Thursday, June 07, 2018

Language & Children

Would like to catalogue an interesting thing that we noticed in our Son yesterday:

He was playing with ice cubes and he said "Jillu potruchu". First I couldn't understand it and then my wife pointed it out that he is using it similar to "Soodu  potruchu".

மொழிமுதல் எழுத்துக்கள்

Suppose you are asked to go through the entire lot of Tamil books and identify which letters (of Tamil) can form the first letter of the word, which letters canNOT form the first letter of a word, what would you find? Try it!

The early tamil grammarians probably undertook this exercise to find rules that have been followed in our language use. This has been compiled in Tholkapiyam - Nannool books.

For the above specific question, here is the answer:

The content of the same is being pasted here in case the above link goes defunct:

1. பன்னீர்-உயிரும் மொழி முதல் ஆகும்.
2.  உயிர்மெய் அல்லன மொழி முதல் ஆகா. 
3. க, , , , , எனும் ஆவைந்து எழுத்தும்
எல்லா உயிரொடும் செல்லுமார் முதலே.
 4. சகரக் கிளவியும் அவற்று ஓரற்றே-
, , ஒள, எனும் மூன்று அலங்கடையே.
 5. உ, , , , என்னும் நான்கு உயிர்
`' என் எழுத்தொடு வருதல் இல்லை.
 6. ஆ, , , எனும் மூஉயிர் ஞகாரத்து உரிய
7. ஆவொடு அல்லது யகரம் முதலாது
8. முதலா ஏன தம் பெயர் முதலும். 
9. குற்றியலுகரம் முறைப்பெயர் மருங்கின்
ஒற்றிய நகரமிசை நகரமொடு முதலும். 
10. முற்றியலுகரமொடு பொருள் வேறுபடாஅது-
அப் பெயர் மருங்கின் நிலையியலான.
For a detailed explanation of the above rules, see

12 உயிரெழுத்துக்களும் மொழிக்கு முதலில் வரும்
க வரிசை 12 எழுத்தும் மொழிக்கு முதலில் வரும்
த வரிசை 12 எழுத்தும் மொழிக்கு முதலில் வரும்
ந வரிசை 12 எழுத்தும் மொழிக்கு முதலில் வரும்
ப வரிசை 12 எழுத்தும் மொழிக்கு முதலில் வரும்
ம வரிசை 12 எழுத்தும் மொழிக்கு முதலில் வரும்
ச வரிசையில் 9 எழுத்து மொழிக்கு முதலில் வரும். (, சை, சௌ வராது)
வ வரிசையில் 8 எழுத்து மொழிக்கு முதலில் வரும். (வு, வூ, வொ, வோ வராது)
ஞ வரிசையில் 3 எழுத்து மொழிக்கு முதலில் வரும். (ஞா, ஞெ, ஞொ)
ய வரிசையில் 1 எழுத்து மொழிக்கு முதலில் வரும். (யா)

The word 'சரி' wasn't in existence in those days. The equivalent word was 'ஏற்பு'. Hence the rule that says ச cannot be the first letter of a word is obsolete today. However, certain rules are not made obsolete today - perhaps because of people who are sticklers to rules. For instance, ராமன் is written as இராமன் today because  ரா cannot be the first letter as per the rules. I don't understand why certain rules can become obsolete and certain others cannot!

Now, suppose we give the above tasks to kids and ask them to formulate the rules, then we will help them to

1. Explore the language
2. Generalize and make abstractions

If we value the above to outcomes, then we need to rethink linguistic education. 


Well, for anyone who has been through school, grammar is a set of rules that have been pushed down into our throats. This makes everyone of us dread about grammar classes. However, grammar is not just the set of rules. It is about discovering oneself - the framework of language within us. Take a look at this link to understand what I mean: I am also posting the contents of the link here - in case the link goes defunct.
Several interesting posts from Literal Minded by Neal Whitman on teaching elementary school students linguistics. Excerpt
“Before we start,” I said, “I need to make sure I know what language you guys speak.”
“English!” they said.
“Ah, good! That’s what I speak, too. So Mrs. K,” I said, turning to Adam’s teacher, “Do they speak English pretty well?” She said they did. “OK,” I said. “Let me try a little test. See Mrs. K. here? Could I say, ‘Mat the on Mrs. K. sitting is’?”
I called on one of Adam’s classmates. “Jenny, is that good English? ‘Mat the on Mrs. K. sitting is’?”
“No,” Jenny said.
“It’s not? Then how would you say it?”
“Mrs. K. is sitting on the mat.”
“Really? How about the rest of you? Who would say ‘Mrs. K. is sitting on the mat’?” Most of the hands went up. (Well, more accurately, most of half of the hands went up.) “And would anyone say, ‘Mat the on Mrs. K. sitting is’?” None of them would.
“What? Why not? It’s the same words!”
“It’s the wrong order!” one or two of them said.
“Who told you that? James, did Mrs. K. tell you that it’s ‘on the mat’, not ‘mat the on’? No? Carly, did your mom tell you it’s ‘is sitting’ and not ‘sitting is?’ She didn’t? Then how did you know?”
“It just sounds right,” she said.

That's how grammar starts!

Some order of words sounds right and some others don't. We derive rules based on what sounds right (for the native speaker). Consider the case where we teach children how to derive the rules and a case where we push a set of rules down their throat. Which one do you think has more value to teaching to kids? I am sure you would say the former. When we teach kids to derive the rules by themselves, they not only automatically learn grammar, but also learn the norms of scientific inquiry.

There is an excellent article by Prof. Samuel Jay Keyser on "The role of linguistics in elementary school curriculum" (I cannot find a link; you can leave your email id in the comments section if you want a pdf copy of the article) that articulates how linguistics can be used to teach kids scientific inquiry.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ullurai Uvamum

In Tamil literature, this is a way of alluding to something else than that which is specified in the poem. That is the meaning goes beyond the literary meaning (hidden meaning). A good example is what I found in the book "Smile of Murugan": (page 109).

" Look there my lord,
Near that lovely pond
With its broad green lotus leaves,
The heron
Motionless and without fear
Stands shining
Like a white and golden

Heron is a white bird (naarai). Conch is sangu.

The above is a poem, a lady love tells her hero.

The first layer of meaning is the above.
The second layer of meaning comes from the fact that the bird stands motionless and without fear. When a heron stands motionless and without fear, it means no one is around. That is, the place is deserted.

The next layer of meaning that the author states in the book is that, the lady love indicates that the place is deserted, and hence is ideally suited for making love.

Thus, in the poem, the lady love, very elegantly and indirectly conveys her emotions to her lover. This is ullurai uvamum.  The other stunning part is the acute observation that the heron stands motionless and without fear only when there is no one around. How much they have observed nature!! 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Features of Akam Poetry

There seem to have been some rules/committment that has been followed in the Akam poetries:

They are: 

1. Men and women in the poems should not be mentioned by real or imaginary names. They can be referred to by as "turaivan", "natan", "ulavan" etc. - the general names or as pronouns "avan, aval". 

2. Not to deal with the dead and the supernatural. As Kamil puts it, they are the unliving and uncreative. "...great poetry should  be that which generates life, relives and recreates the splendour and music of life, at the living moment." 

These commitments render these poems a cosmic effect, that which is perennially alive. 

Another unique feature of these poems is the metaphors used. Almost all of the metaphors are related to the immediate natural surrounding of the hero/heroine. For instance, in Kuruntokai 399, the poet says: 

ஊருண் கேணி யுண்டுறைக் தொக்க
பாசி யற்றே பசலை காதலர்
தொடுவுழித் தொடுவுழி நீங்கி
விடுவுழி விடுவுழிப் பரத்த லானே.

Translation from the source: 

My pallor is like the green algae 
growing on the pond
where the village gets its drinking water; 
every time my lover touches me
it disappears;
every time my lover leaves me
it spreads back again. 

Here, the poet compares the changes in the pallor of the "talaivi" to the movement of the algae in the pond when one touches it. Thus, it implies that people were acutely observant of the natural surroundings and lived a life of harmony with nature.  Perhaps this is a message in itself to the people - live in harmony with nature!

(source: Literary Conventions in Akam Poetry by Kamil V Zvelebil).

Monday, May 14, 2018

Ainkurunuru 409

Below is a poem from Ainkurunuru (poem number 409) that I think is extremely nice and portrays the love in a family in a very creative way. 

புதல்வன் கவைஇயினன் தந்தை, மென் மொழிப்
புதல்வன் தாயோ இருவரும் கவையினள்,
இனிது மன்ற அவர் கிடக்கை,
நனி இரும் பரப்பின் இவ் உலகுடன் உறுமே.

Translation by AK Ramanujan: 

The father holds his son close, 
the son's mother holds them both in her arms. 
Such a state is beautiful. In its little space, 
it is large enough to hold the wide world and all the lives in it. 

[I read this from: "Literary Conventions in Akam Poetry" by Kamil Zvelebil. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

Self Learning

Below is an outcome of discussions with a friend, Gautham Jegadeesan, and from tricklings imbibed from the School of ThinQ.
A small preamble: We all have been talking about goals of education, but as the Mohanans in the School of ThinQ, put it, it is important flesh it out in great detail. Below is an attempt on one strand of what we think education ought to do. 

A. A set of questions is given to students. The resources that will help the student find answer to  these questions are also provided. The students have to go through the resources and find the answer to the questions.  (Here, the student is expected to develop the ability to go through a given resource, assimilate the information provided in the resource and apply the knowledge to answer the questions provided. The outcomes these questions could test could include identification of the right resources, application, critical understanding etc.)

B. Questions are given to students. Resources not given, students have to find the resources and learn from them. (In addition to the outcomes of (A), here, the ability to identify relevant resources and learn from it is targeted.)

C. No resources or questions given – students identify resources by themselves and learn from it themselves and revise their understanding by themselves or from interactions with others.

While A & B can be called as guided self-learning, C may be called as independent learning.

(C) above is an ideal quality that we aspire for in any educated individual. However, the pre-requisite to undertaking (3) is

i.   Ability to identify and formulate clearly what one wants to learn
ii.  The mindset to persist and learn and
iii. Ability to engage in reflection and the mindset to revise/change understanding when presented with arguments/evidences to the contrary.

When we say the ability to learn, we may refer to it at various levels:

1. Familiarity of terminologies
2. Understanding of the concept that the terminologies denote (ability to identify counterexamples is an important in conceptual understanding)
3. Piecing together various concepts to make a big picture
4. Applying the concepts to unknown situations (this could simply be identifying the right formula for a given problem and able to do the relevant mathematical calculations)
5. Critical understanding of a phenomenon (e.g., How do we know that liquids at surfaces have zero velocity?)
6. Design thought/real experiments to test understanding.

I would presume, in the context of a BTech curriculum, we should aspire for at least (B) in the higher semesters.

Suppose we agree that (B) is a desired outcome for our graduates and the above are broadly the various strands/levels that go into self-learning, we then need to ask ourselves, which of the topics in our courses will lend itself easily to inculcate this ability. Needless to say, there are two assumptions that underlie this:

1. We believe all students can be helped to become self-learners
2. Students are willing to become self-learners.

Some challenges

Challenge – 1

One of the challenges that I faced when I tried to attempt at inculcating self-learning through some activities was that students don’t spend time for this.

This was partially because they are victims of an educational system that hasn’t focused on this ability (B) so far. Therefore, they find it daunting or anxious. Or, this is because they don’t have time to invest. Or, because they don’t have the patience to engage in a process for long time (this is supplemented with the distractions in the form of smart phones).

To overcome these, I started giving time within the class hours. This seemed to have some effect and at least some of them started to engage in the process seriously.

The above understanding is based on what I have done over the last semester for only one batch of students. Needless to say, there must be more challenges and solutions that would come out upon subsequent implementation to different batches.

I am also pretty sure that most of us are trying something of this sort in our classes. Would like to invite you to share your experiences and strategies you adopted with the goal that this would eventually enhance our collective teaching process.

Challenge – 2

One of the other challenges that can be foreseen is ‘covering’ the portion when a significant number of class hours are spent for activities of self-learning. Luckily, the syllabus I had was just enough to be covered within the prescribed time. However, I can easily see the difficulty for other courses that will require a full 60 hours. The only solution at this point of time that I can think of is to tailor at least one or two courses per semester (whichever is possible) to adopt this mode, of course, with the instructor’s willingness. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017


The educational literature is spewed with words such as "syllabus", "pedagogy", "curriculum". However, there is lack of clarity and sometimes misconceptions on what each means. For instance, pedagogy is loosely used to denote the instructional method in the classroom (chalk-and-talk, powerpoint slides, activity-based learning, etc.). Pedagogy is a much more comprehensive term. Below I quote Prof. Mohanan on what each of these terms means - in the hope that this will give clarity to those interested in education.

a) Syllabus: The GOALS — the outcomes of learning that our educational intervention aims at.

b) Pedagogy: The MEANS — the strategies we use to achieve the goals: this includes learning activities guided by the teacher, in and outside the classroom; textbooks and other learning materials; assessment; policies; and infrastructure.

c) Curriculum: The combination of (a) and (b). Every learning activity has both what
students end up learning (learning outcomes) and how the teacher, textbooks, and
assessment tasks guide them towards those outcomes (pedagogical strategies).

From the above, it is probably clear that pedagogy is composed of not just instructional method, but also the teaching-learning materials, assessment etc.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Education and Goals of Life

26 October, 2016

In a discussion among a closed group of like-minded people on education, Prof. T. R. Neelakantan, put forward two important questions:
1.      What is the role of education in achieving the ultimate goal in life?
2.      Should professional colleges & educational institutions today contribute ultimate goals?
What follows is my response to his questions. I am just documenting it so that I can revisit this for my own references and refining of ideas. 

Attributes of Educatedness and Ultimate Goal

As you have cited and may be aware, there have been several schools of thoughts exist on this question. The Aristotlean and the Budhist hold that the ultimate goal in life is happiness. Thirukural, as you have said, defines the purpose of life as Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha and if I were to understand correctly, it holds Dharma, Artha and Kama as means to Moksha.

Since I am much more familiar with the Budhist philosophy (primarily from the book “The Universe in a Single Atom” by Dalai Lama), let me try to articulate my understanding of the goal of education in light of the ultimate goal (happiness). Happiness, as espoused Budha is not the sensual pleasures but rather an elating and transcended happiness (and is called “sukha”). The Budhist philosophy holds that the path to this happiness is an investigative path adopted by the self. For instance, it encourages one to investigate the cause of suffering. However, before investigating the cause of suffering, one needs to define what is suffering. What is suffering to me might be different from what is suffering to another human. So, a person investigating on the cause of suffering needs to clearly define the boundaries and circumstances under which one would define an instance/feeling to be a suffering. This is not an easy task as you might observe. One needs the ability, not only to construct the definition of suffering, but also the ability to evaluate the definition.

Now consider the below arguments on the definition of liquid. The textbook definition liquid (secondary school text): Liquid is something that takes the shape of the container.  By this definition a heap of sand in a beaker is a liquid. We should now either accept that a heap of sand in a beaker is a liquid or change the definition of liquid (if we agree to the premises of rationality). I think most of us would now want to “refine” the definition. For instance, one may define liquid as something in which the intermolecular distances are farther apart than that in solid. Can we draw a cut-off in the intermolecular distance and say that beyond this value it is a liquid? If we cannot, we must abandon this refinement. One can, in principle, try and consider all such possibilities and counter examples to arrive at a definition of liquid and solid.

In the above arguments, the “meta-learning”, if I may call so, is the process of constructing and evaluating definitions involving identification of counter examples. Secondly, the above is an example of how we can use simple textbook material to teach students the principle of constructing, refining and evaluating definitions. To extend this meta learning to define suffering is beyond the scope and ability of anybody, but the self. However, by repeating the above process of constructing, refining and evaluating definitions (what is species, what is democracy etc.) we can inculcate in students the ability to construct, refine and evaluate definitions. In similar lines, I hold that abilities such as critical thinking (identifying the fallacies in a statement/process), identifying logical contradictions etc., are all the “meta principles” that we could teach students that will help them develop their own meaning and purpose in life.

Slight deviation:
Aside from this, I would like to share with you that the Budhist philosophy and the scientific methodology share some commonalities (again, garnered from the above-said book). One that I would like to state is that both of them have higher precedence for observation followed by experience, reasoning and authority. That is, authority takes the least precedence of all forms learning. Based on discussions with Dr. Ramanathan on the Upanishad/Vedhic methodologies,  I understand that there are significant overlaps.

Should professional education help the purposes in life or not?

I would say, that the term professional education connotates providing/passing on domain knowledge so as to create a “trained” workforce. This is what, in my perspective, the Nation has adopted - whether by force/influence or not, I do not know. If WE define the goal of professional education to just create a trained workforce, obviously, we don’t have to worry about equipping children  to find their own meaning of life.

But I beg to differ and make an earnest request that we don’t restrict ourselves only to create a trained workforce. Let us aim to create educated individuals who can find their own meaning in life and reach whatever they define as their goal in life. The education that we provide should impart the children with the necessary skills and abilities for the purpose defined above.

What are our activities?

The four activities that you have stated are indeed the basic ones. However, I believe there is more. For instance, I may regard contributing to the welfare of other people as one of my activities. Likewise, each may have their own set of activities. How does one decide that X will be one of his/her activities in life? How would (s)he go about achieving it? If I were to regard that contributing to the welfare of other people as one of my activities, I may achieve it through ‘n’ number of ways. How do I choose one over the other? This requires deep analysis supported by evidences and logical reasoning.  

In essence, I earnestly request that we be committed to not only passing on the knowledge to the next generation, but also to equipping the next generation to create their own meaning and purpose in life and providing them with the necessary skills and abilities

Prof. T. R. N’s email:
Part 1:
Does our education help in our activities? Let us analyze our activities first.
It looks to me that we basically do only four activities. All living beings do the following activities: (a) eating (not just by mouth - sense gratification); (b) sleeping; (c) procreating and (d) defending (health insurance - buildings - military).
We may sleep in a nice a/c room on a bed; cows may sleep in shed; dogs may sleep in streets; but activity is ‘sleeping’. Though there is difference in sophistication, activity is ‘sleeping’
Having the sixth sense, are we doing different activities? (What is sixth sense?) Please let me know any activity we do that is not ultimately connected to the above listed basic activities.
I think that ‘self learning, critical thinking, team work, problem solving etc’ are all the intermediate goals (or mile stones) but not ultimate goals. What will you do with ‘self learning, critical thinking, team work, problem solving, etc’? Will you not use them to do these four activities?
Part 2:
Through scriptures (example: திருக்குறள்), I have (you might have also) heard many times that the purposes of life are: Dharma (அறம்), Artha (பொருள்), Kama (இன்பம்) and Moksha (வீடு). The purpose of education must also fall in line with the purpose of life. Wikipedia says the following:
Dharma – includes the religious duties, moral rights and duties of each individual, as well as behaviors that enable social order, right conduct, and those that are virtuous.
Artha – signifies the "means of life", activities and resources that enables one to be in a state one wants to be in. Artha incorporates wealth, career, activity to make a living, financial security and economic prosperity.
Kama – signifies desire, wish, passion, emotions, pleasure of the senses, the aesthetic enjoyment of life, affection, love, without violating dharma (moral responsibility), artha (material prosperity) and one's journey towards moksha (spiritual liberation).
Moksha – signifies emancipation, liberation or release - connotes freedom the cycle of birth and death, or self-knowledge, or self-realization. A few like Sri Nrusimha’s devotee Prahalad did not show interest in the materialistic first three.
Professional/College education should help for all these four purposes or not?