Is Speaking English The Prerogative Of The Privileged?

Posted by sharbani chattoraj in Culture-Vulture, Society
February 6, 2017

“Paribo ni (I won’t be able to do it),” is a sentence that brings dismay to every teacher, as it does to me every time one of my students utters it.

I teach English grammar to Class X in a school in rural Odisha. I am a native Bengali speaker and speak Odiya haltingly, ironically, making a botch of the grammar. My students speak mainly Odiya and Saura, a local tribal language. Many of them know a smattering of Hindi, a language that I have been using along with Odiya to explain concepts and rules of grammar.

Teaching one language through another does not work beyond a point, but much like with the Rosetta Stone, knowledge of an unknown language has to begin by translation from a known one. So, in an English class, we use Odiya and Hindi to learn English.

Interacting with the students, it appears to me that the biggest obstacle to learning English is the notion of the stigma attached to not knowing it. The same students who would cheerfully practise their Hindi with me would feel embarrassed about speaking in English because they’re afraid they will make mistakes. I have been trying to understand why making mistakes in English is considered qualitatively different from doing the same in any other language.

Why is it that we consider learning English a task of insurmountable proportions? While accepting prima facie the fact that learning a new language is an uphill task for most of us, it must also be accepted that it is not as difficult as or comparable to dragon-slaying of lore. After all, in India, with her rich variety of languages and innumerable dialects that change from village to village, many of us have grown up multilingual, learning at least one new language in school in addition to our mother tongues.

Why is it, then, that we hesitate even to begin when it comes to English? Is it because English is ‘foreign’, and therefore beyond our understanding? The popular notion that English is the language of the privileged, the so-called upper classes has much to do with students in rural areas feeling that they are not capable of learning English. After all, even now, anyone who is comfortable speaking in English is termed videshi (foreigner). This is the notion which, above all, needs to be deconstructed.

The idea behind teaching a language, or in fact, any subject, should be to demystify it and nurture in students a lively interest which will far outlast their school days. What is unknown is difficult; what is known is familiar. The goal of teaching should be to make the unknown knowable, understandable, easy to comprehend, and above all, interesting. For a new language, there are a variety of ways in which such interest can be created. The most obvious are the use of means of entertainment in that language – songs, movies, books, newspapers, tv shows – the list can go on and on. These open up the world of the new language to students and make them a part of that world without making it seem like an academic chore.

For this, the command of the teacher over the language being taught and its cultural and historical moorings is essential. A language cannot be presented to children as a foreign substance, one with which the teacher herself is not comfortable. More than what is being said, what helps in educating young minds is what is being done. A teacher’s comfort level with the language automatically permeates into the classroom space and brings the language within the grasp of the students. The teacher should be able not only to converse in English but also to connect matters of daily life which students are familiar with to the teaching of the language. In doing this, our English teacher faces a major challenge in the form of the course material that she has to work with.

Sadly, the content of our English textbooks leaves much to be desired concerning its relevance. Just because the language is English should not mean that the textbook needs to be British (and therefore, foreign) in content. We have a great number of Indian authors in English, many of whom have won laurels and fame both within India and abroad for their work. We also have a great number of works written with an Indian setting.

Why don’t our textbooks contain more works of R. K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond? Why don’t our textbooks have more material that students, particularly in rural areas, can relate to and understand?

There appears to be a serious disconnect between the content being taught and the worldview of students learning it. It seemed pointless, for instance, for me to teach letter-writing when my students have never even seen a postcard or the inside of a post office. Wouldn’t it be better to teach them how to e-mail the local BDO instead of how to write a letter to the postmaster about a registered parcel which has gone missing? All knowledge must constantly be updated; and yet, it seems that our school textbooks have remained the same for decades together, as though the IT Revolution has not happened at all.

There is, further, an inexplicable lack of emphasis in our education system for the most basic of language skills: speaking. We learn and teach how to read and write, not how to speak. It seems to me that it is a completely roundabout and unproductive way of teaching a language. I feel that teaching of any language should begin with the basics of its grammar and conversation. I can personally attest to the fact, having learnt Kannada that way, and I am certain most readers would agree, that the rate at which one can learn a language is directly proportional to the amount of time one spends listening to it. Also, speaking in a language gives a major boost of confidence and encourages the student to learn more and more. I am sure that if we could just get students to talk in English, and learn from their mistakes along the way instead of being embarrassed by them, it would go a long way in facilitating their education. For language serves a much greater purpose – communication, and good communication skills are the key to success in any field.

I am slowly coming to the conclusion that gaps in learning are actually deficiencies of teaching. The biggest mistake, I feel, we make while teaching English is that we treat it like a ‘subject’, not a ‘language’. Thus classified, the focus shifts to getting passing and higher marks instead of actually learning anything.

Unfortunately, in our country, marks have paramount importance, and this has led to the promotion of learning by rote over any other method. We teach our students that ‘if X is the question, Y is the answer, and if you write Y, you will get marks’ without ever bothering to explain what X and Y mean, much less why X the question has Y the answer. The all-important question ‘Why?’ is conspicuously absent from our school curriculum.

This is why we keep mass-producing literate but uneducated, certified but unemployable youth who come out of a gruelling schooling system without adding much to the skill-set that they were born with. It is high time we changed the way we teach our children. A fresh look at the education system is the crying need of the hour, and all the IITs and IIMs in the world will not be of any use if we do not strengthen the schooling system. We need to start asking ‘why?’.