Saturday, March 20, 2010

ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING: A REFLECTION ON THE CHALLENGES AHEAD

Text of my speech in the National Seminar on English Teaching at Sindri College, Sindri on March 14, 2010:

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, 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. 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 is more disappointing in the area of English Teaching, be it language or literature. When I reflect as a practicing teacher, or take stock of what we have been doing and what needs to be done in the next few years of a very complex, different 21st century, or look back and critically view the developments in English teaching profession, I regret to note that 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.

WRITING VIS-À-VIS INTERNET

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 or more. 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.

We are already using commercial versions of digital books and journals; we are familiar with thin LCD panels with text stored in RAM (Random Access Memory) or computer memory; we download a typical novel in two to three minutes from the internet; we are used to virtual library and book pad. Documentation and information is now provided in hypertext form so that the users can themselves decide what information is relevant to them. Obviously, computer literacy is now become most essential and the concept of literacy will have to be redefined in multimedia terms.

The fast-moving images have replaced 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. There are already unmistakable signs of atrophy of text, and in a decade or two, I suspect it will be used mainly for instructional purposes and be accessible only to the technological elite. Maybe, 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. What I am trying to emphasize is that we may very soon have to redefine what we mean by written text.

For the generation born after 1985, the internet and mobile phones are not just media; they have become a social environment in which one settles and lets out one's energies. It is a parallel world, with a lot of virtual alternatives. For teaching communicative strategies in such a new situation, we would need to know more about, and understand well, the various connections between language use and successful communication, about lexical tools of communication, about the potential of various Englishes in the present age, and the selective information needs in the present day society.

CHALLENGES

To some 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. Most of them manage to 'communicate' with a limited vocabulary and an unstable syntax. 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? I suspect excepting a very small section of the population, the large majority learn English the wrong way. Many of us know well how English in various schools is being taught as no man's subject, or as an every man's subject, or an extra hand's subject. This is not a positive or happy situation. I am also concerned, as I have always maintained, English learning has to be strengthened at the school level without which there can't be improvement at college level.

Moreover, it is a challenge to us English teachers to manage with our own widely differing linguistic competence the large classes of mixed ability students, non-availability or high cost of books and instructional material, tests and exams becoming the only goal in themselves, lack of students'(and even teachers') motivation, administrative apathy, inaccessibility to electronic media, journals and books, balance between the use of mother tongue and English to ensure acquisition of communication skills, or perhaps, a better teaching-learning situation in the mother tongue and other languages, and dissemination of best ELT practices internationally, with an e-culture interface.

As teachers we need to work on our own affirmative action programmes, despite constraints of our situation. In order to do something new, we may have to give up the old. As John Swales says, "We may need to recycle not only our projects and our programmes but also ourselves." In fact a practical teacher should be able to operate within, what may be called, "here and now" state of affairs. It is with some sort of inbuilt flexibility and utilitarian purpose that one can practice ELT in the days ahead.

NEGOTIATING DIFFERENCES

With sensitivity for the language (to me, language use is more a matter of pleasure and beauty than of rules and structure), I would like to assert that the yardsticks of the British or American native speakers, or their standards as reflected in GRE, TOEFL or IELTS etc, or their kind of tongue twisting, are simply damaging to the interests of non-native speakers. We have to develop our own standards, instead of teaching to sound like Londoners or North Americans. No nobody needs to speak the socalled standardized English (that makes inter- and intranational communication difficult). David Crystal too appreciates this reality and favours 'local taste' of English in India and elsewhere. The problems of teaching, say spoken English, relate to lack of intercultural communicative competence.

Many of the misunderstandings that occur in multicultural or multinational workplace are traceable to intergroup differences in how language is used in interpersonal communication rather than to lack of fluency in English. In fact native speakers need as much help as non-natives when using English to interact internationally and interculturally. It is understanding the how of negotiation, mediation, or interaction. We need to teach with positive attitude to intercultural communication, negotiating linguistic and cultural differences. The focus has to be on developing cultural and intercultural competence, tolerance (the spread and development of various Englishes is an instance of grammatical and lexical tolerance), and mutual understanding. Rules of language use are culturally determined. I doubt all those who talk about spoken English, or communication skills, care to teach or develop intercultural communicative abilities. This presupposes a good grasp of one's own culture or way of communication, or the language etiquettes, gestures and postures, space, silence, cultural influences, verbal style etc.

If one has to work abroad and use English with others there, one has to be sensitive to the culturally governed ways of speaking or talking to each other. The speech community's (the language culture of the group of people) ways of communication cannot be taken for granted, when one seeks to learn or teach spoken English. People fail or suffer discomfort or embarrassment in negotiations in business or political affairs, or achievement of personal goals due to incompetence in persuasion, negotiation, mediation, or interaction. It is their performance, their intercultural interactional competence which matters; it lies in managing social interaction, and not just communication, or use of right grammatical form, syntax, vocabulary, or even certain polite phrases.

POSITIVE ATTITUDE NEEDED

Academic communication skills, both written and oral, have to be imparted in such a way that students in their contexts are able to identify their own language learning needs and to set their own language learning goals. At college and university level, teachers may act as facilitators, just as they would need to teach with positive attitude for inter- and intracultural communication, the skills of negotiating linguistic and cultural differences.


It is with this sensibility for English language and its teaching in various contexts that I speak to you this morning. Yet, as I say all this, I keep in mind the ground reality: that is, poor literacy skills, fluency, and even comprehension; poor communicative ability, with limited experiences in writing, speaking and listening unless, of course, teaching of English as a Second, or additional language improves from school level and need for a supportive classroom climate and positive student attitudes towards learning at postsecondary level is recognized. 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 practicing 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. The objective of looking back, in a seminar like this, is to move forward with a reasoned perspective for taking measures to develop communication abilities and higher discourse competence, with a broadened inter- and cross-disciplinary bases, for learning to understand (rather than memorize) and apply in ones own contexts.

I would like to quote Christopher Brumfit from his opening speech to SPEAQ Convention in Quebec City (in June 1982): "...Being communicative is as much or more a matter of methodology as of syllabus or materials, and methodology is something that teachers are uniquely qualified to contribute to. We should therefore be willing to use our expertise, to innovate, to improve, to inform each other, and to criticize." What we are going to do here, friends, is just to make a beginning, the beginning of a process of communicating, of understanding, that we can start but cannot finish.

ECLECTIC APPROACH

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 sensible application and continuing evaluation of the chosen practices should be 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 should eventually be able to produce and comprehend culturally appropriate natural discourse.

--PROFESSOR (DR) R.K.SINGH

http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/profrksingh/english-language-teaching-a-reflection-challenges-ahead 

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