Sunday, 28 November, 2021

English in Bengali and English Medium Schools

Masum Billah

English in Bengali and English Medium Schools
Masum Billah

We have been in debate since we achieved independence whether we should learn English or not. If we learn from which grade should we start? Some other questions are: who, how, and where will we learn? Instead of finding out a sound solution, we still have been debating over these questions. And the outcome surfaces well before us. We inherited English as a second language as a historical cause. However, we could not have put it on a strong base and could not have used it successfully for serving our real purpose. We hardly have any debate over this issue. We forget that nowadays English is not a language only; it is not an academic subject. It has become an integral part of the global culture and globalisation is one of the most important phenomena that we will need to survive. In this connection, we cannot afford to ignore English in any way, though some people raise arguments against it citing the examples of China, Japan and Russia, where English is not taught. Still, those nations are advancing. I want to draw their attention to that we are not China, Japan and Russia who are almost independent in many aspects that we are not and it is not true that English is not taught in those countries. English is taught in those countries though it may not be exactly the same way we do.

A fact surfaces clearly that we have a dearth of teachers to teach English effectively. Most teachers think teaching English means changing voice, learning the definition of different grammatical items and changing narration and simple, complex and compound sentences. This practice and tradition have not changed even though many efforts have been made. Practicing grammar in an isolated way does not promise to form or increase the linguistic proficiency of the learners. We need not go far to see its proof. Our graduates cannot use English for practical purposes even though they had to study it till intermediate class. Grammar has to be taught contextually and language skills have to be developed through repeated language practice not by teaching or learning some grammatical rules in isolated ways. Our assessment for English and selection of teachers are also made based on their grammatical knowledge, not on the language skills they have acquired. When will it change and how to change remains uncertain and unresolved till today. One teacher wrote on his Facebook wall “Almost all the stages only ‘Traffic jam, Load-shedding and Tree plantation paragraph and easy are common. These items seem rather difficult but students memorise them from notebooks or some known sources. However, to test students’ linguistic ability, easier and more known topics can be set in the examination but very craftily it is not being done.” He continued “The items of grammar such as tense, voice and article have been taught year after year. Is it necessary? Students are taught the Bengali meaning of English words, the rules of ‘preposition’ and different kinds of verbs are taught. All this stands in the way of real barrier to develop the real communicative ability of the learners.”

Our public universities usually offer degrees in English literature. Of course, some universities have both language and literature streams and private universities mostly give language certificates. And language stream dominates in some private universities. Our observation and experience say that graduates coming out of private universities hardly take teaching as a profession at the primary or secondary level, where English stands as a prime subject. Unfortunately, our learners of these two levels have been deprived of meeting qualified teachers, particularly to teach this language effectively. Even though some graduates of the English department of private universities take teaching usually, they start doing it in English Medium Schools. All the private universities, however, cannot produce graduates with sound knowledge of English language. One student of the English department of a private university outside of Dhaka says, “One of our English teachers teaches us English absolutely in Bengali. He studied at the same university where I do. Another teacher passed from public university gives us lectures only following his notes written in his diary and he does not go beyond it. I feel bored. I will rather try to go to Dhaka and get enrolled in another private university.” More students who study in government university colleges under National University have a more frustrating experience. Some of them say, “Our English teachers have passed the BCS examination but they teach us English absolutely in Bengali. They do not even speak a full sentence in English. How can we acquire speaking skills that is significantly important?” It reflects the actual situation of English teaching-learning in the English honours class, let alone other classes. Whatever subject or discipline our students study in, their communicative skill in English is a must in this globalised village that we have ignored for a long. 

A different culture of practicing English has developed in the English Medium Schools. Cambridge, EdExel, IB curriculums are followed in English Medium Schools and curriculum and assessment system of the global standard are practiced here. Every country follows its own curriculum that reflects its culture, history and practices. If we cannot keep pace with the global standard, we will be segregated and separated from the pace of globalisation. If our curriculum does not promise to be aligned with globalisation process, we have ample reason to think of it and embark on this debate.

We must consider the fact that how many graduates our small country can employ in its job sectors. Many graduates go abroad to earn bread and butter. They seek their fortune outside the country that calls for a standard global language for survival and the flourishment of their career. It, of course, contributes to the economy of the country. In Bengali medium schools, practicing creativity and analytical skills have become rare. Putting common questions in the examination and memorising answers to those questions are the main concern there. The practice is not helpful to enhance linguistic ability and creativity. But, we must help students to upgrade their skills, even if they study in Bengali medium schools. Having common questions and memorising specific items from guide books are not encouraged in English medium education. In these schools, the assessment system is also creative and, consequently, the students acquire ‘speaking skills’ as a by-product.

Our policy hardly sees a well-defined position of English medium schools that contributes to developing a group of students equipped with creative education and communicative English to face the challenges of the century. English Medium School launched its journey in our country with the establishment of Green Herald International School in 1912. At present, the number of English Medium Schools has increased, but the exact number is not available that primarily tells our negligence towards this medium of education. One source says that we have 115 English Medium Schools, another one says it is 145 while the Board says 159 and it is learnt from English Medium School Association that it is more than four hundred. We think a particular cell needs to be developed in the ministry of education to look after the English Medium Schools. We do not want excessive control over these schools as it may harm the free flow of schools, but soft and sound control can give this medium a good shape.

Several lac English teachers are engaged in teaching English to the students at primary and secondary levels, and these two levels are the base to put students into a good foundation of English. How they receive English teaching remains a big concern as students miserably fail to show their competency in English either in writing or speaking English. And not an iota of change has taken place, though a huge number of training sessions and programmes have been going on in the country under different government projects and in the non-government sectors as well.  However, a good piece of news lurks before us that the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education has taken a laudable step to train the primary school English teachers under a MoU developed between the ministry and British Council. It is appreciated that currently, teachers have been receiving a TMTE (Training of Master Trainers of English) training under global English experts.


The writer is the President of English Teachers’ Association of Bangladesh (ETAB) and an

education expert in BRAC Education