We are not high-brow or stark ELT specialists whose discourse goes overhead.

We are practicing teachers, interested to take stock of what we have been doing and what needs to be done in the next few years of a very complex, different 21st century. As I look back, and critically view the developments in English teaching profession, I regret to note that the mental skills of speech and communication, reasoning and analysis, creativity and imagination, intellectual stimulation and challenge, and critical and independent perception have not been advanced: students seem to know more and more about less and less, and cannot communicate with each other. I need not emphasize that the arts of communication or the arts of using the mind are basic to learning, for they are the arts of reading, writing, speaking, listening, figuring. They have a timeless quality, as they are the arts of fostering the critical abilities of students, of their qualities of mind and spirit that will carry them to their lives.

Nevertheless, the changes over the last few years have been so rapid that “it makes a completely different linguistic world to live in,” to quote David Crystal. The internet has already altered all our previous concepts to do with language. In fact, there is also a lingering doubt in view of the realities of IT-dominated developments in the last ten years. Many of us find ourselves, or what we have been doing all these years, irrelevant. I suspect the fast growth of electronic publications, including books, journals, newspapers and magazines, and voice-recognition software, may soon make some of our arts, for example, writing, an ancient art form. While the printed word is facing a grave challenge as a medium of expression, voice chips may soon become indispensable for understanding and responding to verbal instructions and communication. The fast-moving images may replace text as the main form of communication: Books are already being played and viewed and information is visually and verbally communicated. These trends will not stop. As a result, 50 years hence few people would want to read, and fewer still would know how to write, as communication, both factual and expressive, would be through sound and pictures.

To most of us this may appear elitist, but this elitist reality coexists with the sad fact that a larger section of our population is functionally illiterate. English is almost not used in the rural areas just as a large percentage of our educated youths, high school and college graduates, despite their diplomas and degrees, cannot even fill out a simple application form, or write a formal letter. Smart ones among them who have access to computer and laptop increasingly depend on the latest version of Microsoft’s Word programme for checking spelling, syntax, grammar, and even paragraph structure. Yet they fail to write well or express themselves appropriately. Why? I suspect excepting a very small section of the population, the large majority learn English the wrong way. Many of you know well how English is also being taught as a no man’s subject, or as an every man’s subject, or an extra hand’s subject. This is not a positive or happy situation. I am also concerned, as I have always maintained, English learning has to be strengthened at the school level without which there can’t be improvement at college level. Moreover, sensitivity for the language needs to be developed.

When people love language, they will use it well, express their convictions, feelings and thoughts exactly and truly. To quote Charles Haines, “If users of English loved it, loved the feel and the sound of a well-turned phrase, loved fine speech in the mouth as they love the consistency of a good steak;…loved English and took care of it as some people love and care for their cars, ward-robes, coin collections, their health, the problem would not be hard to solve. The thing to do is to induce love. Language use, it must be taught from elementary school to Ph.D. exams, is more a matter of pleasure and beauty than it is of rules and strictures.”

It is with this sensibility for English language and its teaching in various contexts that I thought of a Workshop, or rather, a get-together, with you, pre-secondary and secondary level teachers, to share your actual classroom experiences of teaching English, to pool opinions, and seek remedies within the constraints of your teaching situations.

While I say this, I also keep in mind the ground reality: that is, poor literacy skills, fluency, and even comprehension. We may continue to witness poor communication ability, with limited experiences in writing, speaking and listening, unless, of course, teaching of English as an additional language improves from school level and need for a supporting classroom climate and positive student attitudes towards learning at post-secondary level is recognized. Also, both teachers and students need to be aware of what to do, how to do it, and when and why to do it as part of practicing self-regulation strategies.

The ELT community as also the other stake holders in the country should, therefore, revise and reformulate appropriate strategies and policies, with tolerance and multilingualism at the core, to remain relevant in the coming decades. The objective of looking back is to move forward with a reasoned perspective for taking measures to develop communication abilities and higher discourse competence, with a broadened inter- and cross-disciplinary bases, for learning to understand (rather than memorize) and apply in ones own contexts.

I am aware that there is no universal teaching method or ideal teaching material suited to many contexts of language teaching. Whatever didactic techniques one knows without excluding the behaviouristic drills, and practice and use of mother tongue, where appropriate, are all valid at different points in the teaching process. I stand for an eclectic approach as different methods for different students have always worked and there has not been one best method any time. With our freedom to choose and adopt any notion that serves our teaching ends, with a reasonable degree of historical sense, flexibility and adaptability that allows us to select among a variety of approaches, methods and techniques, we can meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. I see teaching communicatively essentially consisting of an eclectic methodology which incorporates what is valuable in any system or method of teaching and refuses to recognize bad teaching or defective learning. In any educational setting, sensitive and sensible application of continuing evaluation of the chosen practices should be inbuilt.

English has been practised in a social, economic, political, educational and philosophical “hot-house”, to use Peter Strevens’ expression, and the hot-house in India differs in quality from state to state. It is necessary to create an enabling environment – managerial, administrative, institutional, academic, and curricular—to promote not only quality education and effective learning with exposure to lots of natural, meaningful and understandable language but also genuine communication. This means learners should read and listen to live language; they should speak and write it in ways that can be understood by educated speakers everywhere. Moreover, they should eventually be able to produce and comprehend culturally appropriate natural discourse.

At the end of the workshop, having shared with each other what some of you have done and how, we will emerge more enlightened and aware about what more we need to do to succeed in the days ahead. Interaction with colleagues like you should help us envision a possible policy framework required to support Teaching for economically valuable language skills at tertiary and/or professional level.

Thank you.

Profesor R.K.SINGH

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