The English-Learning and Languages Review Æ HOMEPAGE
Teaching of English in
Freedom and Revolution
This paper was originally read at the U.G.C. sponsored National Seminar on "Understanding Language Functions and Study of Language: A Multidimensional Approach with Special Focus on English", on 30 and 31 July, 2010, organised by the Dept. of English, D.R.M. Science College, Davangere, Karnataka, S, India.
I should like in this paper to
address some of the things I think are problematic with regard to English
teaching here [in
I have spent all my life in adult education, by which I mean the education of adults (young or old) over the age of sixteen. The essence of adult education – what distinguishes it from teaching in schools - is that it is voluntary, that people do it because they want to.
Now it is precisely this sprit of
“voluntarism” – in simple terms “doing things because one wants to do them” -
that it seems to me is very often lacking here in
So what stops people doing what they want to do? I have learned much in this regard from the French courses. The courses have begun as planned, the students that I have are excellent and we are already making good progress. But many more people wanted to come than in the end actually did come. So numbers have been rather disappointing. In many cases, though, the people concerned did want to come. It was they who approached me. Some saying they had been waiting for years for such a chance. But in the end they did not come.
Why? The answer, I think, one answer at any rate,
is that people here often have little or no room in their lives for what they
want to do. Their lives are often circumscribed by obligations – things they have
to do or feel they have to do.
I have never in my life heard the verb “have to” so much as I hear it in
Very often the problem is the
family. Whatever the rights and wrongs
of the family system in
What I have called “voluntarism” is really just another word for freedom. And freedom is in my view an essential ingredient in learning and it is particularly important in learning languages. Nothing is easier to learn than a language when one wants to learn; nothing is more difficult when one is simply doing it out of some sense of obligation. Compulsory courses in English (or in any other language) achieve very little of value.
Of course we are just teachers. We cannot change the world even if we wanted to and we have to live with the world as it is. There is a phrase in French that does not exist in English to describe those nights when one sits round discussing how society could be better. In French this is called “remaking the world” (on refait le monde). Politically I am an anarchist and like all anarchists I have spent a great deal of my life, “remaking the world”. And like all anarchists, I understand that the problem is not how to create a better world. That is easy. We could all make a start on that tomorrow. We all know how the world could be better. The problem of course is how to move from the present unsatisfactory situation towards that better world that we all want to see. And that is the problem that no society has been able to solve...... What is true for society as a whole is equally true for education.
But it is too easy to relapse into cynicism and complacency. There are, I believe, things that can be done and I believe that it is our responsibility (a chosen obligation not an imposed one) to try and do those things. We cannot change the world but we can make a small difference to it if we have the will to do so.
In a proper teaching situation, the interests of the teacher and of the student are the same. Yet two often in practice the two appear to be on two opposing sides. The effect of a system based largely on compulsion and obligation is that often both teachers and students find it difficult to develop a real sense of responsibility. Compulsion produces obligations and almost inevitably those who act from obligation, act reluctantly and avoid those obligations whenever they can. Freedom involves responsibility (chosen obligations) and, in the case of teachers and students, those responsibilities are reciprocal and interdependent.
Freedom does not require “attendance registers” and academically meaningless “marks for attendance”. Such things should be unnecessary in voluntary adult education. But freedom does require mutual respect, which means, amongst other things, teachers turning up on time for their classes and students doing likewise. And regular voluntary attendance. This is simply a courtesy that the teacher owes the student, and that the student owes the teacher and his or her fellow classmates. In language teaching it is particularly vital because “language” cannot be learned from books and something missed in class cannot therefore be “mugged up” outside the class. Teacher and students need to work as a team.
The curse of “relaxed” time keeping is a natural result of an involuntary system just as tax-evasion is the natural result of imposed taxation and crime is the natural consequence of policing. I would say to all students present that they should not be prepared to tolerate poor time-keeping on the part of their teachers nor overcrowded classrooms nor antiquated or inappropriate equipment nor the lack of essential facilities. In adult education, the students are the customers and have every right to demand value for their money. I would say to all teachers, especially young teachers, that they too should not put up with teaching ethics they know to be wrong or counter-productive. Here at Dawengere, a new University is in the process of emerging. I repeat the anarchist mantra – the problem is not how to create a better situation. It is how to move from a bad situation to a better one. So the crucial time is now – at the beginning. To avoid the careless practices of the past and try to put in place that “better situation” from the very outset.
I am concerned in my French courses not merely to teach French (although I think that is a worthy and important endeavour in itself) but also to establish as far as I can what seems to me to be “best practice” in the teaching of language. The building blocks we need to create the “better situation” I have talked of, the fundamental requirement for a thorough going change in the teaching ethos.
This I have already talked about at length. In practice it involves a more thoroughly student-teacher-based teaching system. In a proper teaching situation, remember, the interests of the teacher and of the student are the same. For language teaching in a University situation, it might for instance involve a multiplication of optional courses for smaller groups of students directed towards well-targeted, specific language objectives. It would involve the provision of open-access drop-in (ideally “twenty-four hour”) facilities for students to work individually (or in small groups) both inside and outside classroom hours. This is ideally how a language or a computer laboratory should operate.
To describe an instance from my
own experience, I was involved in the 1980s in setting up at the
All that is
required to bring about change, to create a revolution, is the will to bring
about that change. I do not accept that
“these things are not possible in
This is crucial. As teachers we
all know that it is crucial. Yet too often we simply accept without demur a
situation that obliges us to teach by lecture.
So let me say a little about “the lecture”. I was fortunate enough to go to one of the
oldest European Universities –
The sad thing is that, lacking the same resources, other universities have tried to turn the lecture into a system of classroom instruction and of course it does not work very well because that is not what lecturing was designed to do. There is a place for lecturing – students need to be inspired - but I firmly believe that all teaching (in the sense of instruction) should be done in relatively small groups. For language teaching this is absolutely essential. With a group larger than about thirty, one is completely wasting one’s time. Virtually nothing useful can be taught.
Another corollary of interactive
teaching is that it should take place in a suitable environment. Here in
All that one needs in order to teach (and learn) efficiently and well is a room and, for a little creature comfort, some mats and cushions for people to sit on. Daïses, desks and pulpits serve no useful purpose except as things to hide behind, which is of course exactly how both teachers and students use them.
Note taking is a particularly noxious habit in a language-learning context. It prevents students from listening and watching properly (they have their heads in their notes) and it prevents proper contact between teacher and student. It is also largely useless. The notes students take are generally complete gibberish (how many teachers here I wonder ever look at their students’ notes. They might be shocked if they did) and are more likely to mislead than to help them.
Too often technology is simply used without proper thought as a “teaching aid”. So one could add to my list of curses, the “curse of the ubiquitous Powerpoint presentation”. Pedagogically, like the daïs and the pulpit, this is just another thing for a teacher to hide behind, another barrier between them and their audience.
It is quite pointless (and quite powerless) for teacher and screen to be saying the same things simultaneously. Which does not, however, mean that the teacher will not wish to draw the attention of the class to things that illustrate what they have been saying – whether text or images – and here computer technology is of inestimable use. Let us now talk of the “curse of the blackboard”.
It is absurd in this day and age that we are still using blackboards. For me they are a nightmare. My handwriting is terrible and my technique with a blackboard simply means that I invariably end up covered with chalk and scarcely able to breathe from the dust. All teaching rooms should nowadays be equipped with projector and screen attached to a computer (a laptop by preference), which can be used by the teacher interactively in innumerable ways during a class as well as for presenting pre-prepared material.
The computer should also be attached to a printer. Modern technology thus gives us ways of easily abolishing completely the need for note taking. All material taught can be printed out for the benefit of the students. That way their notes instead of being scrawled gibberish will be CORRECT and COMPLETE. And students will have been able to give their full attention to the class.
I do not
accept the argument that such things are impossible because
Nor do I
accept the argument that
There is a scene in the Vijay Anand film Guide (based on the Narayan story The Guide) where the fake swami (played of course by brother Dev) is tested by two Sanskrit-speaking brahmans. He cannot speak Sanskrit but defeats them, as it were, all the same by speaking English, which they in their turn cannot understand.
English has in some ways become
the new Sanskrit and it is a very unfortunate development both for Indian
culture and society and for the language itself. It leads to all sorts of fantasies and
myths. How often do we hear that the
English language is some sort of “gift” made by the English to
I heard someone the other day describe English as one of the oldest European languages. It is not. It is in fact one of the youngest European languages. It has a fine literature of which, as a native, I am proud, but so do many, many other languages. It is not the European language spoken most widely as a first language. That is Spanish, which has a far simpler syntax, a completely phonetic written form and which also has a fine literature. English is spoken widely in the world as a second language but French is generally reckoned to have more secondary speakers worldwide and the Latin family of languages (readily inter-comprehensible like the Dravidian family here in South India) – French, Italian, Catalan, Spanish and Portuguese - is spoken more widely than English both in terms of native and secondary speakers (about double the number) and English belongs to no such “close” family of languages. Mandarin Chinese incidentally is spoken by more people in every single category (native speakers, secondary speakers and the two together).
(For more information on the importance of French and the Latin languages see the Shimoga French Club website www.kekseksa.com)
everywhere in the world have had a problem with the teaching of languages. It could be fairly simply stated as a
conflict of interest between the teachers and the students. In a proper teaching situation, remember,
the interests of the teacher and of the student are the same. Students
want to learn the language because it is more useful and nowadays promises
better job-opportunities; teachers want to teach the literature because it is
more fun and carries higher status. For
this reason technical colleges (when they existed in
If therefore Indian universities are to teach English (or any other language) well, and are to fulfil the expectations of their students, then they need to concentrate on the full-time teaching of language, and literature has to play a very subsidiary role. English needs to be regarded as a foreign language like any other, not as a social status symbol and not as a second Sanskrit.
Of course literature should be taught (English literature and indeed the literature of the world) but this is an entirely separate subject from the teaching of English language. English literature is a huge discipline in its own right with a large repertoire of secondary scholarly literature that needs to be read and understood, a repertoire that is constantly changing and expanding and it should only be taught to those students who have a genuine interest in studying literature and a genuine ability to do so. I am myself a student and teacher of literature, of the history of literature and of cultural studies. It is one of my great passions in life. But I have also spent over twenty years of my life as a teacher of language. And therefore I know the difference between the two.
There is of course also a place for literature (in the broadest sense of the word) in the teaching of language, just as there is a place for every activity that pertains to the culture from which that language springs. But there is no place in the teaching of language for the “study” of literature, which pertains to an entirely different discipline. And while it is important for students to know that each language, French quite as much as English, expresses itself differently with respect for instance to polite forms or conventional usages, the English language should not be used as some sort of platform for the acquisition of social skills. Leave that to the yoga teacher.
Here we run up against the thorny
problem of “Indian English”. I have, let
me make it clear, nothing against Indian English nor do I think the differences
in vocabulary (prepone, almirah and the rest of it) are of any great
significance. They add colour to the
language and will be perfectly acceptable to other English speakers. But the grammar and syntax of Indian English
is unteachable because it has no clear standard forms. There is therefore no clear distinction that
can be made between what is “Indian English” and what is quite simply “bad
English”. “Indian English” is in
practice many different things; no two speakers of “Indian English” even within
the same region can be sure of understanding each other comfortably. It is not a language in the sense that “US
English” or “Canadian English” or “Australian English” are languages for the
very good reason that there are virtually no native speakers of “Indian
English” – at least not in
I do not at all mean by this to devalue Indian English, which can, in literary terms, be of the highest quality. Most of what is termed Indian English literature is in reality just English literature by persons of Indian origin (usually drawn from fairly narrow élites) but, as we are well placed here in Karnataka to know, there are some remarkable exceptions. Raja Rao’s Kanthapura is, in my view, a literary masterpiece. But language is not literature. The marvellous language of Rao’s novels is, by his own account, a conscious literary construct. It is a literary “voice”. The undoubted value of reading and studying English literature both by Indians and those of Indian origin has no significant implications for the teaching of English as a language.
Indian English then is unteachable as a language and, because it does not have native speakers, is, I suspect, likely always to remain so. I know that there are very distinguished linguisticians, Indian and European, who take a different view but, not to put too fine a point on it, they are simply talking fashionable nonsense to flatter the expectations of their audiences. It is part of the same mythology that gives us “India Shining”, the phoney (and I believe ephemeral) call-centre culture and all the associated nonsense that goes with it.
English in India therefore needs to be taught (just like any other language) as a foreign language and, to do so efficiently, India will have to develop a culture of foreign language learning that is not simply directed towards the dual objectives of a wide passive knowledge of the language and a smattering of communicative ability.
The teaching of other foreign languages (French, Spanish, German, Arabic, Chinese) would be an important step in the right direction. It would help to develop the necessary pedagogic culture and the appropriate skills both in teachers and students.
But one needs also to move away from the idea that a language can be taught in truncated sections – the absurdities that get called “spoken English”, “functional English”, “business English”, “English for special purposes”. None of these things exist except in the fevered imagination of those who seek to foist them upon us. Like Indian English, these are just a handful of leaves without the trunk and without the roots.
What we need to develop is a holistic approach to language, an approach that understands that language is embedded in a culture, is a reflection of that culture, and that tries to include all aspects of language (spoken and written) and all aspects of that culture. Not culture with a capital “C”, not high culture, not a sanskritised notion of language, but culture as we all know it in its entirety and its diversity. It is important for students who study a language to know something of the history of the culture that gave rise to it (but they do not need to “study” history for that purpose); it is important for them to be familiar with the literature (but they do not need to “study” literature for that purpose); it is important for them to know its applications in business and in science and in a multitude of other spheres of life (but they do not need to “study” business or science for that purpose). It is just as important for students to read detective stories, daft romances and comic books as to read Shakespeare; sport is as significant a subject to read about in English as philosophy. There is no better way to learn the rhythm of a language than listening to song-lyrics. There is no better way of practising and studying than listening to the radio.
For students to appreciate the cultural background, it is clearly important that they should have contact with native speakers of the language. But this is part of a much wider question:
Some of the required changes have already been suggested – a more responsible academic ethos, more appropriate teaching facilities and methods, concentration on language and an ethic of language learning, a holistic approach to language. To this we should add a more global approach to language teaching and language learning.
I first came to Shimoga three
years ago. I am not, obviously, a young “assistant”.
I am a highly experienced and highly
qualified teacher of language (amongst other things) and, because I wanted to
I hardly need to stress how absurd this situation is. The schools, colleges and Universities here should be employing scores of people like myself. They should be everywhere within the education system.
is not resources; it is simply the lack of will. Of course it is not easy for Indian
institutions to offer salaries that will attract established teachers and
academics who have homes and families back home to be paid for. But every European student has what is called
a “gap year” between school and University, which they use invariably to travel
and gain useful experience abroad. This
means there is a huge pool to be tapped of intelligent well-educated young
people, native speakers of English and other European languages, many of whom
would be only too happy to come and work in
I have already pointed out that
European students studying a language at University
level all spend a year abroad in a country where that language is a native
language. There is absolutely no reason
why Indian students should not also benefit from exchange schemes to do the
same. This does not necessarily entail,
as far as English is concerned, expensive travel to
simply not true that
A teacher is only as good as the system in which he or she teaches allows him or her to be.
In my view far too much emphasis is now being placed here on teacher training and on techniques and far too little on the acquisition of basic skills. Teacher training and retraining is important but it is essentially remedial. It is not going to turn a bad teacher into a good one. And no modern “technique” is going to make up for a lack of the basic techniques of teaching, which, as every good teacher knows, are as old as the hills.
All teachers certainly should know how to use a computer effectively for teaching and how to provide their students with the benefits of the internet. This is clearly indispensable. Beyond this, they just have to have the basic skills (genuine proficiency in the language as far as language teaching is concerned) and know how to teach. And good teaching is exactly the same thing today as it was a hundred or a thousand years ago.
The real problem in
For nearly thirty years I prepared students of all
nationalities from all around the world for internationally recognized
examinations. Because the school was in
Beware of imitations. There are plenty of worthless gimcrack
courses to be found on the internet.
There are only two properly recognised international examinations –
those set by
These examinations (Cambridge Proficiency
Of course many countries outside
Need I stress how foolish this is, how unfair it is on the students who go on to be teachers, improperly prepared for the task, how unfair it is on the students they in their turn will teach, how worrying it is for the future........
With the advantages it has in
terms of English (over
A further word on those
 Some authorities would contest these statements about the relative ‘sizes’ of the various languages mentioned. Ed.
 I emphasise here radio. NOT television. Television, a superlatively passive medium, is almost completely useless from a language-learning point of view. Radio is difficult (it requires considerable concentration) but a wonderful teacher. Note that the development of the internet and high-speed broadband connections means that one can now listen (and relisten) to the radio in any language with total clarity and without electric interference. For more information on this subject see the French Club website www.kekseksa.com.
 The former Vice Chancellor, I might add, made a ferocious attack on this bureaucratic nonsense in his retirement speech. I have no doubt that the new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Bari, will be equally determined to stamp out abuses.
Beware of imitations. There are plenty of worthless gimcrack
courses to be found on the internet. There
are only two properly recognised international examinations – those set by
21 January 2011
The English-Learning and Languages Review Æ HOMEPAGE