English Language Teaching and Larger Pursuits of Life

Indra Bahadur Ter

Far Western Development Region, Nepal

For decades we have been teaching the English language primarily as an end in itself. The question whether English should be taught as an end in itself or as a means to achieving larger pursuits of life has been a matter of constant debate among ELT scholars, language experts and language theorists. Equally mighty question is whether larger pursuits can be achieved only after gaining a proficient command of the English language, or any other language for that matter, or, the desired proficiency comes only after we engage in larger pursuits of life.

By larger pursuits of life I mean all those creative sorts of activities that demand either field-specific professional excellence or that bring happiness to our lives with a sense of well-being or euphoria which I take art and literature for preciseness. The latter sort of pursuits become imminent from the very idea that the chief end of everybody life is the pursuit of happiness. Undeniably, this type of happiness derives from self-actualization, the highest level of need in Maslow’s hierarchy, and art and literature are the best ways towards self-actualization.  In this article I shall attempt to establish a relationship between language command and these larger pursuits of life with special reference to the English language.

Field-specific professional excellence

In the past English was taught solely as a language of communication and was by and large used as a means of communicating with the world community, and its secondary application was for literary activities. However, within the last two decades, the world has undergone a vast transformation with its explosion of knowledge and English has pervaded our life and culture. The world has been anglicized, so to speak, and new types of professional needs have emerged. Now, the scope of the English language has broadened. In this changed context an ESL/ EFL teacher has now not only to deal with English and its grammar, linguistics, ELT but also there are a number of disciplines like philosophy, literature, anthropology, psychology, mass communication, journalism, and above all those registers of English that are used in an indeterminately large number of fields and situations, that most often pass over the heads of a majority of English teachers.  As a side note, English teachers need  to acquaint themselves with all those varieties of English used in different English speaking communities and different professional contexts so they can help their students deal with world realities in relation to English use.

English for Specific Purposes: English for Specific Purposes (ESP) is the English for professional needs of learners and requires field-specific knowledge of English. Why ESP? This question should be clear from the following anecdotes from my own life.

I had just passed Master’s in English when my spouse complained of abdomen pain during her last months of pregnancy and we visited a doctor, who noticing my flaunting of English, replied in English. He used medical register: “She has a minor cervical fissure. Miscarriage might result if we don’t resort to caesarian.” I didn’t have the faintest idea of what he said but I just uttered a faint “Yes”. So deplorably I wished I could have a dictionary handy then.

At another time I was invited to write a bank guarantee for an organization for a loan that would be sanctioned to the organization on their written request along with the collateral. I spent the whole day trying and re-trying and ended up with what looked like an abstract literature. Ah, it was a horrible experience.

As a matter of fact, some of us might aspire to write a proposal for an organization that might bring up ludicrous incomes to us; some of us might aspire to write an influential article for a newspaper, a film script, a dissertation, a legal document, an advert, or a book, for that matter. But our own English comes as a barrier when we proceed. We lack the knowledge and skills of field-specific register of English. In a world where knowledge is a measure of power and where English sells as a commodity, why can’t we sell our knowledge of English? Why in certain vacancy announcements where sound knowledge of English is a must, preference is given to other disciplines rather than English? Rarely have English language graduates got the posts like manager, project coordinator, executive officer, proposal writer, and the likes solely on the basis of their English skills. Why can’t we sell our English skills in larger world markets? It may be perhaps because we don’t study/ teach field-specific professional English that can in technical terms be called ESP. Certainly ESP is a lot different from General English.

So what? Teaching the English language as merely an end in itself is not the demand of time. The demand of the hour is teaching need-based English. For this, whole the programmes and curricula of English right from beginners’ level have to be re-looked and revised.

English for art and literature: a euphoric pursuit

After so much reading of the English language, grammar, linguistics, research articles, critical theories, newspapers, journals and so on and so forth, we should be prepared to create something of worth for the real world audience – a poem, a piece of fiction, an essay, a travelogue, or a book worth reading. Well, yes, we do really well when our audience is our students but our ability starts to answer when our audience is the literati from the world community. Many of us might even fail to interpret and appreciate a piece of art or literature written in the current trend, for we are still reading/writing structured literature of the romantic age and modern age. Facing postmodern literature is a challenge for us. If we cannot read and enjoy art and literature, we have no right to call ourselves connoisseurs of art and literature. Reading, appreciating and creating art and literature to cultivate a sense of well-being or euphoria is what I mean by “euphoric pursuit”. Art and literature are something that make our life meaningful and worth living, and there is no gainsaying the fact that these entities are the stairs that lift us towards self-realization and self-actualization. These pursuits should be at high end of ELT/ ELD.

However, the way we teach literature in English classes is no way better than spoon feeding – mere discussing the gist or summary of the literary text, dictating the summary or a stereotypical summary to them and getting them to learn the end-of-the-text question answers, which WILL only blunt their creative potentialities rather than sharpen them. When shall we encourage our students to read, interact with and appreciate the literary texts, making out their own enquiries into the text to distill their own interpretations of the text, and generate their own critical thinking and creative writing?

7 thoughts on “English Language Teaching and Larger Pursuits of Life

  1. I agree with you sir,
    I hope this type of article can motivate us who desire to read n write something..!

    1. Thank you so much for getting motivated by the entry. I am interested in your words and would love to know more from you. Would you explain why you desire to read and write something in English?

  2. Creativity is an inborn quality however, we can train ourselves to be good writers. W e simply need to help students to express their thoughts in their writing. We need to inculcate this habit right from their schooling but by the time they reach undergraduate programme, they have been used to note taking and memorizing.
    I really didn’t understand, ‘these pursuits…….ELD

    1. Samjhana Pradhan ji,
      Thank you very much for your readership. The phrase ‘these larger pursuits of life’ refers back to the first sentence of the second paragraph of my article. It primarily refers to the varieties of the English language we need in different professions like philosophy, journalism, mass communication, psychology, medical discourse, discourse of law, sports, anthropology, and so on, as well as our creative strength in creating and appreciating art and literature. The point I wanted to make in the article is that English should be taught with an aim to make our students proficient in one or more of these fields/ pursuits. ELD refers to English Language Development, and is used in line with the view of some scholars who believe that language cannot be taught but developed. Although the term ELT is still more widely used than ELD, the latter is used in the article to respect the preference of those scholars.

  3. I teach Business Communication to BBA students and they generally have ‘good’ writing skills needed for tests and exams. But I am depressingly shocked at the level of their communicative competence. For many, speaking in English (doing presentations, organizing mock meetings, oral reporting) is a daunting ‘daat bata pasina aauney’ task. I might just be overgeneralizing this but something is not really working in the school level curriculum. Something is lacking in the objectives of teaching English (and teaching in English).

    And, your article clearly states this unclear-ness when you say “the question whether English should be taught as an end in itself or as a means”.

    1. Let me share a few words in this regard. As I have understood, there are lots and lots of factors influencing it. First and foremost point, I think, is that our teaching and assessment systems are biased. We give much higher priority to written skills than spoken ones. We teach on the pattern of exams, not of effective communication to meet our needs. In the lack of sufficient exposure to English as a means of communication in place of marks to secure and success in the written exams as an end, many more teachers and students have been suffering the deficiencies in the systems.

  4. Nice points in the articles..
    As far as the question English as an end or a means is concerned, I have some points to raise
    a. target group determines its status either as a means or end. I don’t think we are doing it either. To the teachers, they can earn quite much compared to others simply being an English language teacher which can help us have access to materials (if we see well being of life just from material lens)
    b.is language teacher a language philosopher? or is he imparting some basics of English language to the audience in order to meet premeditated objectives? I think he is the later
    c. i don’t think an English teacher will have a command of technical terms used in different fields (but it depends upon the purposes of learning of it) since it has its own specific fields and concerns… I
    d. it’s our linguistic right to know everything in our own language
    e.i think no literary texts is created for teaching purposes and every literary piece is too subjective and complete understanding of it is often dialectical process of the socio-cultural issues of the time the text was created
    f. we should not impose English as something everyone must know it and without which life remains incomplete
    g. so why not to deal with according to target groups and purposes??

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *