MY WORK: From Red Room
by Ram Krishna Singh
January 7, 2010, 2:15 am
I teach English language skills, particularly writing skills, to students of earth and mineral sciences at a technical university. It is now more than three decades that I have been involved with, what we call, 'English for Specific Purposes (ESP)' teaching, with some sort of inbuilt flexibility and utilitarian purpose. I doubt if it really makes any difference to students at tertiary level, but it did provide me with opportunities to reflect and write a few academic articles and books that presented a picture of what a typical Indian teacher of English could do in a 'second' language context.
I could carry out a couple of needs analyses and develop materials for use in the class just as I could realize how the Western, 'English as a Foreign Language (EFL)' dominated ESP was different from ESP in an ESL context like ours. I had an opportunity to learn and reflect even as teaching the languge for immediate, speciable, defined, and limited objectives appeared more relevant than the 'general' English. It could also be possible to view ESP as a rhetorical and discourse approach, ESP as a communicative approach, ESP as a target situation analysis, and ESP as EAP at tertiary level.
The academic articles I wrote during the 1980s and 1990s were not meant for specialists though the contexts of the 1970s and early 80s did motivate me to try out something fresh in my situation and share my experiences with like-minded practitioners of English for Science and Technology (EST) the world over. The class room realities vis-a-vis the then linguistic and educational thinking has not changed much, but I have been conscious of little effect I could make for the students as well as fellow-teachers.
It makes me sad to note that though ESP as an approach is now firmly established, it still has fewer supporters in India, possibly because nobody wants any changes in the conventional teaching-learning practices? Also, in the last fifty years or so, universities have tended to grow too big grasping every opportunity for new activities, often in a topsy turvy process of ad hoc development. As a result, fragmentation has bcome more prominent just as undergraduate teaching in most professional institutions has become a subordinate activity. There is no longer a shared vision of goals of undergraduate education or of the means to achieve them. It disappoints me to say that I have been witness to a proliferation of degree and career courses of uneven quality and uncertain purpose, often based on faddism.
The situation in the area of English language teaching (ELT) appears more disappointing in that the ELT profession has generally lacked historical perspective. The mental skills of speech and communication, reasoning and analysis, creativity and imagination, intellectual stimulation and challeng, and critical and independent perception has not been advanced: students seem to know more and more about less and less, and cannot communicate with each other.
The internet has already altered all our previous concepts to do with language. In fact, there is also a lingering doubt in view of the ralities of IT-dominated developments inthe last ten or fifteen 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, newspapes 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. Books are already being played and viewed and information is visually and verbally communicated. These trends will not stop. As a result, fifty 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 picture.
This may sound elitist, but this elitist reality coexists with the sad fact that larger section of our population is functionally illiterate. A much larger percentage of our educated youths, graduates and postgraduates, cannot even fill out a simple application form, or write a formal letter. Smart ones among them, or those who have access to computer and laptop, depend on the latest version of Microsoft's Word programme for checking spelling, syntaxz, grammar, and even paragraph structure. Yet they fail to write well or express themselves appropriately. I don't know if my work or effort will make any difference.
It also hurts to find that sensitivity for the language has been missing, and English has been frequently taught "as no man's subject, or as everyman's subject, or an extra hand's subject."
As a practitioner of poetry, I believe when people love language, they will use it well, express their convictions, feelings and thoughts exactly and truly. 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, word-robes, or 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.