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Education Forum

Teaching English in Universities

This article is the result of the inspiration I had in the aftermath of the Annual Review of the Faculty of Arts, Colombo University which took place recently. The debates on switching over to English medium instruction in the Arts Faculty were eye-opener as the understanding of the issue by many academics came into view.

However, this article is not entirely related to the Arts Faculty of the Colombo University but to any Faculty, and to any University that is pondering on such a switching and those facing problems after switching over to English medium. This article is based on personal observation and the insight gained by the research I have conducted for my PhD thesis in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

This is on how such a transition can be supported by English language teaching, taking it as a discrete entity. Through this article I suggest a model to teach English to undergraduates yet it would fit into any category of students.

Confidence building

I collected data for my research by means of a questionnaire administered to students and interviews conducted to teachers. The views of both students and teachers on English language teaching in universities show that students lack confidence to use English both in the classroom as well as outside.

In addition, the fears of both parties for a complete switch over to English medium instruction are also related to the same issue, despite, from the part of the students, there is a desire to enjoy the benefits associated with English as the medium.

Therefore, building confidence is central to English language teaching and not providing the knowledge of grammar or structures any more. This does not imply that one should forget teaching language structure or grammar as per the theoretical perspectives that underpin the selected method to teach English. It means that the aim of the English language teaching program should be confidence building rather than developing communicative competence as in the case of many programs in contemporary times.

How should the confidence be built in undergraduates who are half-adults and half-children? (My perception of undergraduates is that they belong to neither of the categories adults nor children). They are also in a transitionary period just as the debate on the medium of instruction.

In terms of biological age, they are adults, yet, in terms of social responsibilities they have not completely stepped into the adult world. Therefore, I would name the stage they are in as half-adult and half-child. The views of students reveal that the skill they want to improve the most is speaking. In addition, the activities they would like the most to add to the existing program are speech activities.

My interpretation comes from the amalgamation of the above two issues, i.e. confidence building should be achieved by speech-fronted programs. I follow the theory professed by Jim Cummins (1979) of BICS and CALP. BICS is Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and CALP is Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. BICS as the name suggests involves the language abilities required to carry out day-to-day tasks. CALP on the other hand requires high cognitive skills such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

The model I suggest is that students’ confidence be built via teaching BICS - speech first and then BICS - writing. Based on the built confidence, the courses should be aimed at developing CALP - writing first and speech second.

Under the advocacy of the theory, it takes about two years to develop BICS and three years for CALP. Yet, taking the higher intelligence level of the undergraduates, it can be expected that undergraduates would take relatively less period to reach the target levels in both, provided learning environment is made available.

General English courses

I would like to suggest that we abandon general English programs completely and start catering to specific needs of the general society. Or we name the courses as general English and adapt teaching English for the industrialized society. We need to redefine the general English courses if we decide to go by that name. In the present scenario, general English programs are conducted to students of the Faculty of Arts in most of the universities that have mother tongue instruction medium. Under general English, some grammar, reading comprehension activities, writing and negligible quantities of speaking and listening are taught.

If one takes a cursory look at the existing materials in any general English program (not necessarily of the Faculty of Arts in any university but several other outside courses), this would be an obvious fact.

Therein, the reading comprehension passages are from diverse areas catering to the ‘general’ nature of the program. In the Faculty of Arts, this nature has to be maintained as the student community is heterogeneous.

Therefore, catering to such a group needs diversification in content selection which ultimately results in having lack of focus in the content. This could be better expressed by comparing the nature of English language program of the Management Faculty in any university. The content selection is subject specific. That is to say the themes are related to the trade and commerce field. The activities are simulations of the future realistic societal events pending for the student community of the Management Faculty.

By designing general English courses according to the conventional stereo-typical manner, I feel we do injustice to students who are the target group. We forget the simple fact that both these types of students ultimately have to find solace in one society.

By catering to the two types of students (subject homogeneous group who follow a degree program with a career bent in it - e.g. Students of the Management Faculty and a subject heterogeneous group whose degree program does not give a vocational training - e.g. Students of the Arts Faculty) in two different ways to teach English, within the so called equal and free state education system, we create inequality without being aware of it.

Subjects fail

Students of the Arts Faculty do not have a clear focus as to why they need English: their reasons for learning English are scattered over a variety of areas manifesting lack of focus.

Therefore, apart from confidence building, needs building also should be part of English language teaching in universities. If the core subjects fail to give a clear focus to students in terms of a future career, teaching English should fill the gap and reach out to students.

There have been debates that the Sri Lankan university education is crumbling down. I believe English teachers need to take the responsibility of gearing the student population to a better future through the system via building needs to learn English which has been envisaged as indispensable for a globalized future.Therefore, in today’s context, confidence building and needs building can be considered pivotal to English language teaching.

Mother tongue – hallmark of one’s culture

There are many definitions relating to education. One of the most important of these is the ability to appreciate one’s indigenous background and be productive citizens to contribute to the development of the country. The strongest means of achieving this is through proficiency and facility in using mother tongue.

Child is more comfortable in mother tongue. File photo

The team “mother tongue” does not necessarily depend on the nationality of the parents. It is the language the children hear most frequently during their very early years, the language spoken at home. For example, if Sinhala people speak only English at home that becomes the child’s mother tongue.

The child gradually learns to think, dream and argue in that language. In communicating his ideas with others he finds the mother tongue is the easiest to use. Literature, stories and songs in the language he is familiar with become the most meaningful to him. In short, he learns to appreciate the beauty of that language.

As the child grows up, he is able to cope with other languages too appreciating that beauty. In most European countries children learn around three languages other than their mother tongue in the upper primary and secondary grades. It is expected that by this means he/she will learn to appreciate other children.

However, his first language, his mother tongue becomes his forte.

One is reminded of the Buddhist story of the two parrots, one lived with rogues and bandits and the other with hermits. They each learnt to think, talk and act like the people with whom they lived.

Mother tongue has very wide implication and strong influence on the formation of one’s character in addition to his capability in expressing the things around him and producing beautiful literature.

It was Lord Macaulay who said in reference to India, in the British Parliament, that after the English conquered India, they should develop a set of natives who thought behaved and acted like them. The only difference should be the colour of their skin.

A poet said this beautifully.

Breathes there a man with soul so dead,

Who never to himself has said.

This is my own, my native land

There is no doubt that the pre condition for such attachment to one’s own land is the love for and facility for using the native language of that land.

English Pupils’ Book:

Does it serve the purpose?

At a time when the learning of the English language has become the talk of the day with the initiation of the project ‘The learning of English as a life skill under the Mahinda Chinthana’, I suggest it is quite appropriate to start a healthy dialogue on the Government English Pupils’ Book (PB).

The problems remain like a smouldering volcano. It is elusive, probably, because of the language bar. But the outcome of this grave problem has become palpable with the sky high failures from the GCE (O/L) islandwide. One cannot disassociate the O/L results with the PB because it is the very basis of the English language education in Government schools.

Do our school textbooks serve the educational needs of the child?

The seriousness of this problem may not be felt promptly like the swine flue or the dengue menace. But, sadly though, one has to accept that it has been rising to serious proportions in the sphere of English education in Sri Lanka.

A need for the introduction of a comprehensive program, with the involvement of no less a person than the Head of State, sums up all.

Therefore, the need of the hour is a sound constructive look back based on proper analysis of the current syllabus being used in Government schools. Any defensive role that would avoid the reality will only further aggravate the problem. It is the ordinary language teacher who actually knows the length and breadth of this problem.

As stated the lack of English knowledge on the part of the majority of parents, the problem apparently does not seriously emerge. Though at times the sparks of this problem do appear, they automatically find a natural death. Therefore a sustained discussion on this matter has never occurred.

English has always become the stumbling block for the rural youth to rise to the top. English language teaching at schools has not paved way for them for better langauge learning. Then where does the problem lie?

Has the PB, the channel between the teacher and the student, served its purpose? Is it a failure on the part of the teacher to motivate the children or something lacking in the PB? Does the PB push children towards the tuition master?

These questions ring in our minds. A mere glance at the books shows that most of the lessons lack effectiveness in manipulating them for language teaching. The PB, instead, contains a wealth of knowledge for those who know the language. The books contain a vast knowledge on topics such as environment, technology and culture. So it looks more like a library book than one which attempts to facilitate language teaching for a second language learner.

A language text book ensures the uniformity and equality of language teaching in a particular educational system. It brings about regularity and, keeps national evaluation on a particular subject on one platform. It does not leave any room for discrimination against any particular social group.

The current PB lacks student motivation and most of the lessons are well above the standard of the average student. Even the questions based on the texts, most of them, are full of ambiguity. Particularly the B type questions are out of reach for the ordinary language learner.

A language is based on different structural patterns. Vocabulary injects life to the structure. A systematic training in this with recurrent activities for practice clearly facilitate second language learning. The very basic foundation should be laid for this at the primary level.

That is what the tuition master does outside the system. Without proper training in language functions and grammar how can one ever expect a production from a child? Isn’t it humourous then when we expect a child to write a passage or lead a discussion on obesity or advantages of gardening as a hobby?

The introduction to grammar is totally disoriented. Grammar is the very basis of any language learning. The PB could have been effectively used to introduce grammar more systematically with more reinforcement activities. This has seriously affected the writing of our students. Some colleges have been compelled to use an extra grammar book for their students.

The grammar introduced (units 1-5) in Grade 07PB will provide some insight into the problem. The PB makes a futile attempt to integrate other subjects like science, mathematics and health with the lessons. This is partly another reason for distancing the English PB from the students. This attempt emerges prominent than actual langauge facilitation in the current PBs. As a result, most activities given in the PB are boring and often lack facts even for the educated.

Also the PB has bene designed completely neglecting the vocabulary level of the students at each grade. Introduction of vocabulary must strictly be systematic. If it is Greek how can we expect a learner to read them? Gradual development of vocabulary, because the PB is a series, definitely ensures student motivation.

For example, two reading lessons in the same unit may lead to a plethora of, often, far fetched words. This often put the teacher in the classroom in a tight corner. However, much we know the language, be it Sinhala or English, do we ever like reading anything with hard vocabulary. The following extracts from Grade 8 PB (Unit-01) will help one have a glimpse of the type of vocabulary introduced therein.

‘Breakfast is the main meal of the day. It should not be skipped, specially by growing children and teenagers. Breakfast kick - starts the brain and improves mental and physical performance. Lack of concentration, lethargy, behaviourial problems can be seen among the students...’ (Page 3)

‘There are several factors that contribute to obesity in dogs. Among these are overfeeding, insufficient exercise, age, gender and breed. If your dog is overweight, take him to veterinary surgeon’.

‘On many Sunday nights, I slump on the nearest chair exchausted, wondering how to drag myself to bed. “I’m so tired” I groan feeling the weary muscles.

The range of vocabulary in a single unit is unimaginable. The simple answer for this could be then ‘the teacher should simplify the text to suit the students’. Why then a textbook? How much is spent on a single PB? A serious discussion on the English PBs should immediately be started in the education circles. A well coordinated and a properly organized PB will bring English more closer to our students.

The fragmented lessons set in the back drop of less student - friendly materials will only distance the child from English.

The writer is a trained Enlgish teacher



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