Local contributions of a global applied linguist: A tribute to Professor Alan Davies

Prem Phyak

 Prem  Phyak

In 2015, the global community of applied linguists lost one of the founding fathers and major theorists in Applied Linguistics/ELT, Professor Alan Davies. Since the inception of the field in 1957, Professor Davies continually contributed to various dimensions of Applied Linguistics such as language testing, language policy, English language teaching, sociolinguistics and second language learning through teaching, research, publications, seminars, and community service. He was a Professor Emeritus Professor Emeritus of Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, UK (You can listen to his recent interview here).

However, many of us may not know that Professor Davies contributed to teaching, discourse, and policy regarding ELT and Applied Linguistics in Nepal. In the context of the sad demise of Professor Davies (in September 2015), I would like to dedicate this blog post to his legacy and share some of his major contributions to Nepali ELT and Applied Linguistics.

Known best for his theory of “native speaker” (see Davies, 2004, 2007, 2013) and principles/theories/ethics in language testing (e.g., Davies, 1997, 2003, 2008), Professor Davies have contributed to the inception, development and globalization of Nepali ELT/Applied Linguistics by discussing Nepal’s case in most of his popular publications that deal with language policy and politics, English language teaching, and local-global tensions.

Introduction of Applied Linguistics/ELT in Nepal

Many of us may not know that Professor Davies was Head of Central Department of English at Tribhuvan University. In 1969, with British Council’s support, Professor Davies joined the Central Department of English as Head. In his two-year stay, he introduced and taught linguistics and applied linguistics courses for MA students. The courses were deigned to train college teachers on how to teach English effectively. Reflecting on the courses, K. P. Malla, one of the reverent linguists in Nepal, says “Personally for me and many of my colleagues it was the first exposure to linguistics, particularly to Applied Linguistics” (Malla, 1976, p. 8).

He was Chair of the Board of English Studies in 1971. He reformed the existing English language syllabuses and introduced General English course for both the Intermediate and Bachelor levels in 1971. The new syllabus which Malla (1976) calls ‘Davies syllabus’ provided students with an exposure of contemporary spoken and written English and recognized the use of local English by including local newspaper reports and excerpts in the course.

In the early 1970s, Professor Davies, in collaboration with British Council developed in-service training courses for secondary school teachers. The courses focused on both English language development and teaching methods. Most importantly, a new school level English syllabus was developed. He also designed an experimental English language test items for School Leaving Certificates exams. He was the first keynote speaker for Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association [NELTA] in 1993. The NELTA conference was the first event that gathered teachers for academic discussions in ELT in Nepal.

The ELT Survey: Insights into ELT policy reforms

In 1983, when the public education was not yet well planned, Professor Davies was requested by the Ministry of Education and British Council to lead a team of experts to carry out an ELT Survey of Nepal. Two other British scholars, Alan McLean and Eric Glendenning, and three Nepali counterparts, Arun Pradhan, Niraj Kumari Bajracharya, and Jai Raj Awasthi, were involved in the project. The survey team was asked to: (a) observe and describe the status of English language teaching in schools; (b) analyze aim, content,  format and the process of textbook development and other reference materials; (d) describe the English language examination system and its connection with ELT practices in schools; (f) assess  English language proficiency of both teachers and students and analyze factors contributing to good and poor performance; (h) explore English language teaching methods; and (i) provide recommendations for policy reforms.

The major findings of the study are: a) the level of teachers’’ pedagogical expertise was not adequate due to lack of training and transfer of training into classes; b) the textbooks were appropriate and adequate for the local situation; however, they were not used effectively for the classroom purpose and needed editing and proof-reading; c) the SLC exams did not test students’ English language skills but they meant to test students’ memory of the content knowledge; d) the English language proficiency of both teachers and students was inadequate to fulfill the course objectives; e) the non-communicative techniques such as grammar-translation, rote-learning, choral repetition, gap-filling, and lectures were major techniques of teaching English; and f) the in-service teacher training provisions were not adequate to help teachers teach English effectively. Due to space limitation, I cannot discuss all the findings and issues identified by the survey team. However, I would like to highlight some major policy recommendations, which I think are still relevant to English language education policy reforms in Nepal.

First, the survey team clearly points out that there is no optimal age for learning a second/foreign language. Studies in second language learning show that adults can learn as good second or foreign language as, indeed better than, young children. Building on this research base and considering the low status of English, the survey team recommends to start English late—at Grade 8. Doing so, as the survey team recommends, helps the Ministry of Education invest more resources into three years of teaching English. Until 2003, English was taught from Grade 4. This means that the resources were spread over 7 years (Grade 4-10) in teaching English for school education. Most importantly, the survey team claims that “as much English is learned in 7 years by Grade 10 would be learned in 3 years (see Davies, Glendenning, & McLean, 1984, p. 6).

The survey findings show that starting English at Grade 4 resulted in students’ “repeated failure and loss of motivation to learn [English]. It also leads to a drain on English for school resources” (Davies et al., p. 6). The survey team contends that “extending the period of language learning may sound superficially sensible but in circumstances where so much of the teachers’ own English (and their teaching of English) is poor the problem would be compounded by three more years repeated failure” (Davies et al., 1984, p. 6). The survey team has clearly mentioned that lowering age for learning ESL/EFL is not a good idea to help all children achieve a better education.

English and nationalism

Professor Davies critically examines the space of English in education in the face of strong linguistic nationalism. When he was actively involved in research and teaching in Nepal, the national education policies and practices were guided Nepali-only policy for the nation-building purpose. The teaching and learning of language other than Nepali was discouraged. However, English was still taught and used as a medium of instruction in a British ‘aided’ public school and a Jesuit school. Moreover, rich families sent their children to different parts of India for English education.

While Nepali medium policy was promoted by the state in the guise of nationalism, English medium education was still available for high-middle class elites. Professor Davies is critical about the social divide implicated in the contemporary Nepali-English divide (see Davies, 1970, Davies et al., 1984). Critically analyzing the data that show a huge gap in English language of students and teachers from a British ‘aided’ English medium school in Kathmandu and the public schools outside Kathmandu (see Davies et al., 1984), Professor Davies contends that aid agencies should pay attention to what works best for the majority, especially for the poor, not just for the benefit of a few elites. To address this issue, Professor Davies have suggested that it is better to provide school level education in Nepali, a common national language, and focus on teaching English as a ‘specialist subject’ from the intermediate level.

However, the recommendations of the survey team did not receive any attention in educational policies. The English craze never went away. Professor Davies reflects on the ELT survey data in his 2009 paper in which he strongly argues that Nepal’s English language policy is not shaped by educational motive, but by political motive. In other words, learning English does not actually mean to develop English language proficiency, not even to participate in the process of learning it in many contexts. As Professor Davies argues, lowering the age for teaching English in Nepal is highly shaped by the symbolic value (social prestige) attached to English due to the Nepali-English divide in education for the sake of nationalism.

Professor Davies’ contributions are informed by his critical awareness of Nepal’s contemporary sociolinguistic and sociopolitical situations. He consistently argues that ELT policy in Nepal should be grounded on second language research and focused on what is appropriate for all children.

Conclusion

Professor Davies’ contributions to Nepal are very special and his ideas provide significant insights into creation of an educationally-grounded, locally appropriate, and equitable ELT policy. In the context that English is already taught from Grade 1 and gradually becoming a de facto medium of instruction in public schools, Professor Davies’ contributions make even more sense. His contributions do not just tell the history of Nepal’s ELT, but suggest what the present and the future of Nepali ELT should be. While we are rushing to introduce English from the early grades, Professor Davies’ studies remind us to critically think about the following questions:

  1. Are the current policies and practices based on any educational research? What second language research studies inform them?
  2. Why is there a huge gap between the policy (desired expectations) and on-the-ground practices?
  3. What happens if we start teaching English after students develop strong literacy and academic skills in their first language, Nepali or bilingualism?
  4. Who benefit from and who are represented in the current policy?
  5. Do in-service English language teacher training programs actually help to improve the early English policy?
  6. If studies on second language learning show no significant role of age in learning a second or a foreign language, why should we rush to introduce English from the early grades?
  7. Does the current English medium of instruction policy in the early grades support students to achieve the national and curricular goals of each subject (e.g. Science, Social Studies, Mathematics) as specified by the government? Does this policy promote interactive and critical pedagogies?

These questions do not have definitive answers; however, they are important to consider in creation, implementation, and evaluation of ELT policy. Answering these questions require us to engage in the exploration of the locally-situated ELT issues and academically grounded debates that focus on both theories and pedagogies of equitable ELT policy. Teacher development, material writing, assessment, and classroom pedagogies all should have an educational base. Our engagement to answer above questions actually pays a true tribute to Professor Alan Davies from the community of Nepali ELT practitioners and applied linguists.

The author: Prem Phyak is currently a PhD candidate at department of second language studies, University of Hawaii in the USA.

References 

Davies, A. (1970). The pedigree of nations. Ramjham, 6(3), 26-33.

Davies, A. (1997). Introduction: The limits of ethics in language testing.Language Testing14(3), 235-241.

Davies, A. (2003). Three heresies of language testing research. Language Testing20(4), 355-368.

Davies, A. (2004). The native speaker in applied linguistics. In A. Davies, & C. Elder (eds.), The handbook of applied linguistics (pp.431-450). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Davies, A. (2007). An introduction to applied linguistics: From practice to theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Davies, A. (2008). Assessing academic English: Testing English proficiency 1950-89—The IELTSsolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davies, A. (2009). Professional advice vs political imperatives. In J. C. Alderson (Ed.), The Politicsof language education: Individuals and institutions (pp. 45–63). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Davies, A. (2013). Native speakers and native users: Loss and gain. Cambridge: Cambridge \ University Press.

Davies, A., Glendenning, E., & McLean, A. (1984). Survey of English language teaching in Nepal. Report presented to the His Majesty’s Government Ministry of Education and Culture,Kathmandu.

Malla, K. P. (1976). English language teaching in Tribhuvan University. Vasudha,16 (1), 1-19.

NELTA CHOUTARI is ELT CHOUTARI Now

Welcome to August Issue of Choutari

Editorial:

Change is natural and inevitable. Change is necessary to cope with challenges, to embrace new opportunities, and to take any project to new heights.

In order to build on our success in more than a half decade, we have updated our network’s name, moving our blog to a new site within a domain of our own. Nelta Choutari is now ELT Choutari and its site is www.eltchoutari.com. As an informal, independent group of bloggers and facilitators, we continue to pursue the same goals of enhancing professional development in ELT, while we explore new avenues and make greater impact on the community.

What we had so far was a basic WordPress blog; with this site, we have the full range of functionalities that we can use as needed.

Some facts about our journey so far seem worth sharing with our readers and well-wishers. Over the half a decade, we have been positively overwhelmed by the wonderful engagement of 180,557 visits with around 500 posts and over 1100 comments as of July 31, 2014. We wanted to grow and promote such an engagement with a standard site.

Secondly, when we launched the blog in 2009, we gave it the name NeltaChoutari simply because the group was started by members of the organization NELTA and the group wanted to create an informal space similar to the public square in the countryside. This space belonged to the community, and it was characterized by freedom of expression, informal organization, lack of external supervision, welcoming acceptance of active contributors and understanding when any core member wanted to step aside, spirit of volunteerism, and a passion to give back to the community. However, as time went on, the informal group became bigger in scope and impact and more popular than we initially expected, and some confusion began about what the name meant: is it an official blog of NELTA (which it is not), or is it somehow an alternative space (it’s not that either), why is it not part of the NELTA if it bears such a name?Recently, after NELTA office launched its official blog (Nelta ELT Forum) we wanted to emphasize that Choutari is open, informal, and independent – while acknowledging the forum’s official status and a lack thereof with ours. We believe that informal and open spaces add tremendous value to any professional community. We don’t think that one is better than another, but we do think that an informal space adds a unique set of value.

Choutari continues to be dedicated to discuss, discover and deliver ELT related issues in particular and education in general–with even more energy and commitment. We encourage you to continue to contribute and benefit from the vibrant professional community on this platform.

Welcome to our new site—ELT CHOUTARI!

Here is the list of articles included for August Issue, especially focused on diversity in ELT:

  1. Diversity in English Language Classroom, by Balram Adhikari
  2. Diversity and Broader Goals of ELT, by Shyam Sharma
  3. Talking about Creative Consciousness in Teachers, Jeevan Karki
  4. Teacher Training: One of the Best Ways of Self-development, by Parista Rai
  5. Building a Community: What We Value: Reblog by Praveen, Umes & Uttam
  6. Choutari Writing Workshop #2: Photoblog, by Choutari Team

Finally, please update your bookmark and please share it among your social network. Please explore the pages from the top menu bar, and as usual, please like, share, and leave comments.

Happy Reading!

IMG_6861

Balram Adhikari

Editor for August Issue
(with Editorial Team)
ELT CHOUTARI

ELT in New Nepal: A Means for Republican and Global Knowledge-Sharing

Nelta Choutari September 2009 Issue

Shyam Sharma

Recently the question of whether English should/could become a link language or one of the official languages of New Nepal has been quite interestingly discussed among Nelta colleagues. This discussion has been a lucky background to the September issue of Nelta Choutari that I am responsible to put together.

Ganga Gautam and Santosh Bhattarai in particular brought up the issue that English could possibly serve as a “link” or “official” language in the new Nepal. Using an external language would in some ways create a new platform where the language of the politically dominant communities that speak Nepali (Khas) would have a competing alternative for the linguistically less privileged communities. Indeed, we have long ignored linguistic diversity in our country in the name of (in effect) a one nation one language policy. The use of English as one of the link/official languages (if not the official language) would also help the new nation, as Kashi suggests, in competing in the global intellectual market. As Prem and Bal have pointed out, however, the “neutrality” of English, must not be taken without some critical thinking: we should remember that there is already a state of unequal access to English, as seen in the two classes created by public and private schools, further reinforcing difference of social and economic classes. It would be too naïve for teachers like us to celebrate the use of a foreign language simply because it can bring about practical conveniences, is financially viable, or has such other incidental benefits.

We can address the challenges as well as take advantage of using English as a link/official language if we, teachers of English, understand and act by understanding that we are not only teachers of a language: we are not, or should not be, only and absolutely “language instructors” who teach the grammar and sentence structure and social expressions of English to our students. We must be educators who know that education must empower learners, that teaching must mean helping learners become creators of new knowledge, and that pedagogy must be a politically responsible profession. (“Politics” here has nothing to do with parties, with policies, or with governance: it is a matter of being critically aware of the impact of our action on the society, a matter of social responsibility and sense of justice towards our students, and a matter of intellectual sensibility that makes the teaching of language a part of educating people and contributing to the society). We must be the bearers of the torch of knowledge for our society, and we must know that that role is all the more important at such a time of political and cultural upheaval in the country. We must also be intellectuals who connect our world of knowledge to other worlds of knowledge outside. We are responsible to promote the creation of knowledge from our own local bases—our experience, our heritage, our realities—for that is the only way that our future generations will not end up only reading books written by others but also write themselves. Honestly, if our students needed just the language, they could fulfill that objective significantly well by helping themselves with an English language learning handbook available in Bhotahity. We don’t have to teach someone a language for ten, twelve, or sixteen years–unless we also mean to educate people through or with it and with a view to achieving larger educational goals of the society. To look at ourselves as only language masters would be like using a Pentium 5 computer as a paperweight! We must be educators who know the larger educational context in which we are teaching language. If we limit ourselves to the mission of teaching language and language per se, we will continue to make our profession as shameful as it is indicated by Balkrishna’s example:

Have you ever been kissed by a stranger?
Do you prefer ham or steak?

It is absurd to teach English, as in using the educational material above, without respect for the students’ and their society’s values, experiences, meanings, and identities. Therefore, it will make little sense if English is made the lingua franca for the new nation without the society, and its educators, considering what social, cultural, and political impacts it might have on the many communities, many languages, many cultures of this country. This is by no means intended to reject the idea of English as a common language in the new nation and among the varied linguistic communities in it. It is rather to suggest that the discussion must not stop at the point where the suggestion for that possibility is made. In the context of the discussion that is taking place among us, we should pursue the hypothesis presented by Ganga Gautam and Santosh Bhattarai with sufficient attention to the issues raised by Kashi, Prem, Balkrishna, and other colleagues. This is a very important discussion so far as it matters to the destiny of a nation, not just the future of individual students or even a generation.

In the article by Alastair Pennycook that was attached to Nelta Mail, the author suggests that teachers of English around the world must take the political dimension of teaching it very seriously, rather than merely considering language just a politically neutral means of communication. Pennycook emphasizes on the need for political responsibility on the part of those engaged in teaching the language. He suggests that is politically insensitive and intellectually dishonest to impose a language from the outside without considering the need to promote learning of content in the learners. Simply put, if our students Sita and Ramu are brilliant in English language without being as brilliant in understanding, producing, and sharing ideas with the world, then we have not been good educators.

Pennycook’s article is one of the most intellectually engaging pieces that I have read on the subject of global English. He not only pays attention to the political nature of the “global enterprise of English language teaching” but also explores it as an issue of the coming together of epistemological cultures through the medium of English. I find the article significant as a student and teacher because the author injects himself into the discussion as a teacher with a concern for the most genuine purpose of learning as knowledge-making, and he also goes beyond describing the reality into suggesting what we can do about the spread of global English which, instead of benefiting people around the world by connecting their repertoires of knowledge, is actually destroying that very possibility.

On the surface of it, Pennycook uses the common word “translation” without defining or explaining it in the light of his argument. But as we read the article more carefully, it is clear that he is referring to the way language works as a channel through which knowledge flows, or the way the socio-cultural content of one language is affected during that flow. He also uses another synonymous term for this process, “traffic.” Drawing from Claire Kramsch, Pennycook says that

[the] traffic in meaning is precisely what language teaching should be about, so that language competence should be measured not as the capacity to perform in one language in a specific domain, but rather as ‘the ability to translate, transpose, and critically reflect on social, cultural and historical meanings conveyed by the grammar and lexicon’. The role of the language teacher from this perspective, therefore, is ‘to diversify meanings, point to the meanings not chosen, and bring to light other possible meanings that have been forgotten by history or covered up by politics’. (33-34)

The global enterprise of ELT is for the most part based on the mission of teaching a common language to people around the world, but for what purpose it is never made clear. It has a colonial history and neo-colonial agenda behind it, but most English teachers in both native and non-native situations believe that they are teaching just the language. This hiding of the politics of an inherently political phenomenon is what Bourdieu found problematic in the very discipline of linguistics; the self-denying politics of the applied branch of linguistics called ELT is a much more unacceptable crime in the context of a much more globalized twenty-first century than the self-denying politics of structural linguistics in the previous century.

In many countries around the world, especially in former colonies and other developing countries, English is a required medium of education—and required to the point that young students are severely punished if found using their mother tongue. By teaching just the formal elements of the English language, by confusing the learning of “English” with the acquisition of “good education,” and by imposing the content of foreign literature and culture upon students in the name of learning the language, the educational systems in these countries have effectively destroyed the appeal of local epistemologies among generations of students. This teaching of a language shared by many societies, instead of becoming a means to the transaction and mutual enrichment of epistemological cultures, has become a means to convince millions of people that their own local epistemological resources are not worth what is called “education.” On the other hand, in native English situations, where English is either the only or almost only language in education, there are programs in place that help students from different linguistic backgrounds with how to use their own languages to expedite the process of assimilating into the world of one language, English. Such is the irony of a world that is connected by a shared language, by extraordinary technologies of communication, and by numberless other means of understanding among societies and cultures. And it is in that world where language and education is much less liberating than oppressive that Pennycook’s suggestion that teachers be activists makes much sense. “When we think of translation in an uneven world…, we need to consider not only that uneven global linguistic field on which translation has to play, but also that pedagogical field from which it has already been given a red card, sent off, dismissed to scowl on the sidelines” (36). This “translation” is not the skill that English teachers teach their students when they start learning the new language: it is the translation of a learner’s own experiences into meaningful stories, the translation of the reality of a learner’s own social world into meaningful discourses, and the translation of a learner’s knowledge into education. As Pennycook rightly argues, pedagogy must be responsible towards the need to cure the malady of treating English in its own context, ignoring the content that flows through it, and disregarding the context in which it interacts with specific languages, cultures, and epistemologies.

Pennycook rejects all attempts at establishing non-native varieties, standards, or by implication, linguistic identities as ways that will only help us fall back into the same trap that we try to denounce or escape from. Citing Michael Cronin, he suggests that in order to escape that cycle of political injustice that the learning of language and acquisition of education can perpetuate, “there must also be ‘an activist dimension to translation which involves an engagement with the cultural politics of society at national and international levels’” (43). Pedagogically speaking, this activism involves not only helping students learn English (or any other language) but also helping them flow in and out of the global traffic of knowledge and knowledge-making. Only that activism can make both language learning go along with knowledge learning possible at the same time.  In particular, the suggestion that English teachers must also teach ideas is particularly important for us as teachers in a country in crisis which good education can significantly help resolve.

We are, no doubt, teachers of language, but since we are a lot more than that, we have absolutely no reason why we should be teaching language without at the same time helping students with creating, sharing, and promoting knowledge, and doing so especially out of their own personal and social worlds.

Hope to hear more on the issue from Nelta Colleagues!

Here’s some more khurak to go with the issue.