To Greater Heights:  Improving English Language Competencies of Yemeni Learners [Archives:1999/05/Reportage]

February 1 1999

Dr. Ramakanta Sahu,
Associate Professor,
Department of English,
College of Education at Mahweet.

Over the past few years, building a language competent society has become an indisputable national priority among the major developing and developed nations of the world. In the context of the approaching 21st century, which brings in its wake new challenges of communication, a majority of these countries have been making a sustained, vigorous and concerted move to boost the language competencies of their learners, learning English as a second or foreign language. Consequent upon the ever-increasing awareness of the pivotal role English would play as the language of wider communication (LWC) in the present age of informatics and cyberspace, marked by rapid and unprecedented strides in communication technology, such efforts have gained substantial momentum.
Curriculum plays a crucial and decisive role to usher in the desired changes in the academic scenario of any country. It defines the short-term and long term learning objectives to be achieved by a given community of learners over a specified period of time, spells out the learning route to be navigated and envisages how the learning outcome can fruitfully be utilized. Hence, a lot of foresight and careful planning has to precede the designing of a curriculum.
However, if in the opinion of educational planners and administrators, a given curriculum fails to fulfil the targeted learning objectives, then there arises an abiding need to either replenish it or have it replaced in order to make it a fit instrument of academic change. After all, if we do what we always do, we will get what we always get. Obviously, any meaningful academic change depends on what people do and think. It is as simple or as complex as that.
In this context, the basic question that arises is: If after years of learning English at the preparatory, secondary and post secondary levels, an average Yemeni learner fails to perform the day to day communicative chores in English in his/her personal, professional and social spheres with an optimal degree of competence and confidence, then, obviously, something vital in grossly lacking in the EFL (English as a foreign language) curriculum that needs to be identified, and if necessary, suitably remedied. If Yemen is to remain in the forefront of academic development in consonance with other front ranking, developing countries of the world, there needs to be a close scrutiny of the assumptions underlying the present foreign language curriculum. Its objectives, therefore need to be redefined and efforts need be made for the curriculum renewal in tune with the dominant pedagogic and occupational needs of the Yemeni learners.
The primary objective of teaching/learning a foreign language is to produce in the learners what is called ‘functional competence’, ‘pragmatic competence,’ or ‘communicative competence,’ which implies a general ability on the part of the learners to use the foreign language (FL) in a variety of domains. In terms of the targeted learning outcome, the FL curriculum should ideally ensure that an average learner, by the end of the period of his academic training, displays as his terminal behavior, an adequate command of ‘what’ to say, ‘whom’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ in the target language (TL). The curriculum should also optimally prepare him to be able to identify the communicative intent involved in a given speech event and to select the appropriate linguistic tool for expressing himself/herself as clearly as he/she can, with, of course, due regard for the grammatical rules of the language. In other words, an average learner’s communicative competence would consist of a good degree of socio-linguistic competence coupled with some measure of formal or grammatical competence so that the utterances he/she produces in a range of communicative situations do not lack ‘acceptability,’ albeit somewhat deviating from the strict canons of grammaticality.
Judged from this perspective, my impressions of the level of Yemen FL learner competence in English, resulting from my interactions with a cross-section of students at Mahweet and Sanaa, has been particularly disconcerting. A vast majority of learners across grade levels have demonstrated, during in-class and out-of-class interactions, a shaky and perfunctory command of English and those, who seem to possess some competence in the language, make frequent violations of the acceptable grammatical norms, rendering most of their utterances minimally acceptable. In so far as most of their utterances are phonologically flawed, they are, to a considerable extent, unintelligible as well.

With this complex and multiple syndrome, the situation appears to be all the more disturbing especially because most of the learners have displayed an unmistakably high level of motivation to acquire competence in English as an effective means of communication and have been painfully aware of their inability to speak English fluently. This ambivalent situation bears testimony to the fact that the FL curriculum has apparently failed to take full advantage of the apparent interest and involvement of the learner.
It also lacks the innate potential to engender in them the requisite level of communicative competence in English. In addition, the academic ambience in schools and colleges has, presumably, not been conducive enough for an effective and efficient acquisition of the foreign language.
This seems to be a problem of serious magnitude in view of the fact that in the next century, which is round the corner, the bulk of Yemeni student population can’t afford to remain insulated from the global mainstream. In order to lead their country to the forefront of advancement in technology, trade, tourism and teaching, they must wake up to the urgency of acquiring the basic linguistic competence in English, which remains the language of opportunity and of upward social mobility. It is also a known fact that English is the chief instrument of access to the world of science and technology of trade and tourism, of commerce and industry, of computers and the electronic media. English is simply the source language opening the window or the international community in the ‘global village’ and, as such, the passport to progress in every field of human endeavor. Communicative competence in English is, therefore, a social compulsion, if not a political necessity.
The problem is, indeed, multifold and far more complex than what appears on the surface. The failure of the secondary level curriculum in Yemen to equip the learners with the basic functional skills in English is ascribable to several factors. These include ambitious course structure, inherent inconsistencies and incongruities in the text materials prescribed for different grade levels, lack of adequate teacher competence, faulty classroom methodology, lack of scope for ‘incidental learning,’ wide discrepancies between the secondary and post secondary syllabi, want of opportunities to use English outside classrooms, lack of parental and societal encouragement for a wide use of the foreign language, and so forth.
A close scrutiny of the textbooks prescribed for different grade levels illustrates the situation. The textbook series titled CRESCENT may be taken as a case in point. The series has been prepared and published by Oxford University Press for English language teaching in the Arab world.
But unfortunately, despite their merits, the books have many shortcomings, which render them unsuitable for most Yemeni learners of English. These are not properly graded for teaching vocabulary and structures, do not take into cognizance the entry behavior (EB) or the ‘schema’ (background knowledge) of the learners for whom they are intended. There are not enough communicative activities to encourage the learners to participate in language games involving productive and receptive language skills. The books abound in words like ‘air-hostess,’ ‘otter’ and ’emergency’ which most learners are not likely to encounter in their immediate environment. This is sure to hinder their ability to make profitable use of the teaching materials and achieve an effective transfer of language skills. Moreover, if reading is seen as ‘a psycholinguistic guessing game’ (Goodman), the learners can hardly activate their guessing strategies and efficiently manipulate the relevant grapho-phonic, syntactic, and semantic cue systems to be able to monitor their comprehension strategies due, primarily, to their low lexical competence. The books are, nevertheless, good enough for any group of learners in an English saturated learning environment, but seem to be anything but appropriate for the environment existing in Yemen where English has still to cover a lot of ground.
Any teaching-learning context squarely depends on 3M’s: Men, Method and Materials. No set of instructional materials can be expected to yield the desired results unless a cadre of competent teachers capable of adopting an appropriate teaching methodology handle these materials. In other words, teaching English communicatively requires a specialized group of teachers who have not only an adequate level of linguistic competence as good users of the language themselves, but have a well-equipped repertoire of professional strategies to teach English as a ‘skill,’ not as a ‘content’ subject.

In order to accomplish this, there has, inevitably to be a well-developed teacher-training network providing updates in the teaching technology to present trainees and in-service teachers through pragmatically fashioned training modules. Quality teacher preparation courses for on-the-job teachers, administered through apex and nodal agencies, thus ensuring professional enrichment and professional renewal and help create a refreshingly healthy awareness about the new teacher roles as efficient facilitators, monitors, and managers in the EL classroom, not dull transmitters who monotonously ‘dole out’ information. The classroom would then become an uninhibited arena where FL learners freely and fearlessly ‘play’ with the foreign language through techniques of pair and group work, role-playing, brainstorming, simulation activities, etc. and incidentally learn to use the language in a variety of contexts.
The FL assessment technique should also undergo a corresponding change, emphasizing skills-testing as contrasted with testing the learners’ content knowledge. The need of the hour is to formulate a judiciously designed, comprehensive FL teaching framework in Yemen from the grassroots level focussing on communicational aspects of English so that the learners’ competencies develop cumulatively. This calls for a massive rethinking of the goals and methodologies of English language teaching and eventual restructuring of the curriculum in a big way.