ENGLISH TEACHING: Knee-jerk Reaction Won’t Do! [Archives:1999/14/Reportage]

April 5 1999

Dr. Murari Prasad,
Head, English Department,
Faculty of Education, Sa’adah.
In several recent issues of Yemen Times entitled “To Greater Heights: Improving English Language Competences of Yemeni Learners” (Issue # 5 dated February 1st), and “Making It Work: Parameters of Innovation in the EFL Curriculum in Yemen” (Issue # 6 dated February 8th) – both by Dr. Ramakant Sahu, the prescribed curriculum of English language training at secondary levels has been evaluated, leading the writer to conclude that it is inadequate and has a lack of appropriate material.
While not entirely without merit, the writer’s observations of the steady shortcomings of the curriculum, as well as his overview of the English teaching situation, and the turn-around package are not unacceptable. However, the assessment is much too general, sweeping and clogged with a stale rehashing of the notions emanating from ELT (English Language Teaching) empire.
The expansive global reach of the English is not a matter of dispute. For accessing up-to-date information, the language is certainly a potent and enabling medium. Full marks for Sahu for dinning it into the ears of Yemeni learners of English. The language dominates major domains of modern life, and over half the countries of the world have given English some kind of special status.
As the language of commerce and communications, aviation and advertising, business and beauty contest, popular culture, and the worldwide web. it has enormous scale of use. With 80% of all the information stored in electronic retrieval systems in English, the language has critical mass which is unlikely to be ended by the available capabilities of language engineering – at least within the foreseeable future. Of course, it is not that everybody in the world has started speaking English, but the current spurt of growth in its use has invaded even non-English speaking advanced countries like Germany and France. The latter had instituted a state-controlled language policy in 1994 – Loi Toubon, to prohibit the use of English in public language. Some Germans too were prompted by the exaggerated use of Anglicisms and Americanisms to form the Society for the Protection of the German Language, in 1998.
Since a practical response to the uncontrolled spread of English has not been considered, so far, and supranational auxiliary languages have not been devised, the best approach for countries like Yemen is to promote efficiency in the use of English. This option will not make Yemen an anonymous ingredient in increasing globalization, because Arabic, as the entrepreneurial indigenous tongue with substantial load, will continue to remain its lingua franca.
Thus, with the advantages that are there, communicative competence in English is a necessary prelude to socio-economic mobility of Yemeni citizens.
Now, what is the current state of English-teaching? What are the impediments to efficient acquisition and use of the language by Yemeni learners? In Sahu’s opinion, the curriculum has failed to take off. It lacks the ability to kickstart a desirable pace of learning
My point is: no curriculum, however well-designed and fine-tuned it may be, can by itself produce targeted learning. Its potential needs to be exploited by well-skilled and professionally committed teachers. A well-made curriculum can fall flat in the hands of indifferent teachers and a mediocre one can tick and click if the teacher is resourceful enough to prime it with his mettle. My feeling is that the writer has not gone by actual classroom practices where the existing curriculum is being harnessed with a measure of success.
Plus, he is making much of the motivation of Yemeni learners who are not turning out to be efficient users of the English they do learn.
Amidst obvious institutional variations, lack of sustained intrinsic motivation and hard work, curricular assumptions are bound to lie fallow and untilled. These impediments to the pace and perspective of English-teaching seem to have escaped Sahu’s notice. I am not glossing over deficiencies in the curriculum, but these are barely a blip in the gamut of failures. The malady lies elsewhere.
Sahu is probably not aware of the on-going review of the textbook series titled CRESCENT by a committee of experts, on the basis of feedback data on their teachability and learning outcome.
Sahu is perhaps not aware of the on-going review of the textbook series titled CRESCENT by a committee of experts on the basis of feedback data on their teachability and learningoutcome. A clearer perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of these books would have emerged had he weighed the findings of the committee in the light of his own survey. The shortcomings that he spots donot seem to be credible and convincing enough to warrant a dismissal of the series. By flagging their improper structural grading and lack of communicative activities, he is over-reading ELT theories which need tobe diluted into an eclectic concoction for pragmatic reasons. It will not be correct to say that these books disregard the “schema” (background knowledge) of Yemeni learners and abound in unfounded jumps while introducing words like “air hostess” or “emergency”. The charge would have stuck had there been words like locomotive or railway compartment in that Yemen has no railway. Even people from rural background in Yemen fly abroad for medical emergency needs or whatever. So these words do not add up to high cognitive demands on Yemeni learners. Also, the learner learns a foreign language toform contact with a community other than his/her own. Why should the context of his/her learning be alays his/her own?
Sahu’s plea posits a split between teaching English as a skill and as a context of subject. How will the foreign language learner be fluent unless he/she has some content to communicate. Yes, we must teach the nuts and bolts of language along with socio-linguistic variable, but without sufficient content, forms can’t be anchored into learners’ percention. Sahu seems to be too obsessed with the bandwagon effect of ELT theories which can’t be taken straight off toclassroom as blanket solutions without detailing them with factors germane to specific teaching contexts.
Sahu is perfectly correct when he says that a well-assorted coalition of men, method and materials is a must for successful teaching. Given the situation as it is, it requires massive resources to improve the situation in Yemen’s 12,400 schools. The issue involves policy planning and a good deal of educational engineering which the government alone can conceive and execute. The idea of periodic revamp of teacher training programs with fresh inputs and learner-friendly teaching models has all along been thrown up and needs to be harped on again and again. But more important than that is doing the best within the possibilities that are there, and not to throw the baby with the bathwater. If an understanding teacher can succeed with poor materials, then we can’t bet for better change with brilliant curriculum and bad teachers. This does not mean that we should privilege status quoism and shoot down improving suggestions.
Sahu’s innovative parameters have certain unrealistic ingredients. True, our learners should be good at oral communication for interactive survival in everyday life. In his scheme of things, the curriculum at secondary level should be attuned to the requirements of sociolinguistic competence of learners. The gaps in learning at secondary level are to be bridged by a “compensatory, remedial bridge course” to consolidate FL (Foreign Language) competencies of learners. Who will handle the bridge course?
The same teachers who are teaching English in Yemen. What is the task complexity of the bridge course? In terms of cognitive load it is many times higher and heavier than the course given earlier. Doesn’t it sound like making bricks without straw? Phase 3 and 4 curricula say two little to comment on. The writer does not offer the prescriptive minimum for attaining sociolinguistice competence and phonological essentials either.
Sahu slams home a salient point when he says that the 4-level English curriculum for college of Education students requires a much sharper pedagogical slant because the target learners are the future teachers of English in Yemen, and as such they need to be groomed into resourceful professionals for a nation-building activity. Fittingly so, they must have confidence in classroom management and delivery system of their calling. I would like to add that they don’t learn teaching skills and strategies from methodology courses alone. It will be a tunnel vision approach to limit the acquisition of prospective teachers to a set of skills because they do learn a lot through their exposure to a variety of ways in which other courses are taught. So “pedagogical slant” should not fence off amplitude and breadth of exposure, otherwise it will be like overegging the pudding.
Sahu’s reflections on the relevance of the English literature component of the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) curricula raise a lot of dust without allowing any traffic to pass. How do we stream career options of those who wish to major in English and devise as many syllabi as their takers? As a corollary to his argument, there can be two ways:
i) the literature component of English studies in the Faculty of Education as well as in the Faculty of Arts should be abridged and simplified for one group of learners;
ii) another version should be set apart for a segregated band of linguistically well-equipped students. The suggestion is not only inconsistent with Sahu’s earlier position in the write-up when he describes English specialist courses as “a well-planned integrated module based on a holistic approach to language,” but it also harks back to the old and corny debate between linguistics and literature. It is a settled issue now that literature is a specific use of language and literary texts can be exploited for language teaching without putting a crimp in the learners’ acquisition of communication skills.
Sahu’s plea for decanonization of the literary corpus of English studies is a welcome intervention in that we have to come to terms with the changing constructions of literary canon following the emergence of new literature in English. The very implications of English literature have changed: the term has long ceased to mean the literature of England, and today covers a wider range of national productions than ever before. This enlargement of scope in English literary studies is being noted by many universities around the world, although most of the recent histories of ‘English’ literature omit virtually all account of the so-called ‘New Literature in English’. This is not something new and surprising because American literature too, was for long disregarded and caviled at.
The belated recognition has not checked the boom of new literatures miles away from the British Isles with compelling multicultural flavor, bright colors, strange cadences, new themes and electric ways of expressing them.
However, while appreciating such diffusion of literary energy, we should not dispense with Shakespeare and Eliot in our curriculum. Sahu’s scheme of dounsizing the syllabus by taking in “representatives from contemporary British, American, African and post-colonial literature” might amount to capsizing it with a terrible load. Post-colonial literature includes the literature of settler colonies like Australia, Canada and New Zealand as well as the literary productions of decolonized locations like India, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Singapore, etc.
Also, texts like Shakespeare’s Tempest, Jane Austin’s Mansfield Park, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, etc. are amenable to postcolonial interpretation in signifying ways. So, trimming of the curriculum has to go along several lines of new adjustments. A few women – centered texts should also find their way into the curriculum in keeping with the global interest in feminism. But the restructuring is not as simple as easy as Sahu suggests.
So, after such knowledge what forgiveness for the existing English-teaching curriculum in Yemen? But Sahu traverses the well-worn trail which the ELT empire has failed to blaze with its theorizations alone. However, periodic stock-taking of teaching programs for professional turn-on should not be mistaken for nit-picking. And Sahu’s concerns are well-founded, though to many of his colleagues he might seem to be carrying coals to Newcastle. The curriculum contours outlined by him considered amidst essential feasibility factors do not add up to a paradigm shift in English-teaching. Nevertheless, they should be taken as a raft of new challenges without inverting the existing trajectory of ELT curriculum. That alone is its USP (Unique Selling Point).
The aims, methods and materials of language teaching depend on the socio-linguistic status underpinned by institutional support and functional load of the target language. Since Yemen stepped into the education sunlight only in the seventies, linguistic gestation of English among generation of learners is still awaited. Mere tinkering with curriculum won’t hasten the pace of learning.