Monday, April 5, 2010

THE TRAGEDY OF ENGLISH AS A SECOND / THIRD LANGUAGE

During my junior college years, I had opted for Marathi as my 1st language, with English being compulsory as the second language. It was for the first time that I got to know the manner in which the Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education is creating one batch of students after the other, who can’t use English properly in day-to-day life. I had always thought during school that our English textbooks neither contained thought-provoking lessons nor did they do much for improving our vocabularies. One might say that the ICSE, CBSE and IB board schools cure this problem but the fact is that my family cannot afford those schools. Had our parents not exposed us to the English media at home, I doubt that my siblings and I would have been fluent in English.

While studying Marathi during my two years of college, I was exposed to a wide range of Marathi literature, right from short biographies, essays, poems and travelogues. We had these in school but qualitatively speaking, the one that we studied in college were more serious in nature. I learnt a lot about different social classes of Maharashtra, during different eras. The textbook effectively dealt with myriad range of subjects from the freedom struggle, caste prejudices, superstitions, child marriage, dowry, unrequited love, lives of expatriates, religion and mythology. I regret not having studied the subject seriously back then or having preserved my textbook. Those two years opened me to my own literary heritage, that which I was indifferent to.

However, I cannot say the same for our English lessons. The chapters were barely age-appropriate and did not provoke deep thought. I cannot say that the English textbook served as an introduction to the rich literature of England and North America. It did not do justice to even Indian writers. I don’t even remember one single chapter properly. That students could not have improved their English language skills with the help of those lessons is beyond doubt. It would irritate me to find that the English textbook was far inferior to that of Marathi. Our college had in fact provided us with a supplementary textbook to make up for the mediocre textbook of the Maharashtra board. However, I did not give it much thought back then.

During the first year of B.Sc., I met many people from all over Maharashtra. Almost everybody had pathetic English language skills. The Dr. Balasaheb Sawant Konkan Agriculture University is ware of this problem and has hence integrated an English language course in the first semester. Alas, the textbook prescribed by the University is best suited for 11 year olds. It is not astonishing that most students don’t gain anything substantial from those lessons. In fact, there is a joke on our campuses that agriculture students cannot speak English beyond, “I go, you come”. I admit that it is difficult for students from Marathi medium schools, rural and semi-urban areas to become fluent in English. But this does not imply that Universities and the State Education Boards treat them as intrinsically weak at linguistics and not expect them to cope with larger vocabularies and complex texts. They are not morons. People learn. This defeatist attitude of the staff towards the English language skills of the students leads them to excuse horrible spelling mistakes. Numerous agriculture students shamelessly misspell key terms. For e.g., ‘Alphonso’ becomes ‘Apanso’, ‘buffalo’ becomes ‘bofelow’, ‘porcupine’ becomes ‘pokcurpine’ etc. Even scientific names are goofed up! The misspelled scientific names of plants and animals may make Carlus Linnaeus turn in his grave! That’s inexcusable come what may! If some rare, straight-thinking professor does cut marks, he is accused of being too strict and harsh! That’s the equivalent of accusing a policeman for abuse of power for making a legal arrest.

The lenient approach of the education authorities towards erring students gives no incentives to students to improve their vocabularies, make fewer mistakes and write better. This approach is largely concerned with passing out as many graduates as possible without caring a damn about the quality of education they receive. The idea seems to be that they don’t want someone to be left behind just because they can’t spell properly. However, this has created a crisis of sorts. This deplorable stance towards writing skills seems to have affected every sector and there are IT companies claiming that they’ve had to reject fresh engineers due to poor English language skills.

Our State education boards need to radically revise the current syllabus and teaching methods for English. Attention desperately needs to be paid to all four language skills namely reading, writing, speaking and listening. The boards need to harmonize the English language syllabus to the Common European Reference Framework for Languages. The syllabus and teaching should ensure that students reach the B1 level by class 10, B2 level by class 12 and C1 level at the time of their graduation. The class 11 and 12 English syllabus must include practical life English skills such as teaching students how to write CVs and letters of motivation. These skills constitute an important part of level B2. In my third year of B.Sc., I was clueless about writing a C.V. and a statement of purpose. Since I come from one of the only 1 million Indian households (1.4% of urban Indian households) that have an internet connection, I logged on to the World Wide Web and learnt these things myself. Even my little sister did not know how to write a CV before her placement interview. I made our lives easy by simply getting a Europass CV made for her. Now what is someone who does not have an access to internet or elder siblings or appropriately educated parents to help them out supposed to do? The teachers should be asked to advise their students to watch Star Movies, HBO, Sony Pix and Zee Studio as these channels sub-title their movies. Students can improve their listening and reading skills at the same time. This is infotainment at its best. The education boards and universities can make it compulsory for students to pass CAE Level C1 or CELS Higher or BEC Higher anytime before completing their under-graduate education. The universities can arrange for the British Council to conduct these exams on their campuses. In this manner, there will be no need for an English language course in the Bachelors curriculum and the students will get a certificate from the University of Cambridge stating that they have the C1 level. The certificates of the mentioned exams are valid for life unlike the IELTS and TOEFL scores that are valid for only 2 years from the date of passing.

This issue needs to be addressed at the earliest as for Indians, English is not just a language it is a job-skill. Our country can’t afford deny good employment opportunities to people just because they are not proficient in English. In the meanwhile, I'll get back to completing a Marathi book "Vyakti ani Valli" by P. L. Deshpande. I recently realised that I read English, French and Spanish way better than Marathi. Back to my roots. Now!

4 comments:

Achintya Gupta said...

Good to see you writing again... and a pretty thought provoking post.

I am sure there must be students who would love to learn better English but are not equipped enough due to particular education systems

Chandan Mulherkar said...

Say, Natalia, why don't you write a letter to the M.U., with your suggestion about making the CAE exams compulsory? It's a long shot considering how slow the MU is, but if you reach the right authorities, it should be worth a try.

syeds said...

You reminded me my school days, our school was English medium for just Namesake, i used to try speaking English, but couldn't till i found few friends who speak English fluently, then i realize that language can be only learn by speaking, yes yes....i agree grammar knowledge is also play an important role to speak correct English.

Cv Examples

Thanks..

syeds said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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