Multi-lingual Education for Tribal Children | Lessons from Vasantshala

Sandhya Gajjar and Sonal Baxi

The Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, Vadodara, was founded in 1996 by Padma Shri Dr Ganesh Devy. A professor of English Literature at M S University of Baroda, he took voluntary retirement to pursue research arising out of his deep concern about endangered or dying languages. In the course of his research, he found that the languages that stood to lose the most were those that belonged to largely tribal and nomadic communities. One of the most important reasons was that these languages did not have a script and existed mostly only orally.

It is well-known that in tribal contexts, social indicators present a dismal picture. Experts pointed out that education remained far removed from the context and the social reality of tribal groups, making it both unreal and irrelevant for them. Teachers even in other under-privileged environments reportedly have a disconnect with children which is exaggerated further in tribal environments. It is well-known that bridging these gaps requires a more engaged teacher community and greater emphasis on mother tongue and first language-based education.
The challenges
Since Indian states are divided on a linguistic basis and the medium of instruction in government village schools is the state language, the same rule applies to schools in tribal villages. The appointment of teachers in these schools is a centralised process and this can result in non-tribal teachers from a district far away from the tribal zones to be posted in tribal schools. So, while on paper, the matter is simple and obvious, in the classroom it becomes highly complex.
1. Rural children often go to class I directly at age 6 (or so) without the semi-formal protective/ preparation bridge of the nursery-junior-senior kindergarten years that urban schools have. There are anganwadis/balwadis as pre-schools in many rural areas and there are many educators and groups engaged in pre-school education, who are trying to empower these in pedagogy and early childhood education (EEC), yet the contribution and efficacy of the hundreds of anganwadis/balwadis across Indian villages in preparing the child for the class I curriculum has not been established.
2. According to the curriculum of individual state boards, a child in class I is expected to be able to read and write a full sentence and do single digit addition /subtraction. This is a huge challenge for the teacher when most children in the class have never done this or cannot do it.
3. This is made more difficult when the teacher’s language (medium of instruction) and the child’s language are not the same. So, neither understands the other.
4. Unable to follow what is going on in the class, most children drop out and rarely get the opportunity to return to school.
One of the tools devised to get answers to this problem was designing the Pictorial Glossary for every tribal language, a simple illustrated notation of 1200-1500 words that an average child understands by the age of 6 (age for entry into class I). The word, in the tribal language, is visually communicated via an illustration and its translated word/meaning in Gujarati/English/Hindi is also offered. The teacher (non-tribal or one who is unfamiliar with the language of the region where he/she is posted) can use the Pictorial Glossary of a language that is largely spoken in the region of his/her school, to communicate with the children in the class. Simple one-day workshops are designed to train teachers in the optimum use of the glossaries, so that they pick up commonly used words and phrases in the prevalent language. Some of our glossaries are used by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan in Gujarat for distribution to the teachers of schools in areas where that tribal language is predominant. Till date, we have created sixteen Pictorial Glossaries, twelve for tribal languages and five for nomadic languages.
The Vasantshala model
Bhashai started the residential schooling programme, Vasantshala, in 2005. Before that, we had gathered several years of experience, conducting non-formal schooling of construction labourers’ children (mostly tribal families from the Chota Udaipur region) at large building sites in Vadodara, followed by several years of working with school-going children in the villages of Panchmahal and Chota Udaipur talukas/districts. These were limited-year projects and when they ended, the students were again left to their own devices. We felt this method of work was highly unfair to the children and so we decided to run a schooling programme ourselves.
That was how Vasantshala came to be conceptualised. We admit sixty out-of-school boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 12 from very poor, migrant families who would otherwise have no chance to go to school. Over the first two years, we found that these children generally belonged to Rathwa, Dungra Bhili, Tadvi and Bhili tribal communities and each community has its own language that its children spoke. They did not speak much Gujarati, the state language. They could barely understand any of the other three tribal languages, except their own. So, we had a complex mix of languages with just sixty children. The tribal teachers we engaged with, had some education, but their main qualification was their desire and ability to learn all the languages that their students spoke. But even more important was their love of teaching, their ability to actually deliver in the classroom and their fondness for children.
The Vasantshala pedagogy
At the beginning of the academic year (now April from 2020 as per the new Government rules), all newly admitted children are assessed for their learning levels, comprehension ability grasp of taught matter, aptitude, socialisation patterns and for any special talents as some of them may have gone to a school at some point in time. Based on the assessment analysis of their learning levels and abilities, the teachers decide the age-appropriate learning level to be achieved by each child and distribute them into five learning groups:
a. Jagruti: Grades 1 and 2
b. Prakriti: Grades 3 and 4
c. Sanskriti: Grade 5
d. Svakriti: Grade 6
e. Pragati: Grade 7
However, a child is free to attend one or more groups simultaneously as per her/his ability in a particular subject. Assessment is a continuous process. While formal tests are conducted every three months, teachers keep track of the children’s progress through observation, classwork and participation, etc. We have found that most tribal children can ‘pick up’ academics very quickly and are also endowed with a certain amount of ‘street smartness’ that helps them in common interactions with people.
Academic subjects and content are at par with the Gujarat Board curriculum. An intern at Vasantshala was impressed by how well the teacher in a class he was observing explained the idea of nagarpalika to students who did not have any idea of positions above sarpanch in public administration. Did the children understand? Yes, they did, though a lot of them asked questions and framing the answers to their questions helped the teacher to explain the concept even more clearly.
Since the children belong to three or four language communities (Rathwi, Bhili, Chaudhary, Tadvi), in the initial months, the children are taught in their mother-tongues. As is the practice at Vasantshala, they are actively encouraged to speak their mother tongues in the classroom and also outside of it while conversing with teachers and other children, playing games and during other extracurricular activities. These languages are heard by other children and teachers and slowly others begin to use them as well. The teachers use them for all subjects, including language. This process helps the child feel proud of his/her language and use it confidently. But more importantly, it helps the child gain/regain interest in studies – reading and writing -- as her/his comprehension increases.
Once a child begins to acquire primary literacy in her/ his mother tongue, s/he is introduced and transitioned to Gujarati and gradually to Hindi, Sanskrit and English and, of course, all the tribal languages the class speaks. This makes Vasantshala truly multilingual. For the last two years, two German gap-year students have been interning at Vasantshala and the children have picked up some German phrases and songs, while teaching them Gujarati!
Bridging learning gaps
Between September and March, the teachers focus on bridging the learning gaps of those children who need to be mainstreamed in regular schools as they become age appropriate. They are prepared and coached to be able to enrol in class V or VI, according to their abilities in the government residential schools so that they can complete their schooling successfully. These schools are selected based on the aptitude of the child and how close the school is to the child’s family village. On an average, 30 children are mainstreamed every year, and most manage to clear the class X examinations.

Sandhya Gajjar studied English Literature, Linguistics and Art History at the M S University of Baroda. For several years, she has been freelance writing for newspapers and magazines on issues related to development, popular science and culture. She is one of the founding trustees of Bhasha Research and Publication Centre and its in-charge managing trustee since 2015. She is also a trustee and an active member on the Executive Committee of the Navrachana Education Society (estd 1965) which manages four schools and a university in Vadodara. She can be contacted at
With a background in literature and a doctorate in social science, Sonal Baxi has worked closely with the Adivasi, de-notified and nomadic communities. Her experience combines research and grassroots interventions in diverse areas as education, art and culture, human rights and development. Her areas of specialisation include fundraising, project management and publishing. She may be reached at


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