of our school, Radhika Herzberger asked me how it was that children learnt French so quickly, whereas many non-Hindi speaking children had a lot of difficulty in learning Hindi even though they began it much earlier.  She asked whether it was because French was easier than Hindi.

My instinctive response was that no language is either more difficult or easier to learn than the other.  Yet, the availability of good tools to teach the language and the approach, method and attitude that the teacher brings to class could make a substantial difference to the experience of the learner. This response was the beginning of a new journey.

In 1997 the school asked me formally to try to develop materials which could help non-Hindi speaking children learn Hindi more effectively.   In the beginning I was quite clueless.  I spoke Hindi as my mother-tongue.  To me it all seemed quite simple.  Where then could one begin?

I had made some rhymes with a certain set of letters of the Hindi alphabet.  All the letters had not been covered.  When my daughter repeated the rhymes, she pronounced them correctly.  When I tried these with some of the non-Hindi speaking children in the school to whom I had begun to teach Hindi by now, their pronunciation left much to be desired!  One little girl cheerfully repeated the rhyme for the sound ‘kha’ by pronouncing all the khas like ‘ka…’ I realised that one point of difficulty for the non-native learners was the presence of aspirates and non-aspirate sounds in Hindi.

I also noticed that non-Hindi speaking children had no clue whether they should say ‘Bus aa gaya’ or ‘Bus aa gayee’.  Whereas my little 3-year old had figured out the gender of many nouns simply by the fact of having heard me and her father speak in Hindi at home, the students in the school would never have that kind of exposure to Hindi in the classroom. I was also learning Telugu, having moved to rural Andhra Pradesh.  I used to learn a word or an expression and forget it equally quickly if I didn’t use it repeatedly.  It was easy to forget words in a new language!

Some of these realizations led me to experiment with early clustering of letters into easy to learn groups, introducing the boy-word and girl-word logos for every noun introduced through the rhyme and thus teaching gender explicitly to children. I also tried to build in several cycles of revision and repetition, trying to find ways of making this fun for the young children.  

Slowly, the materials for beginners evolved.  First a set of rhymes, then the clustering of the rhymes, then some games with flash cards to help reinforce the memory of vocabulary introducedChildren using these were having loads of fun.  They were successful with what they were being asked to do.  Yet they would be quite confused when it came to speaking in correct sentences.

What sentence structures should be taught first?  What should we teach subsequently?  I looked at the French books, noting how they were sequencing language structures.  But most of the books I had access to had been written for older students.  The situations would make no sense to the 7-8 year olds I had in front of me.  To understand what pre-occupied this age-group I started listening in to some of their conversations, at work and at play.

A first set of conversational lessons with Alka and Kapil as the main protagonists was developed.  But when I took them to class, I realised that the grammatical progression that I had adopted was difficult for students to internalize.  There were too many jumps, too many gaps.  Instead of tinkering with these, I decided to abandon them completely and develop a new set of thematic lessons with a more gradual progression of grammatical structures. The Hina-Noor lessons of Hindi Ki Duniya’s intermediate level evolved very quickly thereafter.  When I took them to the class, I saw that they were working. 

But children need to have books to read; they need to be read aloud to. Books written for the Hindi speaking children were often too difficult for my students.  I wrote some stories which echoed the themes of the Hina-Noor lessons in a richer, more natural language.  Children took to these stories immediately.  An experienced illustrator, Berlin, (who had now been illustrating the lessons) was truly inspired by the stories and drew the most delightful pictures to go with them. 

All this was fun!  The excitement of the children, my own pleasure in seeing them progress so rapidly with Hindi was an exhilarating experience.  Now various parents and visitors to the school started urging me to publish these materials and make them available to other children. 

This is when I first began to realize that Hindi as a Second Language did not exist as a known field in the domain of school textbooks.  After a few attempts at approaching publishers, we got lucky.  Arundhati Deosthale of Scholastic India Ltd. liked the beginner level materials that we showed her and indicated to us at our very first meeting that she would like to publish Hindi Ki Duniya, pehle kadam as a language learning kit for parents and teachers.  The first level of these materials was thus published as a parents’ and teachers’ kit in 2004 consisting of a set of four books – a book of rhymes, an activity book, a workbook, a reader - with an accompanying audio-tape. 

With this Hindi learning kit now available through Scholastic book fairs in schools across the country, I thought that my work was over.  But very soon I realized that this was not the case. Parents found the books useful but the parents’ and teachers’ guide included in the book was difficult to follow in Hindi (only the Hindi version had got published).  Interested parents could not get the books easily.  Teachers in some schools which had begun to use the books could not fully comprehend the teachers’ guide or simply found it too long to go through.

We organized a few workshops around the books.  These were well attended and much appreciated by the participants.  Yet, they also gave us some feedback. The form in which the set of books had been published made it difficult for them to use in classrooms: the four different books were quite impractical when it came to young children, who would forget to bring the right book to class etc.  Also, with young children of 6 and 7 years the materials took 2 years to complete in the classroom.  By the end of the 2 years, the books were in tatters.  It was recommended that we re-organize the materials into textbooks and workbooks for classes 1 and 2, so that at the beginning of the 2nd year the child got a new set of books.

Meanwhile the materials for intermediate level were being developed, tried out and refined in our classrooms at Rishi Valley School as well as in a few schools in Bangalore. Even as teachers found these materials to be effective in drawing children into learning the language, they and their students had many suggestions as well as critiques.  The children loved some activities like the ‘Ganja Bhoot’ evaluation exercise and wanted these repeated in each lesson.  Other activities or exercises they found too tedious and boring.  The teachers felt that certain key concepts needed more practice and revision.  Some gaps became visible in the structure of the programme. These needed to be filled.

After much work at incorporating the feedback, the required elements and activities began to take shape.  We found that there were many more elements which needed to be combined in one lesson of the intermediate level than in the beginner’s level.  Then again, using songs, stories and worksheets in the classroom was one thing, presenting these in the form of a book was quite another.  A clear structure finally began to emerge only after 7 to 8 years of using the materials in the classroom. 

Around this time we learnt that the first print run that Scholastic had done was coming to an end.  Scholastic was not particularly keen on re-printing these books. And now we had books not just for class 1 & 2 but also manuscripts for classes 3 & 4.  This time we got in touch with Orient Blackswan, a well-known publisher of textbooks in India.  The editors liked the books but did not want to take up the series unless we also included a book for class 5.  We had some materials at the next level, which we had selected from existing children’s books and magazines and around which we had developed some worksheets. But these were not in any structured form.  Moreover, there were no custom illustrations for these. So we got down to developing materials for class 5, which would constitute the advanced level in this methodology and whose aim would be to provide the bridge for non-Hindi speaking children to be able to competently handle the regular Hindi textbooks written for Hindi-speaking children.
Finally, in 2012 all the textbooks and workbooks for classes 1-5 were ready to be published and we sent them fully laid out to Orient Blackswan along with audio recordings and Bilingual Teachers’ Guides (written in English & Hindi). When the publishers looked at the black and white books that we had sent them, they liked what they saw, but felt that unless they were in colour, these would not appeal to teachers and children.  They wanted to print them in colour.  Another year went by as the pages were coloured and got ready for final publication.  In September 2013 the books were finally out in print in the form of the Hindi Ki Duniya series of textbooks and workbooks with accompanying audio CDs and flashcards.

At this time, when this series has just been published, we felt that it would be good to share our work and ideas with the expanding family of users of this method, via this website and a facebook group. This would allow parents and teachers to be in touch with each other around the myriad questions that emerge from their practice and experience. We hope that these forums will bring teachers of Hindi together and infuse renewed energy into their work, making the teaching of Hindi a fulfilling experience for themselves and a joy for children.