Saturday, 30 September, 2023

English curriculum orthodoxy and our struggle to be English

English curriculum orthodoxy and our struggle to be English

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What is English? Is it a subject or a language? For most of us, it is a subject – a “classroom” thing. Only a few take it further into the practical spaces beyond the classroom walls. The others are either afraid of it, or have fantasies about it, or simply do not know the purpose of learning a foreign language. In my opinion, these are some of the fundamental reasons why we have failed to make the best use of English for our own sake.


What we have now, in the secondary and higher secondary English syllabi, can enhance our communicative skill, partly through grammar translation method—at least that is what is usually claimed. We have this unnatural expectation from our students that they will learn all the rules by heart and thus have a good command over the use of English. But that is an outright impractical expectation. What I am trying to mean is that it is almost practically impossible to be able to express something only by learning, methodically, “how” to express. Moreover, the rules of application prescribed in a text-book cannot alone be the guidelines for real-life language application because they lack real-life context, and without learning a word, a phrase, a sentence in a context, a student will always consider anything and everything written or spoken in English as words, phrases, sentences and not as something having any beyond-grammar-existence in reality outside the pages. Before we can apply a method to anything as natural and spontaneous as language, we need to have some classical “specimens”, and not just some mere text-book “examples”, for ensuring a simulated English atmosphere where learners can have this impression of going through a natural process of language acquisition and not language learning. I am not here to advocate a complete erosion of grammar or the way we have been taught in the class for a decade or two, but I am simply proposing an English curriculum where there will be, as I have mentioned earlier, some widely read English classics. Because that is only how our students can truly learn about the culture which the language they are attempting to learn has originated from. We already have some idea about the culture of language. Let us have some insight about the language of culture as well.


In both under and post-grad classes in the University I have often faced this difficulty of projecting the stories in front of the eyes of the students.


Unfortunately what are supposed to be the light of this projection (the words) become the barriers, and the texts become some cryptograms for them which they naturally fail to enjoy. There can be multiple reasons for this condition; the first, and one of the most vital reasons in my opinion being- lack of orientation to literature when they were in school and college. In secondary and higher secondary level the English text-book has almost nothing “literary” about it. That is why English comes to the students only as a classroom subject and not as a language used by real people somewhere in the world, and in which many of the greatest literary works were composed. Knowledge of these literary pieces could easily kindle a kind of creative curiosity and it is quite evident that when someone becomes creative, s/he can use language in a better way than the most. Moreover we do some translation of single lines in the classes and in the examinations, whereas the translation of a poem or a short-story could easily take the students closer to the languages they would translate from and into.


The best way to understand something is to translate it because without understanding the text, one cannot translate a single line. I am sure that besides engaging her/himself into activities that require spontaneous participation, in the process of translating a literary piece and delving deeper into the cultural recesses of the text, there is no way a student will not learn the language as well.


The second reason why a student might not enjoy reading a literary piece is this staggering deficiency they have when it comes to reading. Phonetics, phonology and linguistics are tertiary courses, but if someone does not know what does “juncture” mean, how s/he is going to grasp the intonation of a sentence which very importantly renders meaning to it? For this lack of reading skill many of our students are not even familiar with most of the English words. Until the words become some images registered in the mind of the students, they are bound to have difficulty simply recognising them, let alone having a good command over the whole language, forget about understanding a literary piece. But, interestingly, a gradual orientation to literary pieces in their formative years of education could help the students develop this reading skill and not face all these practical problems in the later years.


If NCTB even in the least put some heed to the above plan, we can have a completely different scenario of English in Bangladesh, but at the same time I am well aware of the fact that our schools and colleges have this limitation of not having teachers who are experts both in grammar and literature. The education ministry shares the blame as well because the toppers from a class usually opt for Universities instead of schools and colleges. Therefore our problem will keep reviving in a loop, unless we realise that right now in Bangladesh what requires our maximum attention is primary, secondary and higher-secondary education. English comes as a vital character in the scene. Unless we stop considering it as something exclusively “foreign”, as something exclusively from the ‘outside’, and if we cannot learn to welcome it as a language, as a natural tool for human conducts, we are surely going to fail, again and again, to make the world aware of our presence and we are surely going to complain hysterically about how bad our English is and how unEnglish-like is this our hysteria.


The writer is a Lecturer, Department of English, Varendra University. He maybe reached at:
[email protected]