Friday, 10 September 2010

On the role of English

Dear All

First of all, I would like to thank Kate for reading my article and putting a thought-provoking question in yahoomail group - Is this good thing? – regarding my article which was published in The Kathmandu Post on 9th September. The article can be read at I am so happy to know that you are closely observing what’s happening in Nepal through media.

Second, I acknowledge very scholarly comment and elaboration made by Shyam and Bal on my article. Actually, Shyam has clearly stated more than what I did. He has written better article than mine. Thank you so much Kate, Shyam and Bal. I also thank Santosh for his brief but equally thought provoking comment. I consider your question and comment as an impetus which promotes (not provoke) an academic discussion among us. In this post, I would try my best to make my points (discussed in the article) clearer especially with reference to the triggering question of Kate. Thank you Shyam for calling me a ‘scholar’. But I am just a ‘learner’ or ‘practitioner’. The ideas expressed in the article are based on my readings in English Education and a close observation of multilingual reality of Nepal. At the same time, the article represents literacy practices of the people who are doing subtractive learning like me without realizing what they are learning.

Let me start with Kate’s question. I believe that Kate read the whole article and has put thought on entire thread of the arguments discussed there along with my point of view stated towards the end of the article. However, I would like to start with some questions for clarification. First, I did not understand what Kate means to say when she asks: Is this a good thing? I lost myself with the word ‘THIS’. Kate, do you want to know whether it is good to write in English to debate issues regarding English education? Or, are you curious to know whether it is good to write in English when you criticize (see below regarding my view on this word) the role of the English language or ELT policy? Or is it like whether my arguments discussed in the article are not good? Or, do you want to know all in the wholesale?

If I am not mistaken your contention may be on first two questions. Let me begin with my strong claim that English is not only so-called native speakers’ language (I am using this as an academic jargon as discussed by Leung, Harris and Rampton (1997) – all native speakers of English – but not by referring to people with any nationality) but it has also become my language now, proudly speaking. Santoshji with due respect to your opinion, I would say that English is no longer the language of ‘colonizer’ at present (though it was in the past but not in our case) – now it is a lingua franca in different parts of the world if not all over. Proudly speaking, we should not forget our history that WE (NEPALESE) WERE NEVER COLONISED by any country. Anyway, I stop discussing how language is closely associated with HISTORY, IDENTITY and IDEOLOGY here. Now coming to the Kate’s query, I think, we (teachers of English) are not just like tourist guides who use English for interpersonal communication and are less concerned with knowledge they have to construct with tourists. Being a teacher we have already put on the hat of ‘an educator’ who considers language as a means through which students construct knowledge related to their life, and society. This is my personal view that if we cannot relate education (including teaching of English) with life, we are not doing justice on our children who are innocent about all these issues. On this ground and being a student and member of ELT ‘community of practice’, I believe everyone has right to discuss issues on English Education and the role of English in our own context in English. But I am aware that I cannot claim that my ideas fit for all. It’s not only about English Education, we can write about human rights, politics, economics and so on in English. What do you think about this? I would be grateful if you could add something more to this.

At some point Kate’s question may also imply that MY ARTICLE IS AGAINST THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE which is not true. If you go through the thread of arguments I have discussed there, I have not said at any point (as Shyam and Bal have also clearly stated) that we should not learn English, which nobody can do. I again repeat that WE SHOULD TEACH ENGLISH, WE SHOULD TEACH ENGLISH and WE SHOULD TEACH ENGLISH. But, How? For what purpose? That is what we need to think about. And my article is completely based on these issues. One point I have to confess is that I have not mentioned the advantages of the English language assuming that we all know that. There are millions of books written in English which points out the importance of English. I thought I could not finish my article if I started mentioning its advantages which are obvious indeed.

As Kate’s question come without any discussion and context, there are multiple interpretations to make. With due respect to Kate’s right to ask question, her question may imply (If I am not mistaken) that IT IS NOT GOOD to criticize the role of English or it may indicate that being an English Language Teacher, ONE HAS TO ONLY PRAISE the role of ENGLISH but he/she should not critically assess its role. It is personal view whether one likes or dislikes critical assessment of ELT policy and the widespread role of English. Moreover, I have never ‘criticized’ (as Santoshji puts his view in one sentence in this thread) the role of English rather I have tried to ‘critique’ or ‘critically assess’ the role of English and ELT policy in the multilingual context of Nepal. My intention is just to discuss how abysmal and taken-for-granted view on ELT may sometimes create abominable consequences in the long run. With due respect to Kate’s view again, I have not done mindless celebration or thoughtless opposition (I borrow Shyam’s phrase here) of the role of the English language in Nepal. At this moment, I want to ask another question to Kate: Is it good or bad to assess the role of English critically in the multilingual context of Nepal (as you are familiar with the reality of Nepal)? I am asking this question to you as you a close friend hoping that your idea will add another MASALA for discussion in this thread.

When I read Kate’s lines ‘posted on the internet’ and ‘potentially millions of people can now read this article’ (followed by the very question), I found them both as a cautionary note and praise in which a great power is invested (power of language, please do not take it otherwise). This may imply that my article may convey a ‘WRONG MESSAGE’ about the role of English in periphery especially in Nepal to millions of people (who they are I do not know). This may further indicate that we should not publish such ideas in newspapers or anywhere on the ground that they may encourage not to learn English. If it is praise, Kate may be saying that I will be read not only by Nepalese but millions of people around the world. If it is so, thank you Kate from my core of heart.

I strongly believe that the best friend is the one who does not always say YES whatever I do but the one who critically judges my doings. I like ‘critical friends’, ‘critical students’ or ‘critical anyone’ from whom I learn new things rather than a friend who says YES even if I am doing something wrong by 100%. What I mean to say here is that if we do not bring real issues for discussion on time, they may create serious problems is future. Being a close observer of ELT situation of Nepal, I find it justifiable to bring real issues for the discussion in newspaper. This applies even in the case of ELT around the world. Due to such discussions various Publications (books and journals) are coming out. Just to give examples we could not have learned much about the role of English if there were no journals (which discuss critical role of English) like ELT Journal, TESOL Quarterly, International Journal of Applied Linguistics, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, International Multilingual Research Journal, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Journal of Language, Identity & Education, English Today, World Englishes and so on.

On the pedagogic ground of teaching English in Nepal, I always wish for ‘effective’ (not only for formality) teaching of English. I always see better future of English but not ‘alone’ (with monolingual ideology) rather ‘in relation to’ other languages. I have cautiously used the phrase ‘in relation to’ which makes us contemplate on how we can make the English language not having the characteristic of a ‘killer’ language as enunciated by Robert Phillipson and other educationists. I have not said that just the English language which functions as a killer language but other dominant language like Nepali in our context may also function in a similar fashion (Thank you Shyam for giving example of the Nepali language). However, if we consider English as the most important language only on the ground that it provides BREAD and BUTTER, signifies our positive social identity, and provides passport for going abroad, this becomes hegemonic rather than academic and practical thought. As Shyam said, we should not confuse ourselves and our students with the value of English and EDUCATION. I totally agree with Shyam that our consideration of taking English and (Quality) Education as synonymous is misleading. This is what happening in different world contexts especially in the developing economies having diverse linguistic landscape. Kate, I cannot stop praising the policy of many European countries giving equal importance to Modern Languages. Almost all universities have department where Modern Languages are taught and researched. They have realized that there is growing demand of multilingual manpower than monolingual one. I have seen (if not understood well) how children in primary schools in the UK learn in bilingual education policy. It’s amazing, isn’t it?

Let me come to the issue of teaching and learning English from Grade One. I remember Kate and I discussed a lot about this issue during her stay in Nepal. We did Kate, didn’t we? We had similar line of argument that nobody is against the English language. When we talk about teaching of English as an ‘institutional’ effort, we need to consider so many things like textbooks, teacher training, resource materials and beliefs of teachers, learners and parents. I strongly reiterate that without understanding ‘bottom’ or ‘grassroots’ or ‘emic’, any kind of policy will become ‘abortive’. Let me mention one point here, I have seen the textbooks mainly in the UK having the content on how to fill in a form in the train station, talk to GP people, and so on. But we never have the textbooks (to teach English in Nepal) which teach how to cut grass, how to plough, how hoe to harvest and so on. In this regard, I have raised questions in the article: Do our textbooks link classroom and students’ social life? Do our teaching methods/activities/techniques and interaction with students promote (critical) thinking process of students? I have discussed all these questions on the ground of social responsibility (as Bal, in this thread, has also reiterated) that we English teachers should also be accountable. This is the matter of discussion which I cannot answer in this post. But what I can say is I am not only a teacher of English. First, I am a human being and then a member of community. As a teacher, I believe, I should not only teach but also be able to ‘make sense’ of teaching in students’ life. In this regard, as mentioned in the article, we need to (re)think about the activities, texts, methods, techniques we use in the classroom.

We all know that there are issues like the one I have discussed in the article. I think to be ignorant about any issues in English Education is more dangerous than to be critical about it. I have strong conviction that – by wearing the hat of member of larger society – this is our responsibility to settle the issues of ELT ourselves. If we do not do so non-ELT people devise policy which does not bring any significant development in ELT. Why can’t we say that we English teachers are able to discuss the role of English and devise ELT policy? This is what I mean to say when I make a query of what is the research based ground of English from Grade One.

I am sure such discussions among NELTA colleagues will of course help us to achieve the goal of teaching English effectively without any harm on personal and social identity, values and beliefs of children learning English. We all hope the English language empowers our children linguistically and socially. We always want to see reverent position of English in Nepal but not at cost of our linguistic diversity which is world’s most precious treasure. But to this end, we, English teachers, have to discussion, plan and work as I have envisioned in my article. My argument is that gone are the days of English-Only philosophy (which does not mean that NO ENGLIAH). We should now think about ENGLISH-WITH-OTHERS approach. I do not think that it abets something wrong not only in Nepal but around globe.

Let me conclude with a quote: “L2 classroom [or any language classroom] is not a secluded, self-contained minisociety; it is rather a constituent of the larger society in which many forms of domination and inequality are produced and reproduced for the vested interests (Kumaravadivelu, 1999: 472).

Thank you Kate for encouraging me to make my points clear. Your question has unpacked so many ideas from my head. Indeed it is a trigger to generate ideas.

These are my personal views and I apologize if my views are acrimonious.

Prem Phyak