English has become an indispensable part of the educational curriculum in Nepal and it is one of the most used languages in the world. Teaching English as a foreign language in Nepal has been a challenging job in community schools in general and the context of rural areas in particular. Students in rural areas lack the competency and performance in English compared to their urban counterparts. Based on my ten years of teaching experience in a village in the far western part of Nepal, I have faced several challenges in teaching English. I reckon they are worth mentioning.
English as a subject not as a language
From the very beginning when I started my career as an English teacher, I found that most of the students, as well as teachers, have been taking it as a very tough subject like mathematics. The only target of the teachers was to prepare students for the final examination. Teachers are evaluated based on the result of the students at the final exams because teachers’ internal promotion depends on the learning achievement of the students. Permanent teachers are promoted depending on their performance appraisal. The skill and efficiency of students are ignored. Students were provided with the typical tasks to do like writing letters, essays, applications and other writings just for memorization and never learning of the meaning, forms and structures. It is done to preserve the reputation of the teacher as a good teacher. Another challenging factor is students’ belief about the nature of learning English as a subject consisting of a list of words and a set of grammatical rules which are to be memorized and separable skills to be acquired rather than a set of integrated skills and sub-skills.
There is a kind of fear deeply rooted among the students with this subject. I would like to add a reference of a student here: he said, “If I were the education minister, I would exclude English from the school level curriculum.” It clearly shows how students perceive English as a very ‘difficult subject’. They are always fearful about this subject. To lessen their fear, I tried to convince them by giving the example of Mumbai (at least one of every family member lives in Mumbai in connection with work) who can speak Hindi fluently within a short period- then why can’t we learn English? We only need to learn the structural language and do continuous practice. Without practice, we cannot even write the Nepali language correctly. I encouraged my students to practise English simple sentences along structures. As I and the students spent a few months eventually, they understood and responded in English. So that the teacher, as well as the students, should change the concept that they are teaching and learning a language, though it is taught and learnt as a compulsory course or subject at the school level in Nepal.
Role of teacher as a translator
Teaching English in the classroom means translations in the mother tongue which is another challenge in a rural context. I have a bitter experience with translation. When I started teaching English as a career in private English medium schools, I did not translate all the English texts into Nepali, I only spoke in English. But the strategy was not so effective. Students remained passive, making noise and teasing each other. I asked some of them at the end of the class for evaluation, but no one responded. I guessed it might be their hesitation towards a new teacher. But the next day, I was called by the headmaster, and I got embarrassed by what I heard from him. Students had complained that they did not understand what I taught to them as I did not translate the text into Nepali. Students were habituated only to listen to the voice in their mother tongue from the teacher. One of the students said, “We were waiting for your Nepali translation by the end of the class.” After that, I observed some English classes of other teachers and found that it had been a trend to translate words in their mother tongue. Most of them are neither emphasizing pronunciation nor language structures. It means students are not learning the language with correct structure but the only translation of the written words or text in Nepali.
Later on, we (English teachers) concluded that translation can never be taken as the only tool of teaching English. It can be helpful for classroom management, setting up activities or explaining vocabulary, for example. The translation was a significant part of English language teaching for a long time in our context; it is still in use in many contexts. In my experience, it helps students to understand the language but not how to use the language in real-life situations. It does not help learners develop their communicative skills, but encourages learners to use their first language. It may only be useful to those learners who are more analytical or have performance for verbal linguistics learning strategies. In rural contexts, translation only makes students passive, completely dependent on the teachers and does not encourage students to speak in English during class time.
Less focus on teaching and testing of oral language skills
Language testing is entirely different from testing of other subjects. It covers language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) and aspects (vocabularies, grammar and language functions). The national curriculum framework emphasizes the teaching of all four language skills in a balanced and integrated way. But in the community schools of rural areas, the teaching and testing the listening and speaking skills is less emphasized. I still remember that a few years ago, we used to have cassette players and other materials for listening and speaking tests and there used to be systematic testing. But nowadays we just provide marks without testing these two important skills. As a result, students have a misconception that they do not need to learn listening and speaking skills because they know that they will get more than 20 marks out of 25 as their practical marks. The SEE (Secondary Education Examination) board has developed criteria for testing students’ English language skills, the system requires students to face both written and oral examinations and students are expected to be able to perform a certain level of English language competence in both written and verbal forms. I talked about it with some English teachers in my neighbourhood and they responded that they have completely ignored two skills; listening and speaking. After consulting with some headteachers and pass out students, I found two reasons: 1) lack of supporting materials to teach and test listening and speaking skills. 2) Less focus on administering listening and speaking tests regularly in schools. Therefore, the teachers need to emphasize these four language skills to be tested.
Lack of ‘trained’ language teachers at lower grades
The school education structure of our country has been realigned from the basic level (ECD/PPE to 8) to the secondary level (9 to 12) after the eighth amendment of the education act. The primary level is the foundation of education. Primary level teachers are responsible for the delivery of all subjects because they do not have specialization in a particular subject while entering the service. They are supposed to teach all subjects. They might be qualified in other subjects but regarding the English language, most of them do not have the required level of competence and confidence in dealing with it. Most of the primary level teachers are indeed permanent with SLC (school leaving certificate) qualification and they do not receive training on content, pedagogy and modern technology to cope with the current demands of English language teaching methods and techniques.
In a training, I observed that primary level teachers hesitated to speak in English. Earlier when we collected the need, many of them wrote their training need in the Nepali language. It shows that teachers in early grades need a lot of language support, good practice, sharing culture and refresher training modules.
One of the teachers from the Achham district explained that teachers are not highly motivated to teach English effectively because of the lack of enough resources in schools, motivation from school management and the headteacher.
Therefore, English teachers need to change their mindset to get updated with new ideas, teaching techniques, and innovations. We can better use the resources available online and offline. School administration should not pressurize the teachers to complete courses. Learning can be fostered through managing classrooms and resources essential for students. Teacher training on the content, pedagogy and technology should be an integral part of teaching English as a foreign language. Small class sizes are better for enhancing target language skills than large classes. Recruiting qualified and trained teachers are a dire need in our context.
To conclude, teachers in our context face so many challenges while teaching English. We are emphasising upgrading students from one grade to another as exam-oriented teaching and learning has been a major focus. Learning a foreign language like English has not been given much emphasis in our pedagogical practices. Maximum use of mother tongue is in practice. School management and community support mechanism seem to be too weak to encourage teachers to better facilitate the English language courses. Most importantly, motivation and specialized training on the part of English teachers in a rural context is the need of the hour.
Shankar Khanal is an M.A. in English from Tribhuvan University. Mr Khanal teaches English at the upper secondary level (11 & 12) at Baijanath model secondary school in Achham district.