Print Edition - 2017-02-18  |  On Saturday

No country for bards

  • The poor condition of English learning at our schools and colleges can be pegged to a core problem: the segregation of literature from grammar
How much English matters to us is a relative concept. Yet, since one spends so many years studying the language, measuring the learning outcome is a general requirement. Students’ precious time and the nation’s resources are wasted if there is no desired output

Feb 18, 2017-English teachers often joke that even those who cannot complete a single sentence correctly can still pass the grade 10 English board exams. That may be true for many as most of the marks for the paper in the national exam held at the end of the tenth grade are allotted to objective questions based on comprehension passages and grammatical ideas. Free writing does find its place in the test paper but it matters only to those who wish to earn high grades in English, one of the subjects in which well prepared students can get a top score in what was so far known as the School Leaving Certificate.

As the government faced steady criticism for the deteriorating quality of public education, efforts were made to get most number of students to pass the School Leaving Certificate, the so-called ‘Iron Gate’, which has been renamed from this year as the Secondary Education Examination. As part of the school reform programme, the school-end exam marking has been done in letter grades since last year. This means no student who attends all the papers is deemed a failure.

While what level of English our students need is debatable, the fact that English is taught as a compulsory subject right from grade one to the university level means 

that Nepal attaches high importance to this international language. 

How much English matters to us is a relative concept. Yet, since one spends so many years studying the language, measuring the learning outcome is a general requirement. Students’ precious time and the nation’s resources are wasted if there is no desired output.

It would be fair to say that leaving aside a small number of students, most of whom attend private English-medium schools in urban centres, the general products of public schools in Nepal find English troublesome. As a result, they cannot excel in technical subjects that are taught in the English medium after graduating high school. In the vocational field too, they cannot handle day-to-day activities such as correspondence and conversation that need to be done in English.

Even if our policymakers do not ponder over the scenario, except when after a few weeks of the SLC result publication, the Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association (NELTA) claims to work on English educators’ quality enhancement all the year round with training and outreach programmes supported by the American Embassy or the British Council. More importantly, NELTA organises an international conference every year in Kathmandu 

and in places outside the Valley, bringing in English Language Teaching experts and practitioners from across the country and the globe. The three-day programme is full of presentations and discussion sessions on a host of issues and topics related to English Language Teaching (ELT). The event provides a platform for budding English teachers and educators to present their papers and for participants to learn about the latest in ELT technology. Besides electing a new NELTA leadership for a new term, the conference also discusses pressing policies concerning English language education in Nepal. One marked feature of the event, however, is the negligible presence of students and teachers of English literature. Writer and literary critic Professor Abhi Subedi has made it clear a couple of times at the conferences that he wishes to see more EngLit students at the annual event.

This probably explains the poor condition of English learning at our schools and colleges: the segregation of literature from grammar and linguistics. In the curricula of Tribhuvan University, students pursuing English Literature do not study grammar and linguistics except for a functional paper, while courses in the Education stream do not have papers in English literature except of literature-teaching.

In this scenario, there is often a lack of appreciation by one category of students of their colleagues on the other side of the fence. English literature students often criticise their Education counterparts as being “shallow”, “hollow” and “superficial”, knowing a lot about “how” but little about “what”. Similarly, many literature learners are thought of by the other group as being unable to write plainly correct English, often choosing to use jargon when simple words are better served.

Have our professors and curricula designers thought over how good it would be to equip our students with the best of both fields: language and literature? It is also worth considering that there has been tremendous change in the past few years in the way students prepare for their courses. With the internet easily accessible these days, it is not surprising that many students find better teachers on YouTube than in a classroom. Students have access to recitations of poetry online; they no longer have to rely on printed plays. Linguistics students fifteen years ago struggled to pronounce phonetic transcriptions of words and phrases from printed materials. In sharp contrast, online dictionaries these days provide recorded utterances of standard pronunciations.

A country’s education system has to be tailored to suit its national needs. Whatever the situation in other countries where English is used as the first or the second language, the requirements of English instruction are different in Nepal, with English assigned a foreign language status here.

While ELT bigwigs discuss issues related to English language teaching and learning for three days next week, they will hopefully find some time for deliberation on this issue.

There has been a sea change in the motives for education, considering the increasing trend of our youth choosing to study in foreign universities for the past several years and our economy being heavily dependent on labour export for more than a decade.

Some of the school curricula have not been revised for two decades, others for at least one and a half. The old courses remain even after the country has witnessed revolutionary political transformations in the past decade. Is it not time for us to revisit what we are teaching in our classrooms and how we are doing so? If that is done, it is more than likely that educators will find that the dysfunctions in English language teaching are but symptomatic of a larger problem at hand. 

Published: 18-02-2017 08:55

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