3. Language and Communication – Psychology in India, Volume 1


Language and Communication

Prakash Padakannaya


Language and communication is a topic that is central to human cognition. It could be argued that the study of language and communication is perhaps the best means of studying the human mind. The study of language acquisition in children, for instance, has provided a major impetus for the advancement of cognitive as well as linguistic sciences. The concept of linguistic relativity laces together language, thought, and culture. The studies on the evolution of language and language behaviour in a variety of sociocultural settings have brought biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and linguists under one umbrella. Issues such as language loss (acquired aphasia), reading process, and dyslexia have made neurologists, psychologists, educationists, and speech and language pathologists work together. Needless to say, the study of language and communication is an interdisciplinary area of research with immense theoretical and practical significance.

India represents a mini world in terms of the number of languages that thrive in its rich sociocultural habitat. Almost one in every five individuals in the world speaks one of the Indian languages. Hindi and Bengali are ranked second and fifth in the world in terms of number of speakers. There are 216 mother tongues with more than 10,000 speakers each, according to the 1991 census. These languages belong to four different families: Indo-European, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, and Austro-Asiatic. Thus India is like a natural laboratory for language-related researches with its uniqueness and diversity in terms of languages, bilingualism/multilingualism set-up, non-alphabetic yet alphabetic-like orthography, and oral traditions (with and without exposure to literacy).

The current trends of research in the field of psychology of language include cognitive, clinical, educational, and sociocultural perspectives. This review will focus on the major research trends and accomplishments in the field of ‘language and communication’ in India during the period 1994–2004. The term communication in the title should be seen as a part of the language process and not independent of language. The emphasis is on significant and relevant studies having importance for the cognitive, clinical/neurological, educational, and sociocultural aspects of language and communication. Researches which have psycholinguistic, neurolinguistic, and psychosocial relevance are considered. Researches of pure linguistic as well as pure neurobiological concern are out of the purview of this review. Following a pragmatic and eclectic approach, this review is organized under the following three major sections, which will be followed by general concluding remarks:

  1. Language acquisition and language processes.
  2. Reading.
  3. Bi/Multilingualism.

Language Acquisition

Language acquisition is a multidimensional, dynamic, and complex process. The process of child language acquisition is never static. It follows a certain degree of uniformity yet with a wide range of individual differences conditioned by the sociocultural context. Traditionally the studies on language acquisition have focused on many dimension(s) of language, viz., phonology, morphology, syntax, or pragmatics, which are mutually interdependent. A number of researches have been carried out on different aspects of language development in India during the past decade. An attempt is made in this chapter to trace the research advancement by reviewing them.

Narasimhan (1998) brought out an interesting and engrossing book on language acquisition. He chose to explain language acquisition based on a pragmatic consideration of language use rather than on a syntactic one. He emphasized the role of community in which a child lives with empirical data to support his argument. He analysed the prerequisites for language acquisition, especially as related to the inputs that children receive from the community, and cognitive competencies, questioning the view that language acquisition input is independent, and independent of development in non-linguistic modalities. He put forth a strong case for shifting the focus of language acquisition research from literate language which uses syntax of written text, to the oral mode of adult speech of non-literates. Reviewing the researches on teaching language to apes, Narasimhan observed that those researches failed to establish that apes could develop a language system like humans. This is a very significant contribution by any standards to the field of language acquisition models that vibe with the Indian sociocultural milieu. The approach and arguments of Narasimhan are more from within (Indian), which should be appreciated even if one does not agree with the details of the model that he projects. The influence of environmental input on language acquisition has also been studied by other investigators. Shukla and Mohanty (1995) studied the maternal influence on children’s speech style. Their study showed a significant positive correlation between mother’s speech and child’s speech. Particular orientation in mothers’ speech could explain individual differences in the style of children’s speech to some extent. Misra (1994) made observations on thirty mother–child interactions and reported that children’s use of specific dimensions of a pragmatic system is affected by mothers’ language input thus supporting the ‘motherese hypothesis’.

Chengappa and Devi (2002) reported developmental milestones of language acquisition in Kannada and Hindi. The sample size was eighty and the coverage of the age range was from birth to five years categorized into ten six-monthly groups of children. The study involved collecting a large corpus of speech samples by recording children’s spontaneous utterances, utterances produced in natural interaction with others, imitated target utterances, and narrative speech in the form of picture completion and storytelling. An in-depth analysis of language development in terms of phonological, morphological, and syntactic aspects was presented as normative data which could be used in clinical set-ups. According to the study, the course of language acquisition in Hindi and Kannada is more or less similar though there are some differences in the sequence and the age of acquisition. Some interesting differences observed across Hindi and Kannada were as follows. Inflection of verb for number was seen in the 42–48-month group for Kannada children while in Hindi children it was observed at the age of 24–30 months. Nouns, pronouns, and adjectives were also found to inflect for plurality in Hindi from the age of 24–30 months, for some of which there were no parallel developments in the Kannada language. It is also interesting to note that aspirated consonants were seen in Hindi-speaking children at the age of 36–42 months, whereas their Kannada counterparts did not show this aspirated-non-aspirated contrast even at the age of 54–60 months. This was attributed to the fact that the phonemic contrast between aspirated and non-aspirated consonants is almost merged in spoken Kannada. There were some more significant studies on the acquisition of specific linguistic features in various Indian languages. Devaki (1995) studied the development of the past tense in Kannada children; Sailaja (1994) investigated the role of syntax in the acquisition of Telugu; while Khokle (1995) studied the acquisition of the aspirated/g/ segment in Marathi.

One of the major contributions to the field of language acquisition in the previous decade is an edited volume by Lakshmi Bai and Vasanta (1995). It has several contributions based on the researches carried out at the Center of Advanced Studies in Linguistics, Osmania University. Lakshmi Bai’s paper dealt with the development of coordination in language development among Tamil and Telugu children. She collated and examined data from different sources on coordinate structure used by young monolingual and Tamil and Telugu bilingual children. Her observations suggested that even those early utterances of children, whose coordinate character might be depicted purely through intonational devices, also needed to be attended to. Her study also suggested that participial constructions play a major role in the development of coordination in Indian languages and conjunction reduction is a psychological reality during the development of speech.

Lakshmi Bai (2000) provided an account of the speech development of her own children who acquired Tamil and Telugu simultaneously. The study presented a descriptive account of the development of phonology and lexicon in young bilingual children. The study supports the view that the development of phonology cannot be studied meaningfully without simultaneously considering the lexical items that contain the speech segments, which are affected by phonological processes operating at particular stages of development. The study described a step-by-step acquisition of different classes of Tamil and Telugu phonemes in different word positions and the various complex stages through which the developing phonology passes until it reaches the adult model. One of the research questions was related to the development of lexicon, that is, whether they had two lexicons to match the inputs from the bilingual settings or a ‘unified lexical system’. The results supported the position that bilingual children acquiring two languages simultaneously attempt to build a unitary lexical system drawing from the two input languages. During this stage the parallel lexical items of the two languages are confined to specific linguistic context to avoid any conflict. With regard to phonology, the study advocated that what a child acquires in early phonology are the sound oppositions in different positions of a word. It involves long-time spans during the development for different lexical items containing the same speech sound to be differentiated. The study also suggested that the seemingly settled sound contrasts in a child’s developing system may get obliterated in the course of time due to the pressures from other such contrasts occurring in the same word position in the target system. The study revealed that there are two stages in children’s phonological development. In the first stage, the word as a whole is paid attention to in an undifferentiated manner. In stage two, the child tries to sort out the articulatory details of the sound system that make up the lexical items. But these stages are not discrete as they may overlap. The paucity of such studies in the literature available emphasises the need for the study of language acquisition in different Indian languages for cross-linguistic comparisons. It would also help us to build a normative database at the national level.

Speech and Language Processing

The interdisciplinary nature of language research is exemplified by the fact that a significant portion of researches comes from speech-language scientists. Developmental changes in acoustic features in speech, development of phonological perception in Indian languages, and related issues have been extensively studied by them. Jayaram and Savithri (2002) present an annotated bibliography of the dissertation studies done at the All India Institute of Speech and Hearing, Mysore.

Savithri (1998), and Savithri, Pushpavathi, and Rajeev (1994) reported useful developmental data on speech perception and speech production in terms of the acoustical analysis using the spectrogram and waveform display analysis. Voice onset time differences, especially between voiceless and voiced stops, were found useful in differentiating normal and speech-impaired populations. Savithri (1998) also investigated the relative importance of fundamental frequency, intensity, and duration in signalling word stress in Kannada. The suprasegmental features of speech such as intonation (changing of fundamental frequency in a sentence), stress (extra energy used to emphasize a syllable or word), rhythm (repetitive event in speech), quantity (duration of individual speech sounds) serve different functions in different languages. It was found that while fundamental frequency is the major cue for stress in English, in Indian languages like Kannada, where durational differences are prominent, lengthened vowels indicate stress. However, bases of such differences between English and Indian languages and their implications need to be analysed. Voicing parameters of stop consonants in fifteen Indian languages were studied in another study by Savithri and Santhosh (2003) which looked into variations within Indian languages. In contrast to the findings in other non-Indian languages, vowel duration preceding unvoiced plosives was longer than those preceding voiced plosives in all Indo-European languages except Gujarati. Spectral and temporal parameters in the speech of children with hearing impairment and other special populations have also been reported by scientists from the speech and hearing area (e.g. Nataraja et al., 1998). Such studies have implications for understanding and improving the speech problems of individuals with hearing impairment.

Reddy (1998, 2000, 2003) reported a linguistic account of the vowel and consonant sounds of Indian languages. The studies emphasize that only by giving prime place to phonetics can any phonological study of Indian languages be meaningful and theoretically significant. Vishwanatham (2003) reported an interesting classroom observational study made on sixtyeight adult second language-learners in Telugu, speaking seven different mother tongues. A majority of the phonological errors were classified as ‘transferred errors’, which were committed due to the influence of their mother tongues. A contrastive description and explanation of errors by the teacher was found to be more effective in rectifying them.

Mohanty (2003c) examined the relative salience of word order and noun animacy as cues in the processing of Oriya sentences by adult native speakers. Like other Indian languages, Oriya also has a flexible word order and this would provide a testing ground for the ‘competition model’ of sentence processing. According to that model, the information value of different linguistic features or their cue validity depends on their frequency and consistency of occurrence in a sentence. Under conflicting conditions of cues, the relative cue validity is supposed to determine the weight assigned to them by the speakers. The study highlighted the semantic and pragmatic factors in sentence comprehension and was in consonance with the competition model. Gupta and Srivastava (2000) studied age-related decline in discourse-processing efficiency. The poor performance of aged participants was interpreted in terms of a slowing processing rate and deteriorating capacity for the registration, integration, and reorganization of information.

Development of Metalinguistic Awareness Skills

Metalinguistic awareness (MA) refers to one’s ability to reflect on and manipulate structural features of language. We all use language for communication wherein language is transparent and our knowledge about language is implicit. MA calls for explicit knowledge about language and language structure. A person with MA can see language forms as opaque and attend to them for themselves, treat language as an object of thought, and can manipulate or give judgment on language features and form. MA is studied at four levels of language, viz., the phonological, lexical, syntactic, and semantic levels. It is normally expected to emerge by the age of five to eight years. There are three different views on the development of MA. According to the first view, MA develops concomitantly with language development. The second view is that it is a reflection of a more general Piagetian kind of cognitive development of decontextualization. The third view relates it to reading experience rather than to general cognitive development. Irrespective of the controversy regarding its nature, MA is perceived to be an important skill which is related to language behaviour, both spoken and written. There have been several studies on this aspect in India particularly in relation to its relevance to reading Indian scripts. Karbhari (2004) provides a good account of those researches.

Vasanta, Sastry, and Ravi Maruth (1995) found that the metalinguistic ability in Telugu-speaking children (age group 4.5 to 8.5 years) improved with age. Children revealed a significant increase in acceptability, judgment performance, and in sentence-correction ability between 6 and 7 years of age. Performance on both the tasks was more stable in the age group of 6.5 to 8.5 years than in the younger age group. Acceptability judgment of non-deviant sentences was easier than that of deviant sentences. Performance on the sentence correction task was found to be better in all age groups as compared to the sentence acceptability task.

Prakash and Mohanty (1995) studied whether different aspects of MA would have varying degrees of relationship with reading achievement across grades 1 to 5 for Oriya-speaking children. They also wanted to delineate the relationship between information-processing strategies and different stages of reading acquisition. Phonological awareness was tested by phoneme oddity, verbal similarity, and strip-a-letter tasks. The results revealed that children achieved only 58 per cent accuracy at the grade 5 level on phonemic oddity. From stepwise regression, it was concluded that phonemic awareness does not play a crucial role in learning to read Oriya and does not predict reading comprehension. Synonymy judgment improved remarkably at grade 3 reaching perfection at the grade 5 level. Prema (1997) also reported gradual improvement in the performance of Kannada-speaking children on phonological awareness tasks (rhyme identification, phoneme oddity, phoneme segmentation, phoneme identification), plateaued after grade 5 as the scores of all the children reached the maximum ceiling level. Rhyme recognition and syllable stripping tasks were found to be very easy. Performance on syllable stripping was better than on syllable oddity. Phoneme stripping and phoneme oddity tasks were found to be generally difficult. Such studies suggest that while development of some aspects of metalinguistic awareness could be spontaneous, the development of phonemic awareness is linked to literacy.

Some investigators have explored MA in children with special needs. Nayak (2002) investigated the developmental trends in the acquisition of phonological awareness among Marathi-speaking junior kindergarten and grade 1 children with normal hearing and those with impaired hearing. Syllable awareness was tested with word segmentation of mono, bi-, and tri-syllabic words in the picture format. For onset awareness, the categorization/oddity task was used and for rhyme awareness the judgment task was used. For phoneme awareness, the phoneme deletion task was used. In both groups, the junior kindergarten children obtained lower scores on phonological awareness tasks than the grade 1 children, showing that the development of phonological awareness is a continuous process. The work is significant as it demonstrated that even children with hearing impairment do attend to structural units of words as was evident from their performance on phonological awareness tasks like syllable counting, rhyme-judgment, phoneme segmentation. In fact, hearingimpaired children of grade 1 scored better than children with normal hearing in the same grade. Bhishe (2002) studied the development of syntactic awareness skills among Marathi-speaking normal children and children with mental retardation. Participant children were from kindergarten and grade levels 1 and 2. The results showed a grade-wise increment in the test scores of both the groups. However, there was more variability in the performance of children with mental retardation who consistently scored less than their normal counterparts.

The preceding studies revealed a common pattern; that Indian children have difficulty in phoneme segmentation tasks while they perform well on rhyme and syllable tasks. Phonemic awareness also appears to develop at a later stage when they are exposed to reading. The relationship between phonological awareness and reading is much more complex and more studies on the issue will be discussed in the section on reading.

Language Acquisition and Theory of Mind (TOM)

In the course of early development, children begin to differentiate between the world outside and one’s mental representation of the world, between one’s own mental state and others. These developments are considered as the evidence for children developing a TOM. Researches report a high correlation between language ability and TOM measures. The period of language acquisition overlaps with the development of children’s TOM. The period between eighteen months and five years of age is the time during which children’s TOM develops and it is also the major period of language development. Hence the nature and extent of the relationship between the two have been an important focus of research. Though the exact nature of the relationship is still a debatable issue, pragmatics, semantics, and the syntactic aspects of language seem to be important factors influencing the development of TOM.

In a series of studies, Babu and her associates (Babu, 1989; Babu and Mishra, 2000; Missal, 1995; Panda, 1991; Pattnaik, 1997) have probed various aspects of TOM in relation to language development in the Indian social context of Orissa. They found that children do not start to differentiate between the verbs on the basis of their presupposition until 4–5 years of age, which is also the period of TOM development. A child’s understanding of the presuppositions: think and know and of TOM are highly interrelated. They also have brought out the importance of parents’ literacy in metalanguage skill which implies the development of TOM (Acharya, 1997; Babu and Nanda, 1994; S. Mohanty, 1992). Development of understanding the distinction between say–mean was found to be better among children whose parents were literate than those whose parents were illiterate. Studies have also highlighted the role of schooling and medium of instruction in the development of metalanguage. Children studying in schools, where the medium of instruction was their mother tongue (Oriya) were more exposed to the Oriya language and thus had a better acquisition of mental state vocabulary in Oriya than children studying in English medium schools (Patra and Babu, 1999).

All these studies are quite informative and unique as no work on any other Indian language has been reported. Results of all the studies also concur to a large extent with similar studies reported in the Western literature. Babu and Mohanty (2001) synthesized the above studies within a common theoretical framework of language socialization. Language facilitates development of TOM as it provides a means to encode the social interactions and experiences. This in turn contributes towards a better cognitive and language development. In this way, language acquisition and development of TOM become mutually interdependent. ‘Thus, beyond the prelinguistic phase of development, a theory of mind including mental representations, attitudes and metarepresentations, cognition, and linguistic/communicative processes become mutually interdependent, overlapping, and synergistic social acts. Social relationships, both vertical (e.g. adult–child with different levels of knowledge and power) and horizontal (e.g. peer group with similar levels of knowledge and power) constitute the context in which such synergistic interplay between knowledge construction, theory of mind, and language development is possible’ (Babu and Mohanty, 2001:35). It will be interesting to test these notions under different eco-cultural conditions that India provides.

The studies available suggest that a relatively greater number of psycholinguistic research in the area of language acquisition is reported from only a few languages. Researches from not yet studied and less studied languages should be encouraged. A.K. Mohanty (2000), in the previous survey, observed a general lack of interdisciplinary perspective in Indian research on language development. The situation has not changed much as several areas still remain unexplored and many questions remain unanswered in the field of language development. For example, there are hardly any studies reported on Indian sign language—the only exception being a paper by Thirumalai (1994). In bilingual developmental studies, there is ample scope for the study of how the mutually exclusive morphological, syntactic, and semantic aspects of two languages as well as the cognitive strategies underlying them develop. As Lakshmi Bai (2000) rightly stated, for making any serious contribution to the field theoretically or practically (in terms of normative data which could be used for interventions), longitudinal data from monolingual, bilingual, and multilingual set-ups are inevitable. It seems that Indian researchers can be lot more productive if they exploit the unique features of Indian languages for either making an original contribution or validating the theoretical models that already exist. The following study (Lidz et al., 2003), published in Cognition, is a good example of how the unique features of our language structure could be exploited (even by foreign researchers) to answer the research questions that could not be resolved in other languages.

Lidz and her associates evaluated two current hypotheses—universalist and emergentist—concerning the origins of syntactic bootstrapping (which states that syntax guides young children’s interpretations in verb learning effects). According to the ‘universalist’ view, syntactic bootstrapping falls out from the universal properties of the syntax–semantics mapping, while the ‘emergentist’ hypothesis states that argument structure patterns emerge from a process of categorization and generalization over the input. These views would differ in their predictions about a language in which syntactic structure is not the most reliable cue to a certain meaning. As we all know, word order can be very flexible in Indian languages. Lindz et al. (2003) conducted a study with Kannada children to test these hypotheses. The emergentist view would predict that Kannada-speaking children would associate causative morphology with causative meaning. Using an act-out task, they showed that three-year-old native speakers of Kannada associate argument number and not morphological form with causativity, supporting the universalist hypothesis.

The Brain and Language (Neurolinguistics)

Before moving on to the next major section of reading let us briefly touch upon an area, ‘Brain and language’ (or neurolinguistics), which has become one of the frontier areas of research. The field, however, is still in its infancy in India. Till recently the brain-language relationship was investigated through indirect means of observing the performance of patients who had suffered lesions to particular brain regions on language-related tasks. The first Handbook of Psycholinguistics (Gernsbacher, 1994) had hardly any studies on brain imaging. Now there are several neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emissions tomography (PET), and event related potentials (ERP) available to study different aspects of language processing, word processing, sentence-level processing and even discourse processing. The 1990s were dubbed the ‘Decade of the Brain’, to acknowledge the emergence of neuroimaging studies as a prominent trend of studying brain–behaviour (including language) relationship. Grensbacher and Kaschak (2003) reviewed neuroimaging researches on language production and comprehension. Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, primary auditory and visual cortex, and frontal regions in the left hemisphere, as well as certain regions in the right hemisphere, have been implicated in those studies.

Imaging technology allows precise recording of neural processes in a non-invasive manner. Indeed, studies using magnetoencephalography (MEG), an imaging technology with better spatial and temporal resolution than fMRI, are already becoming popular (e.g. Patel and Balaban, cited in Grensbacher and Kaschak, 2003). As the temporal and spatial qualities of imaging techniques improve, we should be able to understand the brain language relationship better. However, there is also a view that these neuroimaging studies have not really added anything new to our existing theoretical knowledge (Vaid and Hull, 2002).

Studies on aphasia (speech disorder due to brain injury/stroke) help us to examine the brain–language relationship. A large number of researches, at least in the form of dissertations, have been reported on aphasia in India. Such studies constitute a very important component of Applied Psycholinguistics (see Vasanta, 1996–97). Within the limitations of available imaging facilities in India, a considerable amount of research has been reported. A good example is a study by Suresh, Maya, and Mohan (1994). Their study reported several case studies of aphasia, alexia, and agraphia and their underlying neurological features with supporting evidences from CT scans and MRI reports. With repeated CT scans and MRIs of certain cases, the study revealed the importance of RH (right hemisphere) in normal, as well as recovery (after damage) of, language processes.

Significant neurolinguistic studies focusing on morphology and semantics in an interdisciplinary perspective have been reported by Nehru and his associates (R. Nehru, personal communication, July 2004). Their studies, largely based on single-case approach, suggest that there is a single, modality-independent, semantic system (Nehru, 1997). However, they argue that there is also a level of modality-specific, pre-semantic abstract representation that must be accessed before lexical semantic access is possible. Clinical neurolinguistic data reported by Nehru suggests that the meaning of the structural attributes (physical properties) of an object and the meaning of its functional attributes (use of an object) are together inseparable from the meaning of the name of an object. In other words, the structural and functional properties of an object and its name constitute an integral whole. Lexical semantic access can occur even if there is partial but sufficient information available. An object can be named even if partial but sufficient information regarding its structural or functional or both kinds of attributes are available.

In a series of studies on morphological representation in the mental lexicon, Nehru and his associates found evidence in favour of autonomous morpheme representation in contrast to the full word listing (and other variations) hypothesis in the human brain (see Nehru, 1997). Evidence from their studies included separation of derivation and inflectional morphology systems and dissociations within inflectional morphology. Number, tense, gender, and person were all found to be organized along separate principles within inflectional morphology in Hindi. Further, their observations on agrammatism in aphasics suggested that in highly inflected Indian languages like Hindi, morphological impairment might result in deficits at the syntactic level too. Such studies support the view that the clinical expression of disordered language is determined by the structure of the language just as much as by the structure of brain. More cross-linguistic studies in other Indian languages are needed to build theoretical models based on neurolinguistic investigation of impaired language behaviour in Indian languages.

Ijalba, Obler, and Chengappa (2004) evaluated two current models of bilingual brain models—the Declarative/Procedural Memory model and the Inhibitory Control model—in the light of the available evidences, which included some Indian studies as well. The first model emphasizes on the correspondence between the location of the lesion and the nature and degree of impairment of one or the other language. The second model is concerned with the bilingual aphasic’s (in)ability to switch language under appropriate conditions. The studies reviewed by them (which include some studies from India) seem to be more in support of the Inhibitory Control model.

In an interesting intervention study of a multilingual agrammatic aphasic patient with knowledge of Kannada, Hindi, English, and Telugu, Faroqi and Chengappa (1996–97) reported that cross-language generalization was better for comprehension than for production suggesting that the perceptual system of bilinguals is unitary while the production system is dual. They observed a parallel recovery in Kannada and Telugu and a differential recovery for Hindi and English, which was explained in terms of differences in language structure, pre-morbid language use and proficiency. Studies on agrammatism by Sharma and associates (R.C. Sharma—personal communication Dec. 2004) also reported similar findings. However, studies on naming deficits in bilingual aphasics reported by Bose and Chengappa (2000) and Sreedevi (2000) did not suggest a significant difference between performances across languages.

Code mixing (intra-sentential) and code switching (inter-sentential) phenomena are also widely studied in both normal bilinguals and aphasic populations (Bhat and Chengappa, 2003; Chengappa and Krupa, 2004). These studies suggest that one needs to make a distinction between the normal and pathological use of these strategies. Aphasics showed increased code switching as a compensatory strategy to overcome the deficits in lexical retrieval.

Thus, it seems that studies on brain–language relationship so far have come mainly from studying clinical populations. However, it must be noted that there are healthy signs of new researches on normal populations with non-invasive brain imagery technology becoming more accessible day by day.


Reading, an important aspect of literacy and a literate mind, is a fascinating subject of scientific enquiry. Reading is not a skill which develops spontaneously, like walking or talking. One needs some form of explicit instructions in order to acquire reading skills. Thus it is more a product of cultural evolution and is dependent on cultural transmission for its continued existence. Reading can be defined as a process of deriving meaning from a written form of language. It is a complex neuro-psycholinguistic process having linguistic, perceptual, cognitive, motivational, and neurobiological components. Traditionally, reading has been viewed as a process involving two basic components, viz., decoding and comprehension. Recently ‘decoding speed’ has been added as an independent component of the reading process (see Joshi and Aaron, 2000).

Reading Acquisition

Our knowledge of reading is influenced to a great extent by Western theories and models. While literacy acquisition undoubtedly involves universal features, Indian studies reported on the normal development of reading and on developmental/acquired dyslexia suggest that there are script-specific components in literacy acquisition, which need to be considered while formulating instructional processes. In order to investigate these issues, Karanth and Prakash (1996) undertook a three-year longitudinal study of normal children (n = 48) learning to read Kannada, from UKG, through grades 1 and 2, within the framework of Frith’s model (1985). According to this model children go through three major successive stages—logographic, alphabetic, and orthographic—while learning to read. The logographic stage refers to children’s reading certain commonly seen words through a holistic process without deciphering the constituent units. It is context based—the salient features or the first letter of a word often playing a pivotal role. In the alphabetic stage, children learn the grapheme to phoneme correspondence rules and employ that knowledge for writing and reading. Since the alphabetic strategy implies successive conversion of letter strings into corresponding sounds it is a rather slow process. Besides, in many scripts where the letter–sound correspondence is not on a one-to-one basis, the strategy cannot be considered as efficient. Later, children move on to the third stage, viz., the orthographic stage, when they go back to the visual strategy of processing print at the morphemic level without phonemic mediation but by taking into account the letter order. Karanth and Prakash (1996) could not find evidence for any logographic-like stage of reading in their study. Wimmer and Hummer (1990) had also reported doubts about the obligatory nature of this stage of reading acquisition in German. Probably logographic reading is not a necessary stage of reading in transparent orthographies. The alphabetic stage in Frith’s model (1985) could perhaps be compared to the mastery of the alphasyllabary in Kannada (Indian) children as it corresponds to the mastery of the letter–sound correspondence rules of Kannada. This was the strategy that children seemed to follow throughout the first three years of reading acquisition. In fact, the number of stages of acquisition seemed to directly correspond to the levels of complexity in the script. There was also no evidence for a stage which could be compared with the orthographic stage. Thus the results suggested that reading acquisition in Indian languages did not appear to fit in with Western models of literacy acquisition. This is by far the best study on normal reading acquisition in any Indian language that has been reported in the review period.

There were other short-term studies on reading acquisition in other languages too. Swain and Sahu (2002) studied the relationship of some cognitive measures of memory and reasoning with reading in Oriya children who were studying in grades 2–5. They found that the children’s scores on measures of short-term memory, long-term memory, and Ravens Coloured Progressive Matrices (RCPM) determined their performance on the oral reading test. Vasanta (1999) studied children’s awareness of the phonological and orthographic properties of Telugu words. Though the sample was small, the study was successful in demonstrating that younger children pay greater attention to the phonological aspects of words while the older children of grade 5 paid more attention to the orthographic properties of the words they read. In addition, there have been some studies on Malayalam (Iyer, 2000) and other languages. Iyer ’s study also recorded the developmental pattern of Malayalam reading and its relationship with metaphonological awareness skills. Sahu (2003) brought out a collection of papers documenting the work that she and her associates had done in Utkal University at Bhubaneshwar. Most of the studies were relevant to the Indian context in one way or the other. All the studies mentioned above, which focused on the orthographic features, especially in Kannada and Telugu, suggested that Western models of reading acquisition were inadequate to explain reading acquisition in Indian scripts which have very different features from the Western alphabetic scripts. This implies the significance of indigenous models of reading acquisition. On the basis of several previous studies (Karanth and Prakash, 1996; Padakannaya, 2002, 2003), Padakannaya and Mohanty (2004) suggested that the normal course of reading acquisition in Indian languages goes through the following sequence:

mastering simple basic letters → letters with vowel diacritics → letters with ligatures → complex conjunct consonants → word level reading.

In this context Patel’s work (2004) on reading acquisition in India is of paramount importance for two reasons. First, he provided a comprehensive analysis of aksara, which is the unit of graphemic symbols in the Indian writing system. Second, he emphasized the cultural and social inputs to literacy in terms of India’s predominant oral culture, the cultural ethos surrounding literacy practices, and the importance of environmental aspects such as poverty. He presented an exhaustive description of the design of the Brahmi script, and an in-depth linguistic analysis of aksara in both spoken and written form. The Indian writing system is intriguing because Indians had the linguistic knowledge of phonemes (consonants and vowels), syllables, and words before adopting the Brahmi script but still opted for ‘aksara ’, which is more a syllable-like unit for writing. A full appreciation of the concept of ‘aksara’ requires a knowledge of the linguistic terms syllable and matra (measure of prosodic marking). Aksara in writing stands for CV, CVV, CCV, CCVV, CCCV, CCCVV, V, and VV (where C = consonant, V = vowel, VV = a long vowel/diphthong). Aksara is a subsyllabic representation which stands for onset, onset plus nucleus, and nucleus alone while the ‘coda’ part of a syllable always goes with the next aksara in a word (e.g. the word ‘party’ has two syllables: par and ty. /r/ represents coda that goes with aksarati ’ in writing). The phonological and topological features of aksara and their relevance for reading research were also discussed in Padakannaya and Mohanty (2004). They extended the work of Patel on aksara to suggest an aksara -based model of reading for Indian scripts (Fig. 3.1).

The model presents the possibility of dual routes of lexical and non-lexical processing in reading. The transparent and orthographic syllable nature of aksara naturally favours the phonological mediation/non-lexical strategy of reading. All the available researches on reading Indian scripts suggest that the non-lexical strategy is the common strategy we employ while reading Indian languages. Such a pathway will cover the Visual Analysis System (VAS) → Aksara Recognition System (ARS) → AksaraSound-Conversion System (ACS) → Phonological Assembly System (PAS) → Response Buffer (RB) before reading aloud. The lexical pathway in reading Indian scripts has not yet been strongly established by empirical studies (Padakannaya and Rao, 2002) and hence is represented by a weak link (dotted lines) between ARS and Mental Lexicon (ML), the storehouse of the orthographic lexicon (internal dictionary) and the phonological lexicon (pronunciation). Thus the model, though a tentative one, integrates the aksara concept with the general models of reading but allows experimentation and future modifications.


Figure 3.1: Reading, the Indic writing system

Source: Padakannaya and Mohanty, 2004.


Patel’s work (2004) also demonstrated the importance of Indian oral tradition for theories and. models of reading acquisition. Patel brings out the phonetic wisdom of Indian phoneticians as presented in various patha, pada, and vikruti of Veda recitation and linked it to the emergence of literacy. Narasimhan (2004) also explored the relationship between orality and literacy through the study of various art forms. According to his analysis, literacy is not mere reading and writing but is the capacity for reflective thinking. Thus it could be applicable to all forms of practices which have a complex structure and rules. Based on an analysis of several performing arts of India (such as kolam, tabla), he suggested that traditional oral practices may in fact be strengthened by literacy. These interesting works on the orality-literacy continuum (transition from orality to literacy) call for more researches in this area. However, studies on preliterate skills, the effects of parental reading habits and storytelling on reading acquisition, and early reading and writing notions were scarce during the review period. Bhanu Prathibha (2003) examined the growing differentiation between two notational systems of drawing and writing as a function of age among children of 2–5 years of age. She found that recognition of drawing as drawing preceded recognition of writing as writing. The results analysed by the formal criteria as well as children’s own criteria of classification indicated the primacy of drawing over writing as a representational system.

Orthography, Metalinguistic Awareness, and Reading

The studies discussed so far suggest that orthographic features influence the process of reading. It is an important variable which cannot be ignored by reading researchers. The following studies highlight the importance of script characteristics and metalinguistic awareness (MA), another important variable in reading. As it is difficult to separate the roles of orthography and MA skills, they are being considered together.

As we all know, the Indian writing system is derived from a common source, Brahmi, and therefore all Indian scripts share the same salient features. It is neither a syllabic script (as aksara can be visually analysed into its constituent consonant and vowel components) nor an alphabetic script (as aksara does not represent phonemes, the basic sounds of a language). Thus Indian scripts fall in between the syllabic and alphabetic writing systems. Hence, Indian orthography is called by various terms such as semisyllabic, semi-alphabetic, etc., the term that is currently in vogue being ‘alphasyllabary’. Further, Indian scripts are transparent (consistent lettersound relationship), non-linear and visuo-spatially organized. Karanth (2003), Patel (2004), Padakannaya and Mohanty (2004), Prakash and Joshi (1995), Vaid and Gupta (2002) and similar other works have shown clearly how these orthographic features influence the reading process.

The issue of metalinguistic awareness was discussed partly in the first section of this review. Here the emphasis is on its relationship with reading. Theoretically, there are three positions on this issue: that it is necessary for the acquisition of reading; that it is a consequence of reading practice; and finally that the development of metalinguistics and reading skill are mutually facilitative. Metalinguistic skills are studied through a variety of tasks which would necessitate the participants manipulating the given stimuli at the required level, viz., lexical, syntactic, or phonological (see Padakannaya, 2000; Prakash and Mohanty, 1995 for details). Among all the levels, the metaphonological awareness, specifically phonemic awareness, aspect is believed to be most important factor as far as reading is concerned. Metaphonological awareness includes awareness of phonological strings (e.g. rhyme recognition), awareness of syllables, awareness of phonemes, and awareness of phonetic features. Phonemic awareness is considered to be a prerequisite for successful reading, and training on phonemic awareness is the major thrust in remedial teaching for dyslexia in alphabetic scripts (where graphemes represent phonemes).

The notion that phonemic awareness is not a crucial factor for reading acquisition in Indian alphasyllabaries and that children could acquire reading skills without having phonemic awareness skills was recorded in earlier researches in India, which was also documented in the previous review (see Mohanty, 2000; Prakash et al., 1993). But there have been further evidences from studies in more Indian languages to that effect in recent years.

Strong evidence that phonemic awareness is more a consequence of exposure to alphabetic literacy rather than a prerequisite for learning to read and write came from Padakannaya (2000). A group of Kannada children, who were congenitally blind and were learning to read Kannada by Bharathi Braile (the Indian adaptation of International Braile), based on the principle of alphabetic writing, provided a unique natural situation to test the hypothesis regarding the relationship between phonemic awareness and alphabetic literacy. Kannada blind (n = 57) and normal sighted children (n = 57) belonging to grades 1 through 7 were tested on a battery of syllabic and phonemic segmentation tasks. There was no difference between the groups on syllabic segmentation and rhyme recognition tasks. But on phonemic segmentation tests, the normal sighted children were very poor till grade-level 5 (at which stage English is formally introduced), while the blind children performed significantly better. Their performance was comparable to their counterparts in the Western countries who learn to read in alphabetic scripts as they are reaching the ceiling level of scores by grade 3. Sailaja (1997, 1998, 1999) has presented an excellent analysis of the syllable structure in Telugu and experimentally provided evidence for the importance of syllable awareness as against phoneme awareness in reading Telugu. Padakannaya (in press) also compared children’s performance on various measures of syllable and phoneme segmentation skills and the results emphasized the importance of syllable awareness in reading Kannada. It is interesting to note that Western studies on bilingual children did not report that monolinguals perform better on phonemic segmentation tasks when both the languages involved had alphabetic scripts. On the other hand, Indian studies seem to suggest that children start exhibiting phonemic awareness once exposed to English as a second language in school. The transparency of Indian orthography, perhaps, provides some explanation for the findings that phonemic segmentation is not a crucial factor in reading Indian languages. However, there is a view that phonemic awareness could be fostered even by practising the Vedic oral tradition (which is how ancient Indian grammarians probably developed the notions of phoneme). However, there is no empirical evidence so far to prove this.

Literacy in Indian alphasyllabaries was also reported to be affecting the acquisition of other metalinguistic skills such as syntactic awareness/ grammaticality judgment (Karanth, 1998b; Karanth et al., 1995; Vasanta et al., 1995) and word awareness (Vijayachandra, 1999). These findings were in consonance with similar studies (Homer and Olson, 1999; Olson, 1994) in alphabetic scripts and were not specific to Indian orthography.

Orthographic Awareness

Karanth and Prakash (1996), in their longitudinal study, used a test called the shwa test (shwa refers to the inherent vowel component of basic aksara) in order to assess children’s knowledge of the orthographic principles of Kannada. The task required the children to combine a given visual symbol for an imaginary phoneme (consonant), which is non-existent in Kannada, with different vowels and write them down on the basis of their knowledge of the Kannada syllabary. It was observed that good readers were able to do this task more successfully than poor readers. This kind of awareness that develops more by insight learning also seemed to differentiate good readers from poor readers in Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam (Prakash, 1999; Prema and Karanth, 2003). Sensitivity to the orthographic principles underlying the alphasyllabaries is apparently a crucial factor in the acquisition of reading in these writing systems (Karanth, 2003). Padakannaya and Mohanty (2004) called it aksara awareness. The study by Karanth and Prakash (1996) reported that development of this kind of awareness was neither gradual nor easily brought out by teaching following the “phonic approach”. Sensitivity to the underlying principles may perhaps be better achieved by creatively employing metaphonological tasks in the nature of more pleasurable word games rather than the tedious phonic drilling that is currently employed in our early grades (Karanth, 2003).

Skilled Reading

The literature on reading reveals that factors such as word frequency, type (concrete vs. abstract), class (noun vs. verb), and length affect the speed with which words are read by skilled readers. There are two major strategies used in reading: lexical strategy and phonemic mediation strategy, with which the above factors interact. The lexical route refers to accessing print directly as a whole, which is used for reading familiar words. In the phonemic mediation strategy, the print is converted into sound following graphemephoneme-conversion rules and then processed for meaning. This is the strategy followed while reading non-words and irregular words. Karanth, Mathew, and Kurian (2004) conducted word-recognition studies aimed at establishing normative data on normal, skilled rapid reading in Kannada. They found that factors such as word frequency, class, imageability, and/or concreteness did not play a major role in rapid reading in Kannada. Padakannaya and Rao, (2002) studied the frequency effect on word recognition with better experimental controls and more extensively. They did find a weak frequency effect under specific experimental conditions in which lowand high-frequency words were presented in separate blocks. But on the whole, the study suggested that reading in Indian orthography favours the sub-lexical strategy of phonemic mediation. The explanation may lie in the alphasyllabary nature of aksara as well as its high transparency.

Spatial non-linearity of the short vowel /i/ in Devanagari was well exploited by Vaid and Gupta (2002) in a study which examined whether the Devanagari is processed more like a syllabic script or an alphabetic script. The study employed naming latencies in native adults, naming errors in children and writing errors as dependent measures. The analysis of the results revealed a mixed strategy of script processing at the phonemic and syllabic levels, which is consistent with the structural hybridity of Devanagari. The authors concluded that more systematic studies were needed to verify the issue.

Reading habits can have an influence on even non-linguistic tasks. One such effect is the directional scanning effect, which refers to the tendency to scan stimuli from left-to-right or from right-to-left. Padakannaya et al. (2002) examined the phenomenon in a study on picture naming and recall with Kannada, Urdu, and Arabic participants. The results showed that the extent of the directional scanning effect in a non-linguistic domain is proportional to the length of reading experience in a script with definite directional orientation.

Thus several of the studies cited above have succeeded in delineating the universal features as well as the script-specific features of the reading process. However, it may be noted that there has not been much significant work on text processing, reading comprehension, and the use of the story schemata and related aspects of reading. Unless these skills are fostered by our teaching methods, children may believe that reading is more a matter of word-calling and correct pronunciation than grasping of meaning.

Reading in Two or More Languages

In India, it is very common for children to start learning to read in more than one language simultaneously from the very beginning. The two languages may have very distinct features in terms of both spoken and written varieties, as between English and any other Indian language. Padakannaya et al. (2002) reported an interesting three-year longitudinal study on the simultaneous acquisition of reading and writing in English and Kannada. The children under study showed different strategies and speeds in learning to read letters, words, and non-words across English and Kannada. There were significant differences in the developmental patterns of literacy skills too. For instance, the development of writing skills for words and non-words in Kannada was almost simultaneous and parallel, but it was not so for English. Relatively, the Kannada-reading performance was better than the English reading performance for both words and non-words. In a very recent study, Gupta and Jamal (2007) examined the reading strategies of grade-three-level bilingual children in Hindi and English. The results suggested that children use different strategies—lexical for English and sub-lexical for Hindi—depending on the demands of specific orthography. Similar findings were reported by Padakannaya and Rao (2002) after testing Kannada–English bilingual children on rapid reading. Such studies have implications for educational planning in our multilingual set-up. Even a study (Abu-Rabia and Siegel, 2003) which compared the development of simultaneous reading skills in three languages as diverse as Arabic, Hebrew, and English suggested that trilingualism of that nature did not have negative consequence on the development of oral language and reading skills in those languages in spite of their different orthographies.

Learning to read in more than one language could be coordinate, in the sense that one may already be a skilled reader while learning to read in another language. The general models of reading development do not take into account one’s prior exposure to print in other languages. It is possible to envisage various combinations of prior knowledge and experience which will have a differential impact on learning to read in a second or third language. Many of the studies with positive results have investigated transfer of learning between similar languages such as Spanish and English. Gupta and Garg (1995) studied children who spoke Hindi as their first language and English as their second language. The participating children were showing difficulties in reading English. According to the study, two of the tests, which discriminated between the successful and unsuccessful readers in L2, were visual discrimination and name-copying. There is a need for more such studies to understand the underlying cognitive mechanisms and the conditions under which a positive cross-linguistic transfer can be achieved.

Developmental Dyslexia and Remedial Teaching

For some children, reading may come as easy as cycling under normal conditions. But for children with dyslexia reading is a task as difficult as mountaineering. In recent years, considerable applied research has been reported in this field (Gupta, 2001, 2002a, 2002b, 2004; Gupta and Garg, 1995; Gupta and Jamal, 2004, 2006; Gupta et al., 1997; Padakannaya et al., 2001; Rao, 2004, etc.), which have attempted to identify the major domains of deficiency or suggested ways of remediation. Ramaa (2000) reviewed the Indian work done in the past two decades in the domain of dyslexia and listed the major Indian studies. The researchers at SNDT Mumbai have also done significant work (personal communication) on actionoriented remedial teaching for academically weaker students. Besides, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) all over the country are active in helping children with learning difficulties. The estimated number of children with dyslexia is believed to be around 5-10 per cent. But the actual percentage of children having reading difficulties may be much higher because of other conditions such as the sociocultural deprivation, absence of a literacy environment at home in the case of first-generation learners, multiplicity of languages they are exposed to, the gap between the home language and the school language, ill-equipped schools, etc. Some of those children may also be dyslexic though one cannot group them under dyslexia since the operational definition of dyslexia has several inclusion and exclusion criteria. However, the possibilities of such conditions leading to dyslexia-type neurobiological damage have not been studied yet (Patel, 2004).

Though there are several methods of remedial teaching, there is no single technique which works wonders with all children with reading disability (RD) on all occasions (Padakannaya and Mohanty, 2004). Generally, the approach followed in remedial set-ups is an eclectic (a combination of all effective methods) one—often on trial-and-error basis. The differential effectiveness of individual methods has not been studied much. Studies by Padakannaya and associates (Padakannaya et al., 2001; Rao, 2004; Venugopal and Padakannaya, 2003) suggest that training in orthographic awareness, metaphonological skills, and automaticity are very effective in remediation. The work of Padakannaya et al. (2001) clearly indicates the importance of orthographic or aksara awareness, which has already been discussed earlier in this chapter. The study had two parts each with preand post-test design. In Part A, a group of developmental dyslexics were divided into experimental and control groups after matching on reading and writing scores as measured by the Standard Kannada Reading and Writing Tests. The children in the experimental group were given an intervention (in the form of games) to boost their orthographic awareness. The intervention was for twelve sessions of one hour each and lasted for about a month. At the end of the intervention, the children of both the control and the experimental group were reassessed on their reading and writing skills. There was a significant improvement in the reading and writing scores of children in the experimental group. The same procedure was followed in Part B of the study. The only difference was that the children in the experimental group were given an intervention (again in the form of games) to boost their phonemic awareness. The post-test scores in Part B revealed that the intervention had not been successful in significantly improving reading and writing in Kannada. The results support the claim that phonemic awareness is not so crucial for reading in Indian languages.

Automaticity or speed of decoding is another important component of proficient reading. Current speculation is that deficient automaticity may be the most pronounced feature of developmental dyslexia in languages which have transparent orthography. Rao (2004) did find training in automaticity to be effective in remediation for both English and Kannada. It is also important to note that the available studies suggest that reading disabilities are more a language-related deficit than any other single cognitive or sensory deficit (e.g. Padakannaya and Jayaram, 1998).

There are several practical questions about remedial teaching that need to be addressed in the Indian set-up. How scientific is the practice of imparting remediation in only one language (it is mostly in English as practised by a majority of remedial teachers) when children are generally in the process of bi- or triliteracy? Shouldn’t one consider the language background and mother tongue proficiency of the pupil in question while planning remediation? Several studies reported that dyslexics exhibit a kind of dissociation between languages in terms of reading/writing errors across orthographies (Chengappa et al., 2004; Devi et al., 2002; Gupta, 2002b; Gupta and Jamal, 2004, 2007; Karanth, 2001). Chengappa et al. (2004) and Karanth (2001) illustrated the orthography-based dissociation in acquired dyslexic cases while Gupta (2002b) described developmental dyslexia in a Hindi–English bilingual child. Devi et al. (2002) and Gupta and Jamal (2004, 2007) reported how the clinical expression of developmental dyslexia could differentially be influenced by the orthographic features of a specific language. However, we still have to understand more about the reading difficulties faced by children in school from the Indian sociocultural and sociolinguistic point of view. We don’t know how the mother tongue interacts with the school language in India. Neither do we know how bilingual or trilingual literacy acquisition is affected by the sociocultural context. It is possible that many children experience reading difficulties in the school language (English or the state language) because of linguistic and cultural obstacles. The very procedures of identification and assessment used in schools may be invalid when applied to bilingual or trilingual situations (Padakannaya and Mohanty, 2004). Thus there is a need for more studies in India on dyslexia which would take into consideration the features of the complex socio-educational and bi/multilinguistic context of children’s lives.

There is also a need for moving away from the discrepancy approach (where reading disability is seen as the discrepancy between reading achievement and IQ scores) to the componential approach advocated by Joshi and Aaron (Aaron, 1994; Aaron, Joshi, and Williams, 1999; Aaron et al. 1999; Joshi, 1995, 2002; Joshi, Aaron, and Merenova, 1998; Joshi, Williams, and Wood, 1998). According to the componential approach there are three major components of reading, i.e. decoding, comprehension, and speed of decoding. By analysing students’ performance in these domains, one can more reliably identify dyslexia, hyperlexia, and other reading problems. Joshi et al. (2004) presented a case of biliterate hyperlexia and contrasted it with biliterate dyslexia within the framework of the component model of reading for the first time. There are ample possibilities of many ‘first of a kind’ studies if one judiciously exploits the natural linguistic situations of India.

Neurobiological Basis of Reading and Dyslexia

Nehru (1997, 2001) observed that the error patterns in Hindi reading and writing are very similar across different cases of developmental and acquired dyslexic/dysgraphic populations, suggesting that reading error patterns are independent of the impaired cerebral organization and cognitive deficit and are inherently related to the script. He attributed the observed error patterns in Hindi to the complex spatial organization of non-initial position vowels and stressed consonants and concluded that script-specific orthographic features determine, at least in part, the clinical expression of dyslexia and dysgraphia. These observations echo the arguments put forth by Karanth (2001, 2002, 2003), Gupta and Jamal (2004, 2007) and Chengappa et al. (2004). Further, Nehru (2001) suggested a common graphemic output buffer for their two languages in biliterates. The graphemic output buffer is a unit in reading/writing models which serves to extract graphemes from another unit—output orthographic lexicon— and arranges the sequence to produce written material comprising a proper order of written letters which can be read as sensible words. Based on their clinical observations, Nehru proposed a model of the functional architecture of the bilingual mental lexicon that explains the error patterns observed in disordered as well as normal bilinguals. According to the model, language organization in the bilingual brain follows two basic principles: a morphosemantic principle and a morphosyntactic principle. The morphosemantic principle transcends thought and language while the morphosyntactic principle transcends thought and external reality (which is represented by morphological level). The morphosemantic principle imparts meaning to what is said or spoken about reality, and the morphosyntactic principle allows expression and comprehension of thought as expressed in language. The model in its present form sounds more theoretical and empirical studies are needed to verify the findings.

Online brain imaging studies on reading/dyslexia have not been reported in India yet. Nevertheless, studies which employed traditional scanning (P.A. Suresh—personal communication, December 2004) did show abnormalities in the brain architecture of children with dyslexia-like problems. But the task of correlating the specific pattern of pathology with the varied expression of dyslexia has not yet been accomplished. On the theoretical front, studies by Karanth (2003) and Nehru (1997) represent very significant work. Karanth (2003) has presented an account of cross-linguistic studies of acquired reading disorders. She took the nature of acquired dyslexia in Kannada as the anchor point for her analysis. The studies (mostly on biliterate patients with reading disorders) in Kannada were then compared and contrasted with other studies in transparent and opaque orthographies. Patel (2004) also provided the neurological basis of reading and dyslexia by relating the process of reading with different brain mechanisms. These works very convincingly suggest that though the central problem of dyslexia may be universal in terms of the brain pathology involved, the way it is expressed is determined by the specific nature of the orthography.

It may, however, be noted that studies on the neurobiological basis of reading/dyslexia are bound to increase in this decade. For example, Kar (Bhumika Kar, personal communication, December 2006) is carrying on an ERP study on the remediation of dyslexia.

Thus, it is evident that the results of Indian studies cannot be satisfactorily accommodated within the prevailing Western models. This applies to the results on reading acquisition, skilled reading process, as well as the characteristic features of reading failures in Indian scripts. Indian research clearly suggests that more work is needed in the area of cross-linguistic studies of reading in order to identify the neurobiological universals of reading and to appreciate how the reading mechanism varies with orthographic-specific features.


Bilingualism/multilingualism is more a norm than an exceptional phenomenon in today’s world. The Handbook of Bilingualism by Bhatia and Ritchie (2004a) presents quite an interesting scenario of bilingualism and multilingualism in the world and India. The world’s estimated 5,000 languages are believed to be spoken in about 200 nations, an average of 25 languages per nation, and it is estimated that about two-thirds of children in the world grow up in a bilingual environment. Over 41 per cent of English speakers are estimated to be bilingual. The spread of bilingualism and multilingualism is likely to increase in the coming years. As a consequence, research in this field has also grown many fold in recent years. As a result two major international journals were launched in the last decade, The International Journal of Bilingualism, started in 1997, and Bilingualism: Language and Cognition in 1998. Bilingualism in India is ‘progressive, realistic, and contemporary’ and it ‘is shaped primarily by natural forces of networking and communication … rather than being the result of externally imposed models and government planning’ (Bhatia and Ritchie, 2004b: 780).

Bi/Multilingualism and Society

The development of the psychology of bi/multilingualism in India is reflected in researches reported by A.K. Mohanty, who has been continuously working on the various aspects of bi/multilingualism. Mohanty (1994a, 1994b, 2000, 2001, 2003c) emphasizes the developmental aspects and educational implications of multilingualism in the Indian sociolinguistic and sociocultural system and argues for a contextual view. His theoretical framework is based on the Vygotskian view that all the cognitive processes are rooted in socialization and are mediated by a variety of cultural tools which include language, the number system, art and architecture, etc. He views the acquisition of language and its use as an overlapping and complementary process of the acquisition of culture. He suggests a model which explains psycholinguistic processes such as early language development and the use of languages for literacy and education in the Indian multilingual–sociolinguistic cultural context. He makes a plea for the healthy practice of bilingualism and highlights, through research findings, the positive aspects of bilingualism in India where cultural pluralism and multilingualism are accepted norms.

The process and developmental stages of multilingual socialization by Indian children were extensively studied and discussed by Mohanty and his associates (Mohanty, in press; Mohanty et al., 1999; Mohanty and Perregaux, 1997). These studies show how the goals and process of language socialization are different in the Indian multilingual society from the dominant monolingual Western societies. The process of language socialization in India is the process through which children grow up to be competent multilinguals. Mohanty identified three stages of the development of language socialization in the multilingual Indian set-up based on the studies conducted in different parts of India—Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Orissa. Children in the age range two to nine years were studied for their language socialization and the observed pattern of development was explained in terms of three developmental periods (each period having two substages): the period of language differentiation (roughly up to four years of age); the period of awareness of languages (roughly during four and five years of age); and the period of multilingual functioning (from six to seven plus years of age). As Mohanty et al. (1999) themselves wrote, identifying the process in terms of a broad developmental pattern is only the beginning. A lot more remains to be understood in terms of the details of the actual processes involved in language socialization in Indian multilingual society and the factors influencing the same. Mohanty (1994a) also explained bilingualism in India within the perspective of John Berry’s acculturation model. Berry’s model (1999) explains the interaction between two cultures in terms of the acculturation attitude of people on two dimensions, viz., maintenance of one’s own identity, and establishing a relationship with the other culture. Berry proposed four possible outcomes in such a situation: assimilation, integration, separation, and marginalization. When applied to bilingualism (two languages in contact), the corresponding outcomes would be transitional bilingualism, language integration, linguistic nationalism, and double semilingualism (see Mohanty, 2003c). This kind of analysis finds an echo in Hamers and Blanc’s (2000, cited in Bhatia and Ritchie, 2004a) differentiation of bicultural, L1 monocultural, L2 accultural, decultured kinds of bilingualism.

Mohanty has successfully exploited the natural laboratory set-up of the Kond people where Kui-Oriya bilinguals and Oriya monolinguals could be drawn from the same cultural background. His studies (see Mohanty, 1994a) showed consistently better performance on metacognitive and metalinguistic tasks by bilingual children over their monolingual counterparts. Mohanty (1994b, 1998) reported that when the SES, IQ, and school climate-related variables were controlled, mother tongue-medium schoolchildren performed better than L2 (English) medium schoolchildren. Thus the results of the study advocate the primacy of education through the mother tongue. According to Mohanty, the mother tongue alone should be the medium of instructions up to the primary level, and later regional, national, and English languages should be introduced at appropriate stages. But the use of any language(s) as a medium of instruction in a multilingual society is determined more by non-academic considerations such as identity and emotive factors as well as the existing goals and needs of the community. In the context of the complex sociolinguistic scenario present in India, the specific nature of bilingual or trilingual education still needs to be worked out (Mohanty, in press). Kendriya Vidyalayas in India practise Hindi–English bilingual education, but we do not have much hard data from these vidyalayas regarding the efficacy of the practice. It makes sense to introduce bi/trilingual education early in the Indian situation where the goal is to make multilingualism the mother tongue of children. In this context, a new experimental approach to introduce three languages (tribal language, Hindi, and English) from the very beginning in the same textbook in some north-eastern states may yield some exciting results (Dr. Rajesh Sachdev, Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, personal communication). However, the success of any such programme ultimately depends on the resources available in terms of materials and personnel.

Mohanty brought bi/multilingual research into the realm of Indian sociocultural reality: ‘Since language is an integral aspect of culture, the processes of acquisition of language and enculturation are inseparable’ (2003a: 35). Based on his researches, he proposed a model which relates culture, language, and language use (see Mohanty, 2000). In the model, language (its form and function) is linked to language use (linguistic processes and behaviour) and culture (cultural and sociolinguistic contexts). This model, though still in the form of broad outlines and generalizations, has been extensively referred to in their later papers.

Language Mixing

The phenomena of code mixing and code switching in bi/multilingualism are interesting because they join the boundaries of contrastive linguistics, sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics. Code mixing refers to the mixing of various linguistic units (morphemes, words, modifiers, phrases, etc.) primarily from two participating grammatical systems within a sentence, while code switching operates across sentences of two language systems. Code mixing thus is an intra-sentential phenomenon whereas code switching is inter-sentential. Bhatia and Ritchie (2004a) use the term ‘language mixing’ for ‘code mixing and switching’ together and describe several social and psychological factors involved in such use. Their analysis showed that language mixing is not random but systematic and complex. Social variables such as class, religion, gender, and age can influence language-mixing behaviour. They observed that sometimes people might express a negative attitude overtly towards Hindi–English language mixing but would still have a positive attitude unconsciously which would be reflected by liberal language mixing in their communication. While the above kind of analysis emphasizes social-psychological factors, matrix language analysis of language mixing provides a more psycholinguistic dimension of the phenomena. Matrix language is the base language that gives the sentence its basic character. The language that contributes the ‘imported’ material is called embedded language (Bhat and Chengappa, 2004). The matrix language-frame model describes language mixing on the basis of the hierarchical relationship between the matrix language and the embedded language. Bhat and Chengappa tested the matrix language frame model on normal Kannada–English bilinguals and the results revealed an underlying matrix language system for Kannada-English language mixing (ibid.).

Bhatia and Ritchie (2004a) also reported an interesting analysis about how bilingualism of Hindi and English or English with another language in India is employed in the world of advertising. The use of bilingualism (English and local language) in advertising is growing as a result of globalization. English seems to be making inroads everywhere; Bhatia and Ritchie call the local adaptation of English ‘glocalization’! But unfortunately, sometimes it seems as if urbane India is moving more in the direction of subtractive bilingualism (with English dominating the local language) which may even lead to semilingualism (condition of not having high proficiency in any of the languages used, lower middle-class families are more likely to be affected) or monolingualism (upper-class families are more likely to be affected).

Some Issues in Bilingualism Research

Bhatia and Ritchie (2004a) discussed several conceptual and methodological issues in the area of bi/multilingual research. The first and foremost issue is related to the definition or operationalization of bilingualism in the selection of participants. The literature on bilingualism is infested with so many terms—balanced bilingual, semibilingual, ambilingual or equilinguals—that one finds it hard to select participants for any study. It can be said that bilingualism is a phenomenon that varies in terms of degrees rather than any absolute measure, as there could be a non-fluent bilingual. Butler and Hakuta (in ibid.) list eight major typologies, which appear in literature, to classify bilinguals into different categories depending on the linguistic, cognitive, developmental and social dimensions. Bilingualism is a dynamic process as a result of which one’s bilingualism profile may undergo changes in one or many of the dimensions mentioned. In other words, providing profiles of participants on the above-mentioned dimensions would be more informative and helpful in researches than just having participants based on these classification terms as categories of participants in any study. Another way will probably be to express the competency level in the concerned languages with respect to all the four aspects of language—listening, speaking, reading, and writing. As it is very difficult to control all the factors associated with the participants of a study, making bilingual assessment measures covariations or going for repeated measure designs wherever possible is desirable. However, the greatest challenge in bilingual research is the language mode, which refers to the activation of the language systems and language processing mechanisms of one or two languages in a bilingual. In other words, both language systems could be in an active mode when the researcher is presumably probing the monolingual mode and viceversa. Uncontrolled varied positions of participants on the monolingualbilingual activation continuum while testing would result in ambiguous data. Though there is no definite way of controlling this factor, care must be taken to minimize its influence. One also needs to be extra careful while choosing stimuli and experimental tasks, for the same reason.

It follows from the above discussion that there has been appreciable progress in the area of bi/multilingualism. However, there is ample scope for building stronger models of bi/multilingualism synthesizing all the aspects of acquisition, use, and storage. In India we have the necessary multicultural and multilinguistic set-up conducive to producing cuttingedge researches in the field. Our models need to be more specific with explicit operationalization of constructs and be amenable to experimental verifications. The stages of language socialization in the bi/multilingual context do need to be explicit with regard to the main components of language, namely, the morphological, syntactic, and semantic aspects (how they work or develop).

Use of Computer Technology

Before concluding, it would be appropriate to cite two researches to exemplify how the new age of computer technology and Internet could be useful in language and communication researches and applications. The first example is a project (Murthy et al., 2004) which is trying to take the fruits of researches in the field to the common people. The second one, by Raghavan (2005), is an example for the use of computers for novel purposes which aid researches.

The worldwide web and computer communication have given us access to information at the click of a mouse, but 95 per cent of Indians are deprived of this revolution due to the dominance of English. How the multilingual and often illiterate population of rural India can also get the benefits of modern technology is a down-to-earth question. An interdisciplinary team led by IIT Madras has set up an Indian Language Systems Laboratory to achieve this. It is developing a multimodal interface to the computer which is relevant for India, i.e. one that enables Indic computing. The multimodal interface interacts with the user via several input mechanisms (such as keyboard, mouse, speech, and handwriting) and several output mechanisms (such as display and voice). The components of this Indian language interface will include keyboard and display interface, speech interface, as well as handwriting interface. The attempt is to make the computer accept speech and handwriting input and to have applications in local Indian languages. Since developing applications in each and every Indian regional and local language is a Herculean task, the team is developing applications independent of language, font, and encoding by making changes at the operating system level (Linux). In such a system, changing the language would be done easily by changing the configuration files, and all input will pass through a language filter. The computer-speech recognition system requires a standard database. Lack of such a database for Indian languages is a major obstacle in this direction. Research reports by Bhattacharya and Lohy (2002) on speech synthesis, and by Dash and Choudhuri (2002) on corpus generation become relevant in this context. IIT Madras has taken the initiative in forming speech databases in Tamil and Hindi. Other institutions such as the Central Institute of Indian Languages could play a major role in such endeavours. Similarly, there is need for a database for the strokes of all Indian scripts so that the similarity among various scripts can be exploited. The IIT Madras team and their collaborators feel that the development of multimodal interfaces to the computer will bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots and go a long way in the empowerment of rural folk in India. It is a very interesting project exemplifying the application of basic research findings to the societal development and also towards strengthening the Indian multilingual labyrinth.

Raghavan (2005), on the other hand, describes glottochronology, a method used to study the evolutionary relationships of languages. In this method, basic words across languages are compared and the percentage of the cognates (that is, to determine whether two words have the same ancestor) between them is estimated. With the application of new and sophisticated computing methods such as Maximum Likelihood, Bayesian Inference, etc., a more exact interrelationship between the members of a language family and the likely time and place of their origin could be determined as illustrated by Gray and Atkinson (2003) who applied such methods to infer the phylogeny of eighty-seven Indo-European languages and dialects. Based on that work, Raghavan illustrated how both India and Europe received multiple migrations resulting in the present linguistic diversity. Such work also points out that there have not been many attempts at applying mathematical models to explain language process and behaviour. The only exception that stands out in the Indian context is the work of Narasimhan (1998, 2004).


There have already been some review papers on the psycholinguistic researches done in India by Mohanty (2000, 2003a, 2003c). While appreciating the progress achieved, Mohanty made some general observations related to the lack of interdisciplinary research, lack of indigenous orientation and framework, and the need to emphasize the influence of cultural conditions in cross-linguistic studies. Though these observations are still valid, the present review definitely suggests that there have been significant developments in the field of psycholinguistics during the past decade. A mere glance at the studies reviewed here would suggest that they are very diverse in nature. But if one examines them closely, it is not difficult to see a common thread running through all those researches. That common girdle is ‘Contextualization’. Whether on language development, language processing, reading, dyslexia, or bi/multilingualism, all the studies were rooted in the Indian socio-educational-linguistic context in terms of conceptualization or/and implications. Some of the studies tested the hypotheses generated from within (Indian context), while others validated existing hypotheses in Indian multilingual-multicultural settings. One may also see two major trends with respect to the approach/ methodology employed. The first one is the field-oriented and correlational approach. The second is the lab-oriented and controlled approach. The strength of the field approach is very evident in the studies on language socialization and bi/multilingualism. Certainly this approach has its intrinsic strength vis-à-vis the diversity that Indian society provides. The precision of researches using this method is not dependent on the technology unlike the laboratory measurements. The experimental approach was not popular till recently. However, it is a welcome change that researchers are going in for the experimental paradigm after shying away from it for the past two or three decades. All neuro-cognitiveclinical studies reviewed in this chapter suggest its increasing popularity. The wide spread of Internet-based technology, the relatively easy accessibility of modern software, etc., may have shown confidence Indian researchers that lab studies under modern technology need not be inferior to the studies in developed countries. Going by the trend, one may feel justifiably confident that in the coming years, the experimental approach is going to be as popular as the field approach, and together they will strengthen the discipline.

The quantum of psycholinguistic researches reported in the period covered by the review is not sufficient for a big country like India with so much linguistic diversity. The range of issues covered is also not very wide. It may be true that Indian researchers seem to be satisfied with demonstrating the similarities with Western studies (Mohanty, 2003a) to an extent. The present review, however, does indicate that there have been many original, indigenously guided researches in the past ten years, which have exploited the unique features of the spoken and written varieties of Indian languages. Interdisciplinary interactions and collaborations are also increasing. Psychologists, speech-language specialists, linguists, and neurologists meet more often than before. The annual conferences of linguistic associations such as the Dravidian Linguistics Association (DLA), and the South Asian Linguistic Analysis (SALA) host separate sections on different branches of psycholinguistics. On the other hand, the Institute of Communication and Cognitive Neurosciences in Kerala (ICCONS) and the Centre for Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, Allahabad (CBCS), have begun to hold such interdisciplinary conferences at the international level. These institutes, along with other premier institutes such as the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore (CIIL), and the National Brain Research Centre, New Delhi, have begun to foster such interdisciplinary endeavours. A special issue of Reading and Writing (Springer Publications) on ‘reading and writing in semi-syllabic scripts’ was guest edited by Vaid and Padakannaya (2004). M.S. Thirumalai, Bloomington University (USA), is already doing a stupendous job for the cause by running a web journal, Language in India, which is highly referred to by scholars outside India.

Ultimately, the survival and future of any discipline depends on its applicability for dealing with individual and societal concerns. Applied Psycholinguistics is gaining importance in India as can be seen in the rising demand for special teachers to provide remediation for dyslexia and speech-language problems. However, there is a need to widen the horizon by taking up studies on the current social practices of language use, language teaching in schools, teaching English as an additional language, etc., which have immediate social relevance. The field of language and communication in India will be strengthened by following certain measures: (a) multidisciplinary collaborations among researchers and practitioners; (b) creation of database or corpus on the various aspects of Indian languages; (c) conducting cross-linguistic studies in Indian languages and also across other languages, which may reveal the universal aspects as well as language specificity of phenomena; and (d) developing facilities for cognitive neurolinguistic researches. This is vital in the light of the cognitive neuroscience revolution that is taking place. The collective efforts of all those concerned with language-related research should help immensely in achieving these goals. The rich sources of language data available in India provide ample opportunities and possibilities for cuttingedge researches and for developing new theories and models in the field of language and communication.




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