Wednesday, April 08, 2015


Text of the inaugural session address of Professor R.K.Singh in the National Conference on Sustainability and Development: Implications of ELT for Individual,  Society a Ecology  organized by School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology , Patna on April 3, 2015

                                                                                  --Professor Ram Krishna Singh

I feel greatly flattered by your invitation to address the inaugural session as a key-note speaker. I am no expert in Sustainable Development even if I  had association with the cause as a functionary of theDhanbad Chapter of Society for International Development (SID), Rome way back in the 1990s. Nor am I here to talk about  saving Earth’s resources, environmental protection, green management, or social impact of development. But I  do understand its fundamentals that seek to provide for “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The concept encourages us to make better decisions on the issues that affect all our lives.
The themes for discussion in the Conference, thus, make us think, in the context of language teaching and learning practices, how to balance different, and often competing, needs vis-à-vis our socioeconomic limitations, lack of infrastructure, and mediating manpower.
Before I proceed I must admit I have reservations about what is sustainable in the environment of English Language Teaching (ELT) in India, and specially in a privileged technical institution like the IIT or ISM where, like it or not, studying English is viewed as unnecessary obligation both by a larger section of engineering students and subject teachers, irrespective of their support for English in public. There is hardly any pressure on students from technical subject teachers for writing well. As I have observed, the subject teachers’ attitude towards students’ shortcomings or difficulties in English varies from tolerance to indifference to  helplessness. According to a recent study conducted in a Swedish university, where the entire programme is in English (‘Supporting Language Learning in the English Medium University Classroom? Teacher Attitude, Beliefs and Practices’, Ibolya Maricic, Diane Pecorari, Charlotte Hommerberg), with pressure from the central government to internationalize,as in our situation,  Computer Science teachers take it for granted that their students already have the mastery of English. Similarly, teachers of Earth Sciences, which is an international subject, teach with the presumption that their students have no difficulty in following the textbooks written in English, while students of Natural Sciences and  Medical Sciences consider competency in English essential for a career.  As English teachers, most of us must have noticed science and Engineering subject teachers acknowledging that English is important for international publication and job,  but they hardly care about the students’ performance in their subjects, using English.   Ironically perhaps, their presumption is that there is already so much material in English that the students learn enough English. So, as English teachers we need to teach what they don’t know or don’t learn.
If we leave aside the elite institutions, it becomes 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 developing (or fine-tuning) 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.
Digital Culture
We  all understand that most of the students’ productive skills— speaking and writing—are not good or satisfactory. Nor is there much formal feedback regarding the standard of their English for publication in scholarly or professional journals. Their ‘reading’ the printed page is now reduced to ‘viewing’ on the computer screen, and finding  ‘key words’ have changed the nature of the ‘old’ skimming, scanning, and skipping. Easily available artificially intelligent software check the spelling and grammar errors and facilitate academic discourse, in howsoever a limited way.  It is reshaping the traditional teaching materials, but it’s not clear what the new technology will take away from the learning experience, even if  a UN document on sustainable development promises, “Information Technology based chiefly on advances in micro-electronics and computer science is of particular importance. Coupled with rapidly advancing means of communication, it can help improve the productivity, energy and resource efficiency, and organizational structure of industry.”
            Against such a background, and relegated to the margin, the English teachers are now obliged to seek, perhaps in their own professional interests, to maximize the students’ potential as English learners and  as human beings, and understand and teach with technology integration, discourse sense, and locally relevant and culturally appropriate ways.
New Technologies
            The changes over the last two decades have been so rapid that “it makes a completely different linguistic world to live in,” as David Crystal says. The internet has already altered all our previous concepts to do with language. For the generation born after 1985, the internet and mobile phones, for example, 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.
            We, in India, have yet to understand how technologies such as smart phones, social media, video conferencing, wikis, open online courses, etc are changing the relationship between teacher and student, and how the old concepts of ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ are now challenged. The vernacular of technology is shaping our language at an incredible rate. To speak and understand English today, students may need to know what ‘google’ or ‘twitter’ is, and how these are used as verbs, just as we have to be sensitive to the needs of the average rural students most of whom do not have a computer or internet access at home.  Even if they may not be fluent speakers, they do use English words in the course of Hindi, Tamil, or Bengali etc. They may also use English swear words where one would least expect them. One is able to use the odd word frequently, perhaps to sound confident, modern, educated, or impress the neighbor. One can hear words like “miss call”, “tension”, “time pass”, “backing”, “adjust”, “VIP”, “shit”, “mobile” and scores of others.
            In fact they use English without any interference from those whose native language it has been. Knowingly or unknowingly, they nurture the Indian variety of English just as we notice the world varieties of English diversified with a variety of political, economic, and cultural consequences. The patterns of the past linguistic history, as John Algeo noted twenty years ago, may not be repeated. “New factors of electronic communication and air travel are likely to prevent the fracturing of English into mutually incomprehensible languages. Locally divergent forms of English may drift off into separate languages,  but the core of English is likely to remain a varied, diversified, but recognizably ‘same’ language.” (Preface, More Englishes: New Studies in Varieties of English: 1988-1994 by Manfred Gorlach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1995).
            For teaching English in such a 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 today’s society.  We also need to think, individually and collectively, the strengths and weaknesses of the digital learning material and its prospective impact on how humans learn. Many digital learning materials completely overhaul how classes are conducted, how students are tested on knowledge, and how teachers fit into the picture.
Cultural Fluency
            There is also  a distinct cultural aspect to the use of English today. Cultural fluency is important in effective English learning. Students need to become active and culturally aware communicators. Which means they must be good not only in their mother tongue but also intangible aspects of communication, including body language, cultural fluency, and diplomacy. Social scientists estimate that over 90 percent of what we communicate is non-verbal, so if the body language is giving wrong message, it won’t matter how well you   speak a language,  people may still not get a positive impression of you. They might even feel uncomfortable talking to you. By becoming aware of and working on your body language, you will experience an immediate impact on how you feel about yourself, how others perceive you, and your overall communication. So how you hold not only yourself, but also  your posture, your openness, and your self-awareness matters a lot.
            The teacher’s success, thus, lies in managing the learning strategies and promoting practice and use, or what the linguists have mentioned as pragmatic function (language as doing) and mathetic function (language as learning).
            Even as we talk about globalization, tertiary education in every discipline needs scholars and researchers who have good international perspective and ability to work in diverse settings. The common concern  facing us is: cultivating globally-minded graduates, with abilities across cultures and boundaries, and sensibility to put up with, what the organizers of the conference view as “widespread metaphor of growth.”
            Needless to say, language competence is basic to acquiring global perspective via the graduation courses. It helps to learn a couple of regional or foreign languages for expanding professional networks and gaining cultural experiences which are vital for global learning. As far as English is concerned, teaching the pragmatic, interactional and creative uses of English in our academic and professional context is important.
Multiple Englishes
In his stimulating exposition of the spread of English, Braj B. Kachru emphasizes that English has not only acquired multiple identities but also “a broad spectrum of cross-cultural contexts of use.” During the last twenty five years or so, scholars have progressively acknowledged the reality of multicultural aspects of English a la linguistic interactions of three types of participants: native speaker and native speaker; native speaker and non-native speaker; and non-native speaker and non-native speaker. Resultantly, as Kachru points out, there has been “a multiplicity of semiotic systems, several non-shared linguistic conventions, and numerous underlying cultural traditions,” paving way for English as an International Language (EIL), which provides access across cultures and boundaries. The focus has shifted to the diverse users and language activities within a sociolinguistic context which is often localized  rather than native-speaker oriented as far as aspects such as communicative teaching or communicative competence are concerned.
Taking cue from international diffusion of English, we should recognize the institutionalized non-native varieties of English such as Indian English, and concentrate on English used in South Asian and South East Asian countries for reviewing the pedagogic developments in language teaching with an ESP bias as also for trying to integrate  language and culture teaching.  This is significant in that despite decades of activities in the name of communicative teaching or communicative competence, not much has been achieved in terms of methods and materials for international competence in English.  The European parochialism continues to dominate the academics’ reasoning even as discourse organization, both literary and spoken, reflects a certain regionalism.
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. Pronunciation must be intelligible and not detract from the understanding of a message. But for this nobody needs to speak the so called 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. 

Understanding and awareness of non-verbal behavior, cues and information  is an integral part of interpersonal communication in many real-life situations, including business and commerce. Though research is needed to understand the role of visual support in our situations, it does seem relevant in making students aware of the context, discourse, paralinguistic features and culture. This can be advantageous in teaching soft skills which are basically life skills, or abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour, so necessary for successful living.
            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, in the narrow sense of the word,  or use of right grammatical form, syntax, vocabulary, or even certain polite phrases. The goal is to enable one to express what one wishes to convey and make the impression that one wishes to make, using language with a sense of interaction and mutuality. Sensitivity for intercultural business environment, or being aware of each culture’s symbols, how they are the same, and how they are different, is important.
            I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for bearing with my random thoughts on ELT, digital culture, and intercultural abilities necessary to sustain relevant teaching-learning practices now and in the years ahead.

Dr R.K.Singh, Professor (Higher Academic Grade) and Ex-Head, Dept of Humanities & Social Sciences, Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad 826004


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