Is Grammar a Liberating Force or an Obstacle for Communication?
In recent years some government schools of Nepal are slowly moving towards English medium instruction (EMI). Some schools have started teaching all the subjects except Nepali in English. This is happening mainly at primary level (grade 1 to 5). National Center for Educational Development (NCED) has made a decision to provide training for the school teachers who are interested in using English as a medium of instruction. NCED has made MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with British Council (BC) for conduction training for the school teachers.
The project has been given a name National Initiative to Improve Teaching in English (NIITE). It is a three years project. The project focuses on training the primary level teachers (grade 1 to 5) but the main focus of the training according to Jovan Illic, the head of Programmes at British Council, is on the teachers who are teaching in grade three, four and five.
The target area of the project is all the seventy five districts of Nepal. However, the three districts of Nepal Surkhet, Nawalparasi, and Jhapa have been selected as the piloting district for conducting training for this year. These districts have been selected as piloting districts because the demand of the teachers was high from these districts. In the first year, it is aimed at training 7000 primary level teachers.
As an English trainer, I was always worried about our primary level teachers’ English. Last year I conducted EMI training in ETC Surkhet for 50 primary level teachers. Most of the teachers’ English proficiency was very poor and my focus was on improving their English rather than equipping them with some skills and teaching techniques. I was so worried about their English. I was thinking how they could conduct English medium classes without having some proficiency in English. I even carried out an action research focusing on developing their English proficiency. I was not free from my worry throughout the year. This year too I have to train 150 primary level teachers in Educational Training Center (ETC), Surkhet. The tormenting question that strikes me all the time is “How can a teacher teach in English without being able to use some English for general communication?”. And I hope majority of the teachers who are using English as a medium of instruction at the basic level might be worried about their own language ability.
Fortunately, I attained EMI training this year. It was master training of trainers (MTOT) jointly organized by NCED and BC in Nepalgunj from 14 to 18 March. One of the key message that I got from the training is grammar is not a thing to be worried about in communication. Grammar is, in fact, not a liberating force but an obstacle in effective communication. If you know nouns and verbs you can communicate. For example, if you are thirsty and want to drink water, you can say “Give water.” instead of “Can I have a glass of water, please?” I already had got this idea in University but it was, I think, in my subconscious level of mind.
Some of you may be worried about grammar especially with written English. But one thing that we should not forget here is that in EMI classes, grammar is less important than fluency and communication of meaning. If you are able to communicate your intended message to your reader or listener then your language is okay even if it is grammatically incorrect. Grammar develops itself in course of time if language is used for communication. This is the key of current communicative approaches to language teaching as well. If you look at how children learn their first language, you will find that they use single word or simply two words for communication and their message is perfectly intelligible for the adults. Their grammatical system develops much later in life. But it is important to have a good store of vocabulary. The lexical approach to language teaching also focuses on the prime role of vocabulary in learning a language and communication. Some other lessons that I learned from this training are:
- First fluency then accuracy
- Make your instruction as short as possible
- Use very few words and much demonstration
- Do not speak much in the classroom, encourage students to speak much in which they use whatever language they can
- Teaching is very easy; just go into the classroom and give students something to do so that they forget that they are in the classroom.
- Use a lot of visual aids and actions for communication of meaning
I am not happy with this government policy, however. I do not think that teaching in English guarantees quality in education. In the name of using English in the classroom, the students should not be deprived from the basic understanding of the subject matter. Before making any new policy we need to look at our local ground realities and contexts. I personally think that we still need some years to make a jump to EMI in this county. I have observed some of the EMI classes in Surkhet and have some discussion with the teachers as well as students. I suggest dear teachers to use some Nepali or other mother tongues of the students to some extent in EMI classes. But one thing that impressed me was that the students said that they loved English classes much and they were more active smart and confident than the students who were in Nepali medium classes.
Now I am convinced that my trainee teachers who are participating in EMI training in ETC, Surkhet can handle EMI classes even if their language proficiency is not so advanced. My first action in this training will be to make my participants feel that English is not difficult and grammar is not so important in communication in this context. I am planning to make them feel this not by telling but by demonstrating.