Thursday, January 18, 2007

ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING: SOME CHALLENGES

Higher education from Socrates and Plato to our time has sought to develop the full potential of the mind, though in different forms in different places. In the last half century or so, universities have tended to grow too big grasping every opportunity for new courses or activities, often in a topsy-turvy process of ad hoc development. As a result, fragmentation has become more prominent. While the faculties appear to have become ghettoized, less interactive and far removed from the synergistic community of scholars in Plato’s Academy, students in our institutions have become isolated within their subject areas and cross-disciplinary contacts have become difficult. In most professional institutions in the country, undergraduate teaching has become a subordinate activity, with high-flying professors and researchers becoming more removed from contact with students and even with peers, and from real involvement in teaching and the vital ongoing task of reassessing the undergraduate curriculum. There is no longer a shared vision of goals of undergraduate education or of the means to achieve them, and in that vacuum of principle we have been witness to a proliferation of degree courses of uneven quality and uncertain purpose, or a laissez-faire approach to curriculum that has led to career courses based on faddism or an incoherent jumble of electives.

The situation in the area of English Language Teaching is more disappointing in that the ELT profession has generally lacked historical perspective, as Christopher Brumfit too pointed out more than 25 years ago. The mental skills of speech and communication, reasoning and analysis, creativity and imagination, intellectual stimulation and challenge, and critical and independent perception have not been advanced: students seem to know more and more about less and less, and cannot communicate with each other. I need not emphasize that the arts of communication or the arts of using the mind are basic to learning, for they are the arts of reading, writing, speaking, listening, figuring. They have a timeless quality, as they are the arts of fostering the critical abilities of students, of their qualities of mind and spirit that will carry them to their lives.

Nevertheless, the changes over the last few years have been so rapid that “it makes a completely different linguistic world to live in,” to quote David Crystal. The internet has already altered all our previous concepts to do with language. In fact, there is a lingering doubt in view of the realities of IT-dominated developments in the last ten years. Many of us find ourselves, or what we have been doing all these years, irrelevant. I suspect the fast growth of electronic publications, including books, journals, newspapers and magazines, and voice-recognition software, may soon make some of our arts, for example, writing, an ancient art form. While the printed word is facing a grave challenge as a medium of expression, voice chips may soon become indispensable for understanding and responding to verbal instructions and communication. The fast-moving images may replace text as the main form of communication: Books are already being played and viewed and information is visually and verbally communicated. These trends will not stop. As a result, 50 years hence few people would want to read, and fewer still would know how to write, as communication, both factual and expressive, would be through sound and pictures.

To most of us this may appear elitist, but this elitist reality coexists with the sad fact that a larger section of our population is functionally illiterate. A much larger percentage of our educated youths, high school and college graduates, despite their diplomas and degrees, cannot even fill out a simple application form, or write a formal letter. Smart ones among them who have access to computer and laptop increasingly depend on the latest version of Microsoft’s Word programme for checking spelling, syntax, grammar, and even paragraph structure. Yet they fail to write well or express themselves appropriately. Why?

Because sensitivity for the language is missing. When people love language, they will use it well, express their convictions, feelings and thoughts exactly and truly. To quote Charles Haines, “If users of English loved it, loved the feel and the sound of a well-turned phrase, loved fine speech in the mouth as they love the consistency of a good steak;…loved English and took care of it as some people love and care for their cars, ward-robes, coin collections, their health, the problem would not be hard to solve. The thing to do is to induce love. Language use, it must be taught from elementary school to Ph.D. exams, is more a matter of pleasure and beauty than it is of rules and strictures.”

It is with this sensibility for English language and its teaching in various contexts that I have tried to re-view it, keeping in mind that it is already a global lingua franca. It’s spread is both a consequence of and contributor to globalization, even as the rise of other regional languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, Swahili etc following the economic, political, and technological power or alliances of their speakers may make English less important.

According to an estimate, there are about 1400 million native speakers of Chinese, 600 million of Hindi and Urdu, and 508 million of English which is almost the same as Spanish and Arabic native speakers. It is also predicted that the proportion of native English speakers in the world population will shrink from more than 8 to less than 5 per cent by 2050. The dominance of English may wane as more and more regional languages become globalized and more and more non-native English speakers, with or without their own varieties of English , including pidgins, creoles, and diverse dialects, go online.

Yet, the ground reality for us would remain unchanged, that is, poor literacy skills, fluency, and even comprehension; poor communicative ability, with limited experiences in writing, speaking and listening unless, of course, teaching English as a Second, third or additional Language improves from school level and need for a supportive classroom climate and positive student attitudes towards larning at postsecondalry level is recognised. Also, both teachers and students need to be aware of what to do, how to do it, and when and why to do it, as part of practising self-regulation strategies.

The ELT community as also the other stake holders in the country should, therefore, revise and reformulate appropriate strategies and policies, with tolerance and multilingualism at the core, to remain relevant in the coming decades. We need to look back and recollect some significant views about English language teaching in order to move forward with a reasoned perspective so that we could take measures to develop communication abilities and higher discourse competence, with a broadened inter- and cross-disciplinary bases.

I am aware that there is no universal teaching method or ideal teaching material suited to many contexts of language teaching. Whatever didactic techniques one knows without excluding the behaviouristic drills, and practice and use of mother tongue, where appropriate, are all valid at different points in the teaching process. I stand for an eclectic approach as different methods for different students have always worked and there has not been one best method any time. With our freedom to choose and adopt any notion that serves our teaching ends, with a reasonable degree of historical sense, flexibility and adaptability that allows us to select among a variety of approaches, methods and techniques, we can meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. I see teaching communicatively essentially consisting of an eclectic methodology which incorporates what is valuable in any system or method of teaching and refuses to recognize bad teaching or defective learning. In any educational setting, sensitive and sinsible application and continuing evaluation of the chosen practices are inbuilt.

English has been practised in a social, economic, political, educational and philosophical “hot-house”, to use Peter Strevens’ expression, and the hot-house in India differs in quality from state to state. It is necessary to create an enabling environment – managerial, administrative, institutional, academic, and curricular—to promote not only quality education and effective learning with exposure to lots of natural, meaningful and understandable language, but also genuine communication. This means learners should read and listen to live language; they should speak and write it in ways that can be understood by educated speakers everywhere.
Moreover, they shouyld eventually be able to produce and comprehend culturally appropriate natural discourse.
R.K.SINGH

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