English at the Crossroads

Even after 40 years of English in independent India, the policy-makers have not been able to decide whom to teach English, and why and how. Most of the students who have learnt English for at least 10 years (till their graduation) sadly lack in reading, writing, speaking and listening skills in English. They cannot even read a newspaper or, for that matter, follow what a radio/television broadcaster is saying in English.

Recognizing their basic failure to have made any significant improvements in this direction, the "experts" have now come up with a new package for achieving immediate success. English, the "experts" have ordained, will now be taught as a part of a modern course of communication skills. Of course, as usual, the actual needs of the learners have not been surveyed. 

The new syllabus, introduced in the 1988-89 academic session, heavily curtails the teaching time of English at the undergraduate level. English has been assigned 200 marks out of a total of 2400 marks for the three year degree course, instead of the existing 300 marks out of a total of 900. There is widespread fear that English will more or less come to be treated as an optional subject if this syllabus is enforced as it is. Its teaching has been confined to only first two years of the three-year degree course. Only those with "special" ability in English in the arts stream will be allowed to study it in the third year as an elective subject. The teaching load will thus be considerably reduced. According to one estimate, it will hardly be one-twelfth of the existing work load. Consequently, the retrenchment of teachers of English in the colleges of Punjab is also a distinct possibility. All these factors are a clear indication that standards of English will be further lowered at the college level.

Also, it has been decided to shift from "grammar-translation" method no doubt the most primitive, to the latest teaching technology, evolved for our benefit in the West. There has been no consideration of the prerequisite conditions to the implementation of the communicative Language Teaching (CLT) Methodology which demands that the teachers must be thoroughly trained up. So far only one such project has been under taken in India, at Madras, by Prabhu and Bhaskaran at the school level. But they are yet to arrive at definite conclusions. One fails to understand how the need for a better teaching methodology has come to be related to the immediate need for the curtailment in the teaching time when the new teaching methodology makes it essential for the learners to be exposed to the language for longer periods of time. It is, therefore clear that the decision to curtail the teaching time is arbitrary and irrational.

The new package envisages two different courses for the students "whose level of communication is already too high" and the other ones who obviously don't have that much mastery over the language. The admission of the students to these two different courses will be done by means of an assessment/diagnostic test to be conducted by the college concerned at the first year. This, too, has many implications. First of all, this implies that the authorities have no faith in the marks obtained by the students in the lower examination. Secondly, all graduates in English in the future will not be able to show a similar degree of achievement in English as they have undergone different courses. 

A student, whose English is not so good, will be asked to begin at Unit I of the Communication Skills and 'the brighter one' at Unit II. The former will study Unit II in the second year when the latter will go ahead to Advanced Unit. No provisions have been made to make all students attain similar levels of proficiency after completing their studies for two years.

Of course, how far the college teachers will be competent to administer the diagnostic test without any training in this specialised area is quite another matter. Also, there is every chance that the more resourceful students will be able to get selected for the higher course without proper qualifications. The comparable levels of achievement tests are again a matter of great concern. Even otherwise it seems quite plausible that in most of the cases the town bred will get admitted to the higher course whereas those from the rural background may have to be content with the lower one.

There are four main components of the English course at the B.A. level: reading (independent and intensive), writing, oral communication and study skills. Ten books have been prescribed for independent reading out of which learner must select three. He must read the books at home and prepare an outline which is to be checked by two examiners, including the class teacher. The teacher's role has been limited to asking simple questions on these books in the class. Text books 'English Through Reading' Vol. 1 & 2 by Prabhu and Bhaskaran have been prescribed for intensive reading for the first and second year students respectively. These books are to be read in the class to be followed by factual and inferential questions.

Writing work includes grammatical structures, word-formation, synonyms and antonyms, guided composition exercises, etc.

The oral work prescribes training in reading aloud, listening to news broadcasts, short stories, etc., and oral communication for day-to-day routine activities like introducing oneself, making and responding to enquiries. 

The study skills specify activities like consulting a dictionary for meaning, stress and pronunciation of words.

Undoubtedly, taken at its face value the package seems quite impressive. A closer look, however, reveals its inherent weaknesses. A good comparison of the new syllabus can be made with the revised English syllabus introduced at the plus two level which, too, has almost identical components, The experience of the past two years has been that, due to vague objective, unrealistic materials, large number of students in English classes, lack of teacher training and absence of proper checks and balances, the teaching has continued in much the same way as before. The textbooks, both for extensive and for intensive reading, which are meant to be silently read by the learners, have been read out in the class by the teachers and paraphrased or translated in vernacular. Scant attention was paid, if at all to writing, speaking or consulting dictionaries and thesauruses. The net result is that there is no significant improvement in the proficiency levels of learners.

One further wonders how a short course in remedial English will help when the learners have not gained the basic reading, writing, speaking and listening skills after about four years of English at the school level. Moreover, it seems only appropriate, as also shown by Prabhu, to introduce the CLT Methodology at the school level. Even then it will be difficult for the students coming from the traditional teaching-learning situation (grammar-translation method or lecture method) to cope with the demands made on them by the CLT Methodology. Further, without the required ability the grown-up learners will have every temptation to do the assignments by copying rather than expose their ignorance to their fellow-students and teachers. In fact, it will be impossible for them to adjust to the new environment without having the bare minimum proficiency levels.

Taking all these factors into account it is doubtful if the package will work. A practical solution appears to be syllabus reformation, not syllabus revolution as is being proposed. The existing syllabuses may be modified to achieve the purpose aimed at. key factors which negatively affect the teaching-learning processes are: a large number of students in the English classes, vague objectives, untrained teachers, obsolete materials, outdated syllabuses and the examination system. Reforms can be easily introduced in the existing pattern to do away with these negative factors and to give the students the benefit of wider exposure to the language and literature. An ideal approach to teach a language is through literature. Teaching becomes drudgery if it is reduced to the task of imparting mere communication skills. In fact communication skills may be in traduced as a part of the subject.

In any case, the introduction of the CLT Methodology is no justification for curtailing the teaching time of English at the undergraduate level and reducing its status to that of half-subject of study. The only reason for this imposition seems to be the unique love-hate relationship which the policy makers seem to have with English.

We shall have to rise above the feeling that English is a "symbol of our slavery". Reports of various commissions set up by the Government of India have emphasised the role of English by calling it our "window on the world", "language of science and technology", and "an important link language". English is no longer a foreign language; it is very much one of the Indian languages now. Researchers have gone a step further and have called it "a language of individual opportunity". Everyone knows that in order to get good jobs today, a sound knowledge of English is essential.

What, then, is the purpose of proposed changes when the inherent weaknesses in the education system are allowed to remain as they were half a century ago? Does this show that the "reformers" mean business?