Print Edition - 2017-11-12  |  Free the Words

NELTA and English dharma

  • English almost assumed the avatar of dharma when it was confined to the classroom and learnt from prescribed textbooks
- ABHI SUBEDI

Nov 12, 2017-A huge regional two-day conference of the Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association (NELTA) began in Dharan with the powerful presidential address written and delivered by a great NELTA champion Motikala Subba Dewan, on November 3, 2017. The aura of the opening can be summed up by one word, ‘auspicious’, because it began by offering flowers and Rukdraksha garlands to all of the guests. Participants included English language experts from the British Council and the American Embassy, among others. In my remarks at the opening, I alluded to the symbolism of Rudraksha or the beads that originated when Lord Shiva shed tears to see the uncanny ways of the world and the breach of faith by characters. Each Rudraksha, which is used to say prayers or mantra, is one teardrop of Shiva, the Himalayan dwelling deity. I am always struck by the combination of the Hindu holy symbolism used in the jumbo Nepali English teachers’ conferences. I had published an essay in this paper (The Kathmandu Post has been a collaborator with NELTA one way or the other) after attending the “holy opening” of the first NELTA building at Maharajgunj-inaugurated with a puja. I wrote: 

“The puja was completed when I reached. The Chairman Hemanta Dahal in puja dress and others in similar attire, liberally using colours and binding holy threads round wrists, greeted me. Among them were Motikala Subba Dewan, Sarita Dewan and Padam Chauhan, the present office bearers, in similar puja attires and festive moods. It was like visiting a household puja. They said proudly, they had a house of their own now for the first time in two decades of NELTA’s existence. A few topi-donning and sari-wearing English or American senior English language experts were eating sweets and exchanging puja pleasantries. I asked myself, was the ‘English’ and puja juxtaposition an anachronism? I said to myself… English and puja do not dole out two different antonymically-oriented semantic configurations” (August 4, 2013). 

Evolving perspectives

The gist is that this regional NELTA conference too had extended the same spirit of non-religiously religious jouissance or pleasure ecstasy in this huge conference. One of the founders of NELTA in 1993 Professor Jayaraj Awasthi said that this conference was the first ever full-fledged Pradesh or regional conference of the federal Nepali republican state. What I want to stress here is that English has always galvanised diverse national energy in Nepal though, as in India, it did not have to play any role of binding the federal state. In each of the NELTA conferences that I attended and addressed, except two or three that I missed, I have found English teachers across their politico-ideological, gender and regional formations working together. Each of these conferences brought together world-renowned English language experts, who gave plenaries. The British Council, who I mainly worked with throughout my career as an English teacher and chairman of the Central Department of English and English language syllabus committees, and also the American Cultural Centre, had long begun to take the task of assisting English Language Teaching (ELT) almost as passé. But with the rise of NELTA in Nepal as alterity, a term used in politico-philosophical lingo as non-hegemonic, the above centres changed their perspectives too. 

In our times, those of us who were trained in Britain and the US in ELT, brought so many different schools of thought, including a communicative method—which in the words of a senior English professor and writer Bishnu Rai, is a waste of time—to teach English language. Each of these methods worked, but none worked, as the proponents of them wished, absolutely. 

Different approaches

I must speak honestly after being a part of, and actor to, the long English teaching practice in Nepal. Through my experience, I have found that each method was important because it brought some storms and helped us tear up the esoteric practice of English language teaching in Nepal that we formed in our classrooms. English almost assumed the avatar of dharma when it was faithfully confined to the classroom and learnt from prescribed textbooks in a limited time. But, as I said in my plenary address at the regional Sunsari NELTA conference, English teaching practice became a part of the university and educational structural texture, a semi-esoteric structuralism, in the whole of South Asia. I have no space here to discuss that at length. But I want to advise researchers to read the PhD dissertation of Tapasi Bhattacharya of the Institute of Education, now a retired university English professor, who worked under my tutelage for the degree, to get a picture of how English came and made its way into the English classrooms right from the time of prime minister Jung Bahadur Rana who developed great love for the language after his visit to Britain in 1850. English as an ELT skill, has a fairly later origin, but a productive one.  

An interactive panel discussion organised by the seminar focused on the productive subject of whether students should be allowed to speak only English within their schools or colleges, and some very useful insights were articulated. I am always against the idea of making it compulsory for students to speak only English. This, as Maya Rai, the former regional educational director and my erstwhile brilliant student, said was a great educational and psychological fallacy. She called upon teachers to let the students speak and lift the embargo of “only English speech” on the educational premises. She said, as I am also always stressing, if you do not let the students speak in any language they can speak, you are hampering the language learning process, whether the language is English or the students’ own language. I think that creates a sense of alterity, the alienated other, among the students, and they, by the same token, lose the power of using language creatively. 

I conclude by repeating what I said in my paper at a conference organised by Ramkrishna Mission College English Department, Kolkata on February 17, 2012 about alterity, “That monolithic state of political and state structure that is going through a process of rupture today speaks eloquently about ‘they’ and ‘us’ binary or alterity in terms of the use of English language teaching in Nepal”.

Published: 12-11-2017 08:03

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