Two alphabets for better literacy?

Higher Degree Research
Two alphabets for better literacy?

Islander women preparing food in an outdoor setting, with a child sitting nearby.Sindhi is a language spoken in India by a small minority. It is also a threatened language, because the community itself prefers to educate its children in more economically useful languages, such as English. Because of this, children in the community emerge as English-dominant individuals. Such children may have a working knowledge of spoken Sindhi, but typically have poor to no command over written Sindhi.

In India, the Sindhi language is nowadays written in an alphabet called Devanagari. This alphabet is also used for writing the Hindi language. Hindi in the Devanagari alphabet is taught—at least as a language subject—in most Indian schools. Hence, most Sindhi children are familiar with the Devanagari alphabet.

However, the spelling rules for writing Sindhi in Devanagari differ in fundamental ways from the spelling rules for Hindi in Devanagari. As a result, children frequently commit errors in reading and writing Sindhi in Devanagari. This often results in poor outcomes and consequent disinterest in the language.

My research involves exploring pedagogical techniques to assist these English-dominant Sindhi learners to overcome the spelling hurdles they face when reading written Sindhi. In particular, the use of auxiliary annotations in the Latin alphabet—which is the alphabet used by English—next to the Devanagari letters as a phonetic guide has been investigated in detail.

Initial results have shown a positive correlation between use of such Latin-alphabet phonetic annotations and accurate pronunciations for beginner-level learners of Sindhi.

Such a dual-alphabet method could thus potentially be used to teach and learn not just Sindhi, but any language in the world that is written in its own alphabet. The method also holds promise—especially in a place like Australia—in aiding second-generation immigrant children maintain contact with their heritage languages and cultures.

Most importantly, it would help us preserve languages as storehouses of the world’s information, most of which has not yet been translated into English.

Arvind Iyengar, doctoral candidate
School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences