In India, in several states, three languages are taught compulsorily in schools, from classes 1 (6 year olds) to 8 (14 year olds): English, Hindi and another Indian language.

Optional personal background

Eg, in Assam, I studied in an English-medium school. All subjects like Physics, Geography, Economics etc. were taught only in English. But I also had 3 language classes.

In the first year of kindergarten (3yo), I only learned English (alphabet, words etc.). In the second and third year (4yo to 5yo), I learned English and Assamese. After that, from class 1 to class 8, I learned English, Assamese and Hindi. In my personal experience, this was effective. I can now speak, read and write all the three languages quite fluently.

Promotion of Hindi

Hindi is promoted to encourage the adoption of a lingua franca, so when, say, a Gujarati speaker from Gujarat and an Assamese speaker from Assam meet, they can talk in Hindi, even though the two languages are mutually unintelligible. But I was wondering if the extent to which Hindi is taught is necessary if that is the basic intention. We were taught and tested on classic pieces of literature with quite difficult use of words and phrases, and even medieval literature like the dohas of Kabeer. While I enjoyed learning those too, I would have also enjoyed learning other languages of India. Furthermore, people in several southern states like Karnataka, Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala etc. barely speak Hindi, so knowing Hindi is not of much use in talking to them. Also, the promotion of Hindi is believed to have negatively impacted the growth of many languages like Bhojpuri, the Rajasthani languages, the Pahadi languages etc.

Possibility of IA course

In light of all of this, I was wondering if instead of teaching Hindi at such an advanced level for 8 years, it would be possible to have a course such that many different languages are taught to a level that allows basic conversation and understanding simple written texts (I am not talking about augmenting the Hindi course. Imagine a hypothetical world where we can design a course from scratch and replace the Hindi course). I am also NOT asking whether it is politically/ logistically good or feasible, I am only asking if it is, purely at a technical level from the point of view of linguistics, feasible, given 8 years.

To make it more concrete, suppose I want conversational proficiency only in some (not all) of the major Indo-Aryan languages (excluding the Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan ones). These languages are definitely related, share a lot of grammar and vocabulary, and many of the differences are explainable by laws in linguistics. I self-learned Bengali (I now read novels and listen to songs in it) as it is quite similar to Assamese. I also know many of the sound-shift patterns between Assamese and Hindi (by informal observation): schwa becomes o, long vowels become short vowels, ch/ chh become s, s/ sh becomes x etc.

So intuitively, I feel a properly structured curriculum would make learning these different languages together much easier. I imagine something like a chemistry class, where the basics of atoms and molecules are taught, then the different groups of elements in the periodic table are explored for their unique properties. Similarly, the basic common features of the Indo-Aryan languages might be taught, followed by properties peculiar to the Magadhan languages, Hindi languages, Western IA languages etc. (I am just speculating at this point, for the sake of example). And using these, learning to speak many of the languages might become easier, at least at a basic level.

So my question is:

  1. (Soft question) Does this sound feasible in an 8 year-course to school children? If not, do you feel it would be feasible in other age groups? With a longer time-span? With some structure other than the chemistry-like structure I have imagined?

  2. (Reference request) Is there any similar attempt that has been done anywhere in the world, where the commonalities of languages have been exploited to teach them at once? Where can I access such material?

1 Answer 1


Yes, it is technically feasible.

See How many languages can a person reasonably know?

But the program will fail if it is purely based on trying to explicitly teach the children the similarity patterns and conversion rules, for which they have no patience.

Rather, through natural exposure in the course of focusing on other goals, they will quickly implicitly learn and start to exploit them, as children do.

Also, there needs to be real contact and use to solidify the proper usage of the specific languages.

Otherwise similar languages naturally become very muddled in the brain, which is fine for passive understanding but not so fine for actively speaking.

As for real-world examples, this situation is somewhat similar to that of the Romance, German or Slavic languages within Europe.

It is not uncommon for someone to learn French, Spanish, Italian and even Portuguese in the course of a decent education. I would not be surprised if there are schools in Barcelona for example where all children learn Spanish and French or Italian in addition to Catalan.

However I am not aware of a formal program to drill the similarity patterns and conversion rules into childrens' heads.

The efficiency of learning similar languages is mainly in skipping the zero-to-one phase, and progressing directly to the phase where exposure leads to progress.

  • German children do learn some German grammar at school, which could be counted as learning similarity patterns.
    – Jan
    Commented May 10 at 20:17
  • @Jan I think the OP meant something more like German students learning to derive English, Dutch or Danish words from German words. For example, z-t- i.e. the conversion back from the High German Consonant Shift. Commented May 11 at 8:20
  • There are some places where it might be fruitful to point similarity patterns directly into the face of students, e.g. a lesson that introduces lots of Dutch words with -schap pr -tie (-ship and -tion in English). But again this is something that would start with an implication rather than by introducing the rule.
    – Jan
    Commented May 11 at 9:56
  • That said, there really is one similarity that I wish I had learnt earlier. That is how French parfait with avoir and être corresponds quite well with German Perfekt with haben and sein. So there definitely is some point in explicitely pointing out similarities. Just not so sure it is in vocabulary.
    – Jan
    Commented May 11 at 10:00
  • 1
    But similarity patterns almost don't even need to be taught, because we naturally take features of SAE for granted, just as Indo-Aryan speakers do for Indo-Aryan languages. The value of the conversion rules is that they unlock a lot of vocabulary (or grammar) that superficially appears to be different. Commented May 11 at 15:01

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