Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Linking global with local

I cannot say what exactly happened. I cannot say who said what. I cannot elaborate all important things discussed there. That was all about sharing professional ideas and experiences among ELT practitioners. This was voluntary aspiration and effort for the professional development of English language teachers in Nepal and around the globe in general. Moreover, that was all about breaking the barriers between the so-called dichotomies of senior and junior, novice and expert/experienced, researcher and applier, teacher and learner/student, native and non-native speaker and so on. In essence, that was a successful effort to establish a mutual bondage between local and global ELT practitioners.

The above background sets the foundation for sharing the experience of NELTA’s 15th International Conference held in Kathmandu on 19-21 February (I am sorry I could not go to Surkhet. We would be grateful if Surkhet friends can share about that). About 800 ELT practitioners from home and abroad not only attended the conference but also share many valuable ideas of teaching English. In fact it was a professional rendezvous place which provided English teachers a platform to generate and construct new knowledge. With the success of that mega gathering, I do not hesitate to say that English teachers have given a big lesson to the country, that is, if there is a benevolent collaborative effort, like we are doing, we can generate a lot of knowledge which can be used for the better future of not only English teachers but also of human kinds in general. Prof. Tirth Raj Khaniya, Honourable Member of National Planning Commission, in his speech said that NELTA is successful to make a significant political implication in Nepal. He reiterated that NELTA is not doing any direct political activities by following any political party’s agenda but it has become successful in giving a good lesson to all political parties. It has taught them how hardships and professional vigour can be translated into meaningful power in a difficult circumstance collaboratively. He highlighted that NELTA is successful in doing purely an academic and professional politics of English teachers. At the same time, Prof. Jai Raj Awasthi focused that we teachers should not put the hat of a teacher but that of a learner. He argues that teachers are always learners. We should learn, unlearn and relearn through sharing and collaboration. This implies that professional collaboration is needed without which learning may not become meaningful.

Let me highlight some significant issues which emerged during the conference. I will start with Rt. Honourable Chair of the Constituent Assembly (CA), Mr. Subas Chandra Nembang’s speech. I know, he was born in the Limbu community (one of the indigenous communities in Nepal) and his mother tongue is Limbu. Moreover, being the Chair of CA, all participants had expected that he would deliver his speech in Nepali as other leaders do. But beyond that expectation he addressed the ceremony in English. His speech in English has reflected his multiple identities constructed through the English language. He did not only deliver speech in English but also raised some crucial issue that we, English teachers, have to discuss. He said;
The importance of the English language has become universal. Undoubtedly, it has been widely used in the present day. Without the knowledge of the English language our access to more than half of the world would become inaccessible. Our ability to communicate with a large part of the world and do business with them would be extremely limited. We will miss al the nice opportunities that more than half of the world offers to us for our all-round development. Therefore, it is not wise not to have good command of English for all of us.
He focuses that we need to learn English in order to communicate with people from other parts of the world. This implies that our relationship (professional, business, political etc.) is based on the way we communicate in English. The tragedy of not learning English is hard to imagine. This idea is telling us that our linkage with the global community is possible only through the English language. At the same time, speaking English stands for the symbol of the civilisation on the basis of which a society progresses further. However, he contented;

I frankly want to tell you the fact that I am not satisfied with the knowledge or the skill that the majority of students acquire the English language out of their 20-year long studies in Nepal.

Of course this is true. And this leaves a significant implication for the mission of NELTA and our future initiatives. The issue which emerges from this is: How should we work to improve the standard of English in Nepal? This leads me to raise some other questions: Do we need to assess the method of teaching English we are adopting for our students? What methods fit in our context? Should we follow only one method or many methods? Are we promoting a sustainable learning or spoon-feeding students? Do we promote critical thinking skill? Do textbooks address learners’ identity, culture and values? Are we teaching the English language in isolation or making students able to link local with global issues? I am not answering these questions here because they do not have absolute answers and they cannot be measured in terms of a product. However, these questions may lead us to a process which helps us to lay a strong foundation to develop our students’ English ability and make them able to digest conflicts and differences.

David Graddol, one of the key speakers of the conference, said that "...two billion people [will] be speaking or learning English within a decade." He highlighted that with the spread of globalisation, which includes technological advancements, global flow of people, multinational business etc., English has become a global language. He further said that the number of non-native speakers of English is increasing rapidly. However, he also mentioned that, the global spread of English... will lead to serious economic and political disadvantages in the future.... A future in which monolingual English graduates face bleak economic prospects as qualified multilingual young people prove to have a competitive advantage in global companies and organizations. This clearly indicates that monolingual knowledge of English will not be helping us to cope with the future need of the complex multilingual world. If I relate Graddol’s idea with the theme of the conference, English in Diversity, I could say that we should also make our students competent in other languages along with English. The importance and existence of English is realised vis-à-vis other languages. This argument is related to what the Chair of CA said, “Nowadays knowing only one language is not enough for our all-round development. We have to learn more than one language.”

Dr. Numa Makee, another key speaker, highlighted that not only the population of English speakers is increasing but also the varieties of English are increasing rapidly. This implies that the distinction between native and non-native speakers of English is breaking. We have different varieties of English in different countries and within a country. In this regard, Dr Markee highlighted the implications of World Englishes (WE) in the context of Nepal. “In the complex linguistic, geographical, ideological, and sociocultural ecology that characterizes WE, Nepal is in perhaps a uniquely difficult position,” he said, “Geographically, it is a small, under-developed country which is sandwiched between the world’s largest emerging economic super powers of the 21st century, India and China, respectively.” This indicates that the variety of English we are speaking should either be influenced by Indian English or Chinese English. Moreover, he raises a question: whether we have Nepalese English variety? How feasible is it to use as a medium of instruction in schools? These are important issues we Nepalese English teachers should explore. At this moment, I can only make a hypothesis that, based on the notion of WE, one day we will have a separate variety of English, Nepalese English. This may emerge with the publications of textbooks and materials in Nepal by local authors instead of importing books from India and other parts of the world.

Likewise, Markee’s presentation indicates that we, English teachers, do not only have the responsibility of teaching English but also have a key role in formulating the language policy in order to promote the status of English. At this moment I would like to put what Markee exactly said;
Nepal is in the process of developing a new constitution. Nepalese applied linguists and ELT teachers should take a leading role in framing the discussion of language issues that is bound to ensue. In particular, what (quasi) official role (if any) should English play in relation to indigenous Nepalese languages, and in particular sectors of the economy, education, science, business, and tourism?”
This profound observation has added another great responsibility among us. This indicates we do have responsibility of discussing the issue of language policy which guides the whole profession of ELT. But we need to contemplate on some other questions which are embedded in the issue raised above. Should we take this role? Are we ready to take this role? How can we be successful in taking this role? In addition to this, Markee discusses another responsibility of Nepalese ELT teachers. He asks a question: What steps should Nepal take to maintain its linguistic and cultural heritage from the potential “killer” characteristics of English? This question has a great implication not only for ELT but also for the whole notion. This indicates that being ELT practitioners we should also look after a unique linguistic and cultural diversity we have. This is our responsibility to address the values, skills, attitudes, and cultures of people while teaching English. In that sense, English becomes a tool to empower learners and maintain social harmony. When we empower children they know the local issues and build a strong base for exploring global ideas. What do you think?