Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The pitfalls of teaching 'English Our Way'

William Blake once wrote, “One Law for the Lion and Ox is Oppression.” He made a point about equality: if it’s accorded to all while hiding qualities that differentiate the one from the other, it eventually becomes a tool against itself.

If we take Aristotle’s dictum about equality, then we can’t compare unlike with unlike without depriving the less well off, whether in terms of ethnicity, class, or any other criteria that separate the many from the few. Violating this dictum is self-defeating, and if not at least unearths those aforementioned qualities that distinguish one social group from another so much that, while all appear to be equal, some are privileged or unprivileged by degrees.

This week’s column is about one of those qualities: proficiency in English. It’s an attempt at unearthing the flaws we’ve institutionalised when teaching them to our children, how those flaws tend to solidify class structures, and how, if we are to have the proverbial cake and eat it too in terms of progress, we must overhaul and alter existing structures.

The variants of language

English is a lingua franca. It’s not the most used language in the world but it certainly is used everywhere. It has a past and it has some colonial(ist) accretions, which is probably why extreme nationalists question as to whether we need it. Patriotic fervour can be good, but disagreeing on principle with the need to learn a lingua franca will cripple a population that has grown to interact with the world outside.

Put simply, it’s not a question of “Either/Or” or a matter of “Learn it or don’t!” but “Struggle with it or suffer without it!” That’s a stark way of putting it, but when it comes to assessing a language like English that is, all in all, the reality.

On the other hand, “English as She Should Be Spoken” needn’t be our priority. My experience with elocution and all those other exercises aimed at getting your pronunciation correct has been that they are laudable inasmuch as they are looked at in aesthetic terms: if you look at them in terms of the separation between those who wield the language and those who stumble with it, you’ll not only be falsely elevating yourself but also concede ground to social stratifications that can only further divide an already fragmented society.

Moreover, there’s no correct English. Indians speak it differently. So do Sri Lankans. The Caribbean people have developed their own version. Canada and the United States have openly violated certain norms of the language. London has become a multicultural hub, to an extent where you don’t come across the Queen’s English as much as you used to. Besides, as a renowned anthropologist once observed, the further East you go from the Suez, the more you become assimilated to the our part of the world, particularly (we can assume) when it comes to articulating and pronouncing words.

The lesson to be drawn here, obviously, is that globalisation works both ways: there’s no correct, prescribed method of using a language, here or there. The debate between localising English and keeping it intact, on the other hand, is different to the debate between localising English and localising it to such an extent that those who script how it’s taught manage to hide the inequity of equalising language-use between those who can handle English well and those who can’t. That begs an obvious question: how should be resolve the latter? More importantly, why should we?

The mistakes of the teaching the medium

It takes two to tango and two to clap. You can’t conceive of a method of teaching without factoring in those exogenous factors that have a say in what we learn and how we learn. English is not that different. Artificially equalising students who can’t speak the lingo with those who can wield it well has, as I see it, done more harm than good, even if what’s promoted is a variant of English that’s supposedly suited for our way.

And it’s not hard to see why. Ever since 1956 we have been trying to get at “English Our Way.” We’ve set curricula and syllabuses to suit the common denominator without realising that a language is much more than a tool for communication: in the hands of a select few, it can become a weapon of privilege. There’s nothing wrong in promoting a language according to how it’s used in the country, but if in the end we separate the few who know more English than “Our Way” from those who get down to memorise other, more socially privileged variants thereof, what’s the use of learning it?

There’s more.

Sri Lanka’s education sector develops vertically, not horizontally. Administrators are more concerned with infrastructure and inputs. Makes sense. Quantity is easy to measure. Quality is not. The former is short-termist, the latter long-termist.

Marie Perera, in a research paper titled “Student heterogeneity in the English Language Classrooms” (written in 2010 for the National Education Commission), points out the gap between resources allocated to develop language methodologies and their outcomes, and draws a conclusion we know all too well: most Sri Lankan students aren’t proficient enough in English to secure stable and secure jobs. She argues, correctly I believe, that outside Colombo and Kandy schools don’t teach the subject properly and even if they do, the teachers allocated to it are constrained by the curricula and by what she could have noted down as the manifest shortcomings of textbooks.

Those who write textbooks, I believe, are to be blamed. We needn’t drive Chapman’s English or Heinemann’s English into our children’s heads, but that isn’t a license to abandon quality altogether. As Perera notes in her study, there’s a link between quantity/inputs and the ability of a student to understand the subject, provided that those inputs are simplified and put across in a more comprehensive way.

There’s no point trying to make Grade Three students memorise the names of animals and plants, for instance, if they weren’t taught how to connect letters to form words in Grades One and Two. Some schools don’t properly teach English at those levels, owing to a lack of teachers. Some schools, particularly the private and international ones, either have their own textbooks or import them from India and Europe. Small wonder we’re lagging behind and small wonder that we’re parading inequity as an artificial equality in our classrooms.

The truth then is that a language is more than grammar and syntax. It’s more than memorising and dictation. It’s not about reciting answers. It develops and isn’t constrained by what administrators consider as the “standard form.” Take a typical textbook, preferably from the lower and elementary classes, and you will see how misconceived we are about that: riddled from beginning to end with standardised texts and activities that have no real reference point outside themselves, they cater to students who take what they’re taught as the only correct answers.

But even the most pedestrian text can become a Bible in the hands of an able teacher. The problem here isn’t really the textbook, but those who teach it. I’ve come across students who’re relegated to the back of their class if they can’t understand the subject. I’ve come across students who’re bright enough but are ignored by callous teachers who, for some reason, focus on those who wield the language properly. And this isn’t just because of the divide between Colombo, Kandy, and other parts of the country, or for that matter the divide between social groups and classes: I’ve come across students from what many would consider to be “outstation schools” (the term smacks of contempt and snobbery) who are quicker at the language than their considerably more privileged counterpart in the typical popular school.

So no, it’s not a question of whether we need more resources. It’s a question of where existing resources are allocated to. There’s no point spending millions on a teacher training program, after all, if the teacher discriminates between those who are exceptionally talented at a subject and those who aren’t. There’s no point spending the same amount of money on District A and District B if District A has schools where students come from English-speaking backgrounds and District B has schools where the students are, for the most, impoverished.

Acknowledging all that can help us understand why equalising our students through textbooks does more harm than good. The solution, as always, is to improve. But how?

The perils of distant reading

There are more ways than one of skinning a cat. There are, however, only two broad ways of learning a language.

One, you commit to memory massive amounts of data, a method practised in Sri Lanka and in other countries where memorising has become the norm. This is referred to as “distant reading”, where you don’t zoom in on a particular text but aggregate the rules of grammar, construction, and punctuation so much that you generalise what you take in. The advantage with this is that it’s easier to standardise. The disadvantage, however, is that it tricks the student into believing that language construction is as stark as “two plus two equals four.”

Two, you pick out bits and pieces of information from a particular text. You study a poem like Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” and dwell on rhetorical devices, metaphors, and the philosophical dimensions embedded therein. You don’t learn much by way of generalised punctuation or grammar rules, but you do eventually. And why? Because the student’s appreciation of the text grows so gradually (and not, as it’s wont to today, mechanically through rote learning) that he or she absorbs the sentences, the words, the letters, and how they are constructed. This, being the opposite of the other method, is obviously referred to as “close reading.”

Being a student from a fee-levying, private school, I studied the latter method. I believe it helped. Not because it was prescribed by outsiders, but because it’s self-evidently useful. There’s little to no point, after all, in writing sentences in the present tense and converting them to, say, the past perfect if all what students are taught is the formation of a sentence in the latter tense.

I don’t remember being asked to memorise grammar rigidly, obviously because I wasn’t. In the end, that helped when I was studying poetry. I believe that this holds true for other students in the country and that students, whatever their background (which shouldn’t be a factor in this matter anyway), should be encouraged to respond to Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth intelligently and individually.

No, I’m not suggesting that we import “English as She Should Be Spoken.” But I suspect we have confused not importing the lingo for not adapting methods used by outsiders. Close reading, let’s not forget, has been known to work, and by adapting accordingly we can do more, much more, than what we’ve achieved so far. True, distant reading isn’t without its champions (who tend to argue that literature and language are the result of centuries of evolution, which means that learning particular texts is unhelpful), but it’s almost dangerous when taken as a license to make the student memorise.

And you know what? Those who are conditioned to distant reading take time to get used to reading a text cohesively. They may memorise grammar and they may be bright at remembering, but when it comes to dealing with those exceptions to conventional rules of construction and syntax in English, they are at a loss.

A few years ago I tried a little experiment with the son of a friend. The topic was the present perfect continuous tense. I gave the boy (in Grade Eight at the time) four or five rules of construction, including the use of the auxiliary “have / has been” and how the auxiliary should be used with the relevant subject (“have been” for I, You, and We, and “has been” for everything else). I asked him to memorise these rules. He had a memory he underestimated, so to his own surprise he was quite able to do what I asked him. We went through certain sentences and I asked him to check whether the auxiliary corresponded with the subject. Going by what I suggested, he inserted them correctly when it came to a definite subject (I, you, they, we, he, she, it).

A little later on we came to sentences that had indefinite subjects and pronouns. He was lost. Having struggled with them for some time, he opted for the wrong auxiliary: “has been” for “Jack and Jill” and “have been” for “Each of the children.” He grinned sheepishly at me and admitted that he thought he’d made a mistake. I smiled and corrected him. We’ve remained friends ever since.

The lesson that boy learnt is that not even Mr Chapman and Mr Heinemann can help us if all we do is memorising. There has to be intelligent, individualised responses to particular texts, because in a world which focuses on specifics and not generalisations, it’s best to adapt and adopt a language based on its actual use by writers. I suspect this holds true even for writers deviated errantly from accepted norms of grammar, such as Shakespeare’s “most unkindest cut” and Joyce’s hazy sentences which would have horrified those rigid on punctuation.

Concluding remarks

Some months back I read an account of a lecturer and academic who’d passed out of school in the early eighties. He had as far as I could ascertain studied in the Sinhala medium, but his take on how his O/Level teacher taught his class a textbook passage aptly debunks the myth that one needs to study IN English to KNOW or LEARN English:

First he gave us some matter-of-fact questions about the passage (reading comprehension); then he did a spelling test (memorising); this was followed by a fill-in-the-blanks exercise (more memorising); next came a lengthy discussion of the use of phrasal verbs and the subjunctive mood in the passage (grammar); and only then did the teacher tackle the aesthetic and philosophical dimensions of the passage, by which time even I, an average kid, could recite it from memory. I have been taught English and other languages before and since, but not quite like that.

No one, not even Mr Chapman, can quite match this kind of teaching. But that was a different time: when teachers owned a vehicle, didn’t indulge in as much tuition as they do now, and above all, were individualists. Academe in Sri Lanka has gone away and with it the student’s ability to individualise and adapt a text to his own reading of it. Nietzsche’s dictum that there are “no facts, only interpretations” could have held true for how we once taught our students English, a long time ago.

And so we have a choice: either we continue to equalise English to hide the inequity which exists in our classrooms, or we emancipate our children by teaching them, not English as She Should Be Spoken, but an English superior to that used by the authors of education policy, who in their myopia think that the solution is to churn out textbooks which teach the most essential, generalised, and hence useless rules of grammar and syntax to the less well off. Whether they like it or not, these policymakers are playing into the hands of the enemy: snobs from the city, who continue to see the world in black and white and wish (whether consciously or unconsciously) to draw a line between themselves and their less privileged brethren.

Going by all that, I don’t think the choice is difficult to make. We’ve already taken the wrong option. We’ve suffered. If we don’t take stock of that, we’ll do what those policy-authors have done: violating Aristotle’s dictum about equality, equalising unlike with unlike, and along the way creating one law or structure for the Lion and for the Ox.

If you want (cultural) oppression, ladies and gentlemen, that is the way to go. If you don’t, there’s another option. It’s not too late to choose.

Written for: Ceylon Today, September 13 2016