English: a boon or a bane?

Madhu Neupane

English language teaching (ELT) has been a matter of prestige in Nepal since past. There is a growing trend of learning and using it with an assumption that English provides wider global socio-economic opportunities. However, the condition of teaching English has not been improved as is expected.

One of the major reasons behind this, in my opinion, is the faulty planning of English language teaching programme in general. The improvement in the teaching and learning of the English language should start from the beginning or foundation. If the foundation itself is poor, large building cannot be constructed on it. The evidence to support this idea in the ELT is that of developmental order. Applied linguists (e.g. Ellis 1989) argue that there are certain prerequisites that should be fulfilled for the learner to be able to learn a language item successfully. There are studies to prove that teaching can change the rate of acquisition or learning but not the route (e.g. Ellis, 1989). For example, students cannot master passive sentence without mastering the tense system as it is prerequisite for learning passive.

Similarly, learners should be able to produce correct sentences in isolation before they can write a paragraph. In the context of Nepal, learners at the higher level who are supposed to have reached a certain developmental level are found to be far below that level. This is due to the fact that learners are promoted to upper levels without having the required level of proficiency at their lower level. In other words, they are promoted to the next level without assessing what they are supposed to learn. One of the factors behind this is the faulty examination system. For example, in our examination system students can make fair guesses of the questions that are to be asked in the exam by looking at the list of the questions asked previously. They may learn them by heart and reproduce them in the exam.

In this regard, one of my students once said, “Madam, I passed English in Grade XI without knowing anything but I could not pass English in Grade XII. What should I do?” I had no answer as he had put both questions and answer in his saying. I was puzzled in a way. Likewise, one of my sisters once said, “I used to get good marks in English at school level. I don’t know how that would happen. I was certainly not better in English than in other subjects.” Sometimes, I ask my students at Bachelor level about the marks they secured in the previous levels. When I notice a gap between their marks and the present level of proficiency, I ask them further question, “why is it so?” Their responses vary. Some students say that the answers were written for them on the board in the exam where some say that they copied the answers from talented students. Some of them also revealed that their teachers had asked them to fill in the pages by writing what they slightly know about the questions. Coincidently, while I am writing this article there is news on the television that XII Graders are protesting in different exams centres (final examination) because they are not getting chance to cheat openly.

Many students also say that English has never been an attractive subject for them. One of my students said, “I studied English the whole day but understood nothing.” Other students just don’t pay attention because their mind is already preoccupied with the view that English is not the subject which they can understand. When provided with written assignments, they say, “I could not do it” even without trying it. Correcting their written work takes a longer time. There are many grammatical mistakes which are difficult to identify even. It is difficult to find out what they are trying to say in their writing. On top of that the students are unlikely to go through the feedback teachers provide to them. Due to above mentioned factors learners are not in a position to learn the language in their course which has been designed with an assumption that they have already learned basic things required for present learning. Moreover, teachers always have to face problems to deal with weak performance of the students. On the one hand, there is a pressure to finish the course in time and on the other hand, students cannot learn the things given in the course without providing them background information which are not mentioned in the course (e.g. New Generation English). Sometimes this leads to a frustration as well.

Oops! So much for dissatisfaction!! But we should be optimistic for hope provides us with life. The same glass of water with the same amount of water can seen to be half full or half empty. For the long term solution reforms should be started from the beginning by making the learners learn what they are supposed to learn at respective levels. There should be no compromise for that. But for the students who have come to higher level without the required level of proficiency we can do something.

The first thing that I do with my students is to develop positive attitude in them. I usually do this by saying that they are not as poor in English as they think about themselves. While teaching I ask very simple questions that almost all of them can answer. This provides them with a sense of achievement.

Sometimes I substitute the exercises given in their textbooks with my own. This has helped me to develop positive attitude towards learning English in my students. For correcting their written work I tick the sentences which they have written right rather than crossing and correcting their mistakes. This provides me with a sense of happiness and I also have found students motivated by this. It helps them to build on what they already know and then keep on writing. I believe in course of time they learn to write by writing. To sum up there are many factors that contribute to the poor performance of the learners. But we should be optimistic and start from the point where we are now rather than doing nothing by blaming others. Let’s say, “Yes we can” for when we say we can or we cannot we are usually right.

2 thoughts on “English: a boon or a bane?

  1. Very interesting write up on how teachers can encourage students to improve and practice more. I liked the idea Madhuji pays attention more to what students have done better with rather than focusing on students’ weaknesses.

    It is too context-sensitive. If we look at the overall picture of English situation in Nepal, I see it quite satisfying. Nepal having a non-colonial history has its people very proficient in English: this is evidenced when I read the reflections by the foreigners. As Madhuji said, if we make changes in the Education system as a whole and if we do not confine our teaching-learning for the exams only, we could do far better. We teachers are as as much responsible as students though.

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