Teach English, Speak English, Why? The Importance of Conversations on Choutari
Dr Shyam Sharma
Stony Brook University, New York
Choutari is now in the hands of a brilliant new group of NELTA scholars, and I am excited about that. The old and new teams who are working hard to make this conversation under the shade of this forum even better went through a somewhat difficult time during the month of January—it’s a story that may be worth someday, perhaps years from now, and it’s a good one—but we had a wonderful opportunity to further realize the tremendous value of promoting professional conversation in this great community. With the talent and enthusiasm of the new team, I am sure that we are going to see in the years to come great strides in the work of welcoming, encouraging, urging, prodding us to give back in the form of ideas and inspiration to our society. This work is extremely important to us as educators in a struggling nation right now and it will be, for different reasons, for generations to come.
Among the reasons we started this blog, we wanted to make our professional conversations serve as useful resource. We wanted to make our conversations open and more far reaching in space and time. And that’s what I want to write about in this reflection today.
Since I promised the editor of this month, my friend Bal Ram Adhikari, that and entry for the issue, I’ve been trying to write about something that has kept me professionally “awake” so to say since I started teaching in a primary school in Butwal, continued to ask when I taught for the next six years at the school level, and also continued to ask when I started teaching at TU and when I decided to switch from English to Writing Studies. And that something is a whole range of questions, which used to often discourage me while I taught at home: Why am I teaching what I am teaching? Does teaching grammar help students learn language? Why are we asking students to speak in English only? The teaching of literature seems to contribute to their personal development quite a bit, but how far does it contribute to their social and professional lives and the society at large? Why do we do little more than giving lecture in the name of “covering” the content of the course and helping students prepare for the exam—and what if there are better ways to achieve these goals and also make education more worthwhile? What do we mean by “English education”? When we started Choutari, I was happy because I was now able to ask questions like these within a meaningful professional conversation among hundreds of other scholars and teachers who may have similar questions, different perspectives, and better answers. In this post, I want to build on a recent conversation that took place (and at this time is still ongoing) inside the Yahoo mailing list that many of us are subscribed to. I responded briefly there, as it fit the medium, and I want to delve the issue further here, from broader educational, professional, and social perspectives. I request you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
A fellow NELTA member, Umesh Shrestha, asked in the mailing list recently whether we should require/encourage our students and ourselves to communicate in English beyond the classroom and school. This was a very thought-provoking question (and among other colleagues, Suman Laudari has responded with some great ideas on the list). Let me get into the relaxing mood of Choutari and share some thoughts—for the beauty and fresh air of early spring is returning to the hillsides and I am truly excited by the arrival of a whole group of gaunles under the shady tree.
The question of whether we, even teachers of English, should speak English everywhere, as well as ask our students to do the same is an old one. And I happen to have strong views not only about whether even our students (forget about us) must be made to speak English at all times in school (if not beyond it!) but also about whether we should use English as a medium of instruction and for what purposes, if at all.
Let me take a step back and ask a more basic question: “Why” is it that English is the increasingly dominant, increasingly popular, increasingly unquestioned medium of instruction in Nepal? Is there a straightforward “ELT” answer to this question? Does the use of English as “the” medium of instruction raise the standard of our education overall? Does it make classroom teaching and classroom learning more effective?
First, if the answer to questions like the above is more of a “no” than “yes,” then should we make it our professional lives’ priority to make the answer “yes”? Or, should we instead pause and think why the answer is “no”? That is, if using English rather than Nepali and/or other languages of instruction—at least in certain subjects, grade levels, regions, etc—does not have an “ELT” answer (which I presume it doesn’t), then why are we insisting that “English Only” must be the medium of instruction? If imposing English as the only medium of instruction does not raise the standard of our students’ education, then how have we come to embrace the delusion (sorry, but that’s what I think it largely is) that English “is” education (as in the phrase “English education”)? Is there, in the world of reality, such a thing as English education– or have we just created a feel good phrase to describe “English language education/learning” by dropping the key word in the middle?
To stay on the yes/no questions I asked above, no, there is absolutely no doubt that IF requiring only English as the medium of instruction, communication, and just plain being in school had ZERO SIDE EFFECTS, then the benefits are so many, so significant, so long term, so attractive… that we wouldn’t need to have this conversation. I’m not joking about this, but IF our students were to come out of high school speaking fluent English while ALSO writing effectively (whether that’s in English or not, please note), demonstrating critical thinking skills at par with their peers in other nations, being able to pursue and generate new ideas on their own, excelling in math and science and technology, etc, and IF the “medium” of English was a significant reason for the students’ elevated standards in all the above areas, then YES we would not have this conversation either. But that’s not the case. We know for fact—and we have been in denial for a few decades now—that the English medium that we have imposed in the name of improving the “quality” of education VISIBLY affects the effectiveness of just too many teachers’ teaching, thereby their students’ learning, the learning of math and science and social studies and economics and environmental studies and agriculture and you name it. The English medium is only justified for teaching the English language—although I have a hard time understanding why we teach it for 12-16 years and still don’t have students use the language at the proficiency level of my Christian missionary friend who has been in Nepal for eleven months—and it is in this context that we as English teachers should be having the curricular, pedagogical, and educational discussions. But where do we, English teachers, get this idea that we are entitled to tell our colleagues teaching social studies and math and physics and chemistry and their students who are solving algebra problems or playing khopi or eating samosa in the canteen that they must use English because— oh, wait, I forgot what I was about to say! English, you know, English, and like English education. Like globalized world.Opportunities.The internet. Facebook…. I can’t think anymore. Let me tell you a story.
I have a Chinese student in my “intermediate college writing” class (in the State University of New York) named Bao). During the first class meeting in a one-month long intensive writing workshop, while I was describing one of the assignments, a “rhetorical analysis” of a text that students chose, Bao raised his hand, with his face looking like he was terrified of something, “Professor, I don’t have the ‘professionalism’ to criticize the author’s writing style….” Bao’s English language “speaking” proficiency was so low that I couldn’t help thinking how many of the international students (15 out of 20, from 6 different countries, with different lengths of exposure to “native” English speaking communities) are going to pass. But Bao’s case was special: he not only struggled to express himself, as a student who had just come from a sociocultural background that doesn’t value “challenging” or even “analyzing” the ideas and expressions of established writers and scholars, he was saying that he neither could nor would like to “criticize” how a scholarly article was written. I gave a short answer and invited Bao to my office for further discussion. The first discussion started with Bao “confusing” his language proficiency with the lack of “knowledge” about what “rhetorical analysis” means, so I gave him a text (an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech), a sample rhetorical analysis he and I found online, and a long list of questions that broke down the assignment and served as supplement to the assignment for the class. Long story short, the rhetorical analysis that Bao wrote within the first week of class (before the class moved to another project) was in many ways better than the writing of most other students in class, including the native English speaking students (some of whom, by the way, implemented what they had already learned in high school and turned in their papers, and their papers showed little new learning).
So, it was not the “medium” but the “powerful ideas and the ways that they were so powerfully expressed” that Bao was able to recognize and describe and assess in the text—things that he was not only already somewhat capable of doing but also capable of learning much faster—than learning new expressions and syntaxes, which it seemed could on catch up rather slowly—as he imitated and echoed and adapted and ventriloquized sentence structures and phrases and worlds from the samples that he gathered from all kinds of sources—it was the ideas and how they were expressed that became the basis of Bao’s incredible one-week long learning journey. When I read Bao’s final draft, I was amazed. I questioned many of the conventional teaching wisdom that only rare situations like this can so powerfully blow up in the air, making me rethink my teaching once again.
Reading the question about how great it might be if we too were speaking English all the time, I was almost depressed to think about the state of our education—I mean about the learning part, the part where the nature and content of education matters, the part where our students are being prepared (or not) to become intellectually and professional capable of navigating (and indeed competing in) the complex, connected, global world that they live in and need to be even better prepared for.
Let’s think about the larger question of education, not just English language, for the larger purpose of teaching English is—or should be—that large framework within which what we do, the questions we ask, and the answers we seek, must make sense.
And to connect that to what I was saying about the importance of joining and promoting such conversations like this in Choutaris like this, I have the same old, humble request for you. Dear colleagues, after you read a post, or two, maybe all, please do not forget to add a line, or two, or many lines, sharing your idea, experience, feedback… as encouragement to the writers and good example for other readers.