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.

3 comments

  • goodwishes1

    Shyam sir and others,

    I am writing just to add to the discussion initiated by Umesh Ji and the discussion that NELTA Lalitpur was supposed to have about MOI (English as medium of Instruction).

    My thoughts consonant with Shyam sir’s very much when he says that the issue that we have raised is a serious one. Plus, I also think that it is so serious that it has a long term pedagogical and educational effect in Nepalese education system. English all the time, English all subject, English MOI! Should we, as professionals (if we think that teaching is a profession) not think about these things once?

    How could we imagine to suppress someone’s communication needs, social life (at large) and ORDER them to speak English??? Be it teachers teaching other subjects, say mathematics, science, social studies or students? Should we (as Shyam sir has exemplified) think about the the medium or the knowledge? What is more important, being able communicate or being able to look at the established knowledge critically and from different perspective? What is more productive? If we are doing it just for the sake of making students able to communicate in English, then (by and large) many of us have failed.

    As teachers (again I am referring to ourselves) we have seen many of our students struggling to communicate fluently and accurately. Likewise, many of our students, be it in high school, higher secondary school or University, have poorly developed writing. Think about critical thinking, they are never prioritized (you may not agree but this is how things are going on). Even we, teachers do struggle with critical thinking because very few of us might have this opportunity in class. So, is it not the right time that we critically reflect our own practices to make them better???

    The other thing that I have always emphasized when it comes to English all the time and English MOI is about knowledge or language? What do we need? I do not disagree that English has been a need for different reasons. Yet, if you look around, you see many of our colleagues, relatives who cannot speak English still can send email, use facebook. So, if we think that we need English for these reasons then we are creating this wall in the knowledge domain of our classroom. What teachers teach and students learn (when both of them are not proficient) is substandard. In effect, it makes the whole education product substandard. We will have products that lack critical thinking with partial knowledge.

    Next, when it comes about making our students’ English proficient, we English teachers have to ask ourselves if we have been doing enough to make them proficient. I know and am well aware that our institutions, examination, the available facility and other aspects have shortcomings. Then, how many of us have really question these shortcomings? What have we done at our personal level to bring about change and set examples? If we teach English the way it should be and help our students develop communicative skills, then we do not have to ask them to be different from their colleagues in their society.

    So, all of us, I would like to stress once again, need to take these things seriously and question the convention and compulsion. I would like to apologize if I have hurt anyone who are beyond the common phenomenon that I have described above but the things look pretty much the way I have tried to elaborate.

    Finally, I would like to request more teachers to express their opinion about these issues. So, we could all work together and might come up with possible explanation and alternatives to address these questions.

    Thank you

  • Sumanji,
    Rich and thought-provoking conversations are the stuff of our profession and I hope that conversations like this one will continue to happen here and on other forums. Thank you for letting part of an important conversation from NELTA list flow over here.
    One issue that continues to intrigue me with regard to the conversation about MOI and the suggest that we might also need to require/encourage teachers to speak in English all the time 🙂 is not just my “angry” theoretical reaction, but actually a respectful view toward who believe that as a good idea :D. I think that the question of whether and to what extent we should make our ELT discussions rather abstract, “political” (in the sense of “having to do with power, social significance, etc”), and theoretical seems like a genuine one, especially from the perspective of those who primarily teach, have practical problems to solve, and haven’t developed an appreciation of the complexity and overlapping nature of “practical” teaching questions. But I think that we should clarify why it is neither necessary nor beneficial to keep more theoretical and “political” issues separate from practical issues of teaching language. In other words, this looks like a matter of raising awareness, and not just taking strong positions–something I tend to do well (or badly).
    Many of us are either unaware or unwilling to admit that the “politics of denial” is a pretty powerful politics as well! Many of us want to claim that we are not being “political” or even that we are above the questions of power, privilege, and even policy by just framing our propositions in terms of “practical” solution to some “straightforward” problem of “actual teaching” that we are facing on “daily basis” and so on. That is very unfortunate and, well, somewhat ridiculous. Let’s reverse the ordinary situation where politics is/seems invisible in order to make it more visible: let us suppose that all primary schools in Bhaktapur start teaching all subjects in Newari and say many monolingual Nepali speaking children (esp. of Bahun/Chhetri families) are at a disadvantage. Now, the local teachers and school administrators may argue that that is simply a matter of choosing the language that seems most effective for the “majority” of students in their schools, and say they go on to claim that therefore their decision is also the least “political” kind of decision. But citing “reality” that someone posits as “practical” doesn’t take away the question of power, it doesn’t eliminate the need to discuss alternatives, and it doesn’t make broader issues of education irrelevant by any means. Yet, the act of hiding behind the mask of apolitical “professionalism,” the mask of apolitical “pragmatism” has been part of our community’s identity, unfortunately. I think we really need to have more of such conversations, openly and productively. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • ousmane

    Ok , for today I’ll be very short since it’s the first I ‘am getting in touch you Nelta with via emails. I’m send this all the way from Senegal, west Africa and as a teacher of English I can only be grateful since I regularly take time to read your very inpired articles on different teaching approaches and methods. In addirion, I happen to adapt some of you ideas in my everyday teaching and they work.Be sure you’re doing a nice for the whole school commununities because the contents of your issues have a global dimension, and are adaptable in various corners of our big blue planet. Cheer up !!!

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