‘English’ zones in Nepali schoolsSuch zones demoralise students, dangerously suppressing their creative enthusiasm in inventing ideas in language
Debates triggered by education in Nepal today open up multiple issues. But with them, they also invite greater chaos and uncertainties. Fields covered by education are multiple, like humanities, business studies, medicine, communication studies, rural studies, social sciences of various genres and modes. But at the bottom of this debate is the question of profit that is looming larger than efficacy and need. To cut the subject to a manageable size for a column piece, I want to focus on language teaching, not least the teaching of English in Nepal. But some links should be established.
The subject of profiting, even profiteering, in medical education hits the country where the facilities needed for that are few and far between. Tremors measuring high on the political Richter scale hit medical education time and again. The epicentre of the last quake was a cold hall in remote Jumla where Dr Govinda KC launched satyagrapha for medical educational reform. But other areas do not figure up so much in studies and debate. Nonetheless what we can figure out from these new shifts in educational initiatives as indicated above is that though the educational sphere is expanding at an unprecedented scale, it is not growing to meet sincere educational goals.
People invest where quick buck comes without much painstaking effort. People open schools, institutions, training centres, medical colleges and new-fangled educational trainings with the same motive. This is the result of the established concept that though education is not free for all, its management and initiatives are. Those who are reading the anxieties and views of educationists like Mana Prasad Wagle and a few others, for example, it is not difficult to understand this problem.
As an English teacher, I am interested in English teaching problems in Nepal, not least in the schools. Though I have mainly taught at the tertiary levels, like other colleagues, I have become involved in various activities including curricular, pedagogic and policy-making processes. After teaching over 46 years, you find that
your students are teaching everywhere and are introducing new methods of teaching English. But what they essentially cannot handle is the investment issues, the entrepreneurship in educational institutions involving English language teaching that has become a saleable candidate in such institutions.
It has always been so in Nepali, and I guess Indian, educational systems as part of the legacy of the British rule in the subcontinent. English language has always occupied the main space in the overall educational curricula. The sociolinguistic variables are many.
That English language teaching has occupied a position of prestige does not worry me as a teacher, but what has begun to worry me deeply is that English language pedagogy is being misused to stigmatise other language medium users in schools. At the Nepal English Language Teachers Association conferences where I was invited to speak a few times, I addressed this subject surfacing in discussions among teachers and curriculum users.
The worst-case scenario is that students who do not speak English in schools, in activities, are expelled from the class as part of punishment. They are given some kind of psychological pressure for not acquiring English proficiency. I observed in some places, however, and found that the so-called English language proficiency itself is a misnomer in such schools. Students who are required to speak English, and in a number of cases, the teachers also, do not speak what may be recognised as ‘English’.
I have always taken pragmatic attitude towards English teaching methodology in Nepal. If you can manage, teach the stress and intonation system properly because English is a stressed-time language. Tell students about the use of retroflex consonants that do not exist in the native English speakers’ sound system, and encourage them to use them anyway. Show the difference between the Nepali bilabial and the English labio-dental consonants. That is absolutely fine. If some, if not allstudents can manage, so much the better. But if the students use the subcontinental or our usual way of speaking English without intonational modulations, that should be accepted if the speech makes sense. A typical Nepali pronunciation of English too would be fine under the same condition.
Making fun of a minister’s pronunciation of English does not make much sense. We do not pronounce English the way it is pronounced by the native speakers of English. But who is the native speaker of English? It is a subject of discussion these days. The late Braj B Kachru and his scholar wife Yamuna Kachru have made important breakthroughs in this direction.
To repeat my own experience, I was amazed to hear young people who came to my lecture on Ekai Kawaguchi at Tokyo University during 1997-98, glibly switching code from English to Japanese and vice-versa. That is how they had learned to communicate in English at school, I discovered. There is absolutely no problem if Nepali students do the same in the English class. The usual practice of creating only English zones in schools is a wrong practice. That will demoralise the students, dangerously suppressing their creative enthusiasm in inventing ideas in language.
I have been repeating this in writings and seminars and making appeal to my students who teach English, and their students, to be more pragmatic and sensitive about this matter. I have been quite successful in this practice of allowing students to switch codes as long as they communicate. My experience says, we learn and teach English in contact zones, in which, students meet English through their native tongues and they themselves decide how to be productive in that zone according to the needs.
Those who create exclusive zones by selling ‘English only’ slogans do so to charge high fees in the name of that cliché. In earlier times we used to see the signboards “yahaan Darjeelingka teacher dwara angreji sikaincha” or ‘English is taught here by teachers of Darjeeling’. That gimmick was used to sell the name of the school. The quality was suspect. Today, English teachers should not encourage the unfair practice of using English teaching as a business gimmick and creating stigmas in its name. My advice would be, create contact zones, not exclusive zones in schools to teach English.