Wednesday, 24 April, 2024

Alien English Haunts Nepalis

Rishi Ram Paudyal


Living in fear all the time is not psychologically healthy. If there is anything that you tremble with, you got to find out the root cause of fear and deal with it in such a way that you can live without having to fear in the future. However, the ghost of alien English does not seem to stop haunting anytime soon with the government's decision to make all public schools English medium to compete with privately-run institutions. Many people don't realise how traumatic it can be when it comes to learning a foreign language.

Fallacious myth
With the imposing of English as a compulsory subject, teachers and students have no choice but to surrender and suffer. In a country like Nepal where English is hardly spoken out of the classroom, taking exceptions to some non-government institutions and businesses, the constraints of English communications are always present. On top of that, English has been advertised in such a way that it is the synonymous with wealth and prosperity although, in most cases, it is just a fallacious myth. If the knowledge of English language alone would make people wealthy and elite, there would be no poor people in English speaking countries like Britain, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and they would have always strongest economy in the world.
The main investors for English education in Nepal appear to be Britain and America and the main agents are a significant number of English language teaching professors and teachers who are either hired, paid, sponsored, or scholarship given directly or indirectly -- individually or institutional-wise. The other beneficiaries are books publishers that hire high profile ELT professors not only to publish English books and get credibility but also to sell expensive books to the general public through the influence of professors who directly or indirectly ask their college/university students to use books written by themselves only. So there is a huge investment in English by foreign agents for their own strategic policies and there is a huge money-making for ELT professionals and business houses. For the rest: there are only stories, and stories of how students have struggled to learn English and how teachers have faced numerous challenges to teach English.
Recently, I visited a grade seven, eight, nine and ten of a public school to see what problems they had in English and if there was anything I could do to solve in certain areas. As I entered grade eight, an idea struck me to ask students to speak on the topic they would find easy. They all agreed to speak on family. Obviously, the topic couldn't have been difficult for anybody as everybody is born in a family and they all have some history and stories. I asked them to speak for only two minutes on the same. Surprisingly, no one could speak for two minutes. I did this in grade seven, nine and ten also and they couldn't make it either.
Just a week earlier, I interviewed an English teacher who has an M.Phil. degree and teaches both at a school and a college. I just asked him four questions to find out more about current practices of English language teaching and learning. The questions were: a) How good are your students at English? b) What do you think are the problems with your students? c) How do you find out your students' progress? d) To improve your students' English, what do you do?
The teacher was gracious and answered those four questions generously in about two thousand words – divided equally would be five hundred words per question! One of the reasons he perceived why his students were poor in English was the cause of poverty. Due to poor family backgrounds they were not admitted in private schools where English is supposedly better. The second reason he saw was admitting in colleges without any specific aims. Students enrolled in certain educational institutions based on what their friends told them about or what they have heard outside don't yield much when it comes to honing their skills in English proficiency.
While specifically talking about grade eleven and twelve, he blamed the huge gap between the English courses of grade ten and, eleven and twelve. The fourth reason was the crowded classrooms. In the faculty of management in grade 12 there were around 70 students in one class. On the day I was present there, the teacher said around a dozen students were absent.
In such humongous chaotic classes how does he survive as a teacher and what strategies does he employ? How does he motivate students? The teacher said his main tasks are to offer knacks and niches, formats and formulas so that even the weakest students will dare to face the final examination questions. "In a class where the number of students nearly reaches a hundred, going through each student's answer is simply not possible," he says widening his eyes, "I randomly select some students and check their notebooks."

And as for me, I have got to do some exploratory action research why those students mentioned above couldn't speak for just two minutes on a simple topic like family. Do you teach English? If you do, go and do some research. Spend more time and money. Don't delay – there is chaos and tension created by English. And believe me, there will be more in the future. More and more!

(Paudyal is a freelance writer and life member of Nepal English Language Association)