H. M. Patel Memorial Lecture on 27 August 2018
Dr Dharmendra Sheth
Founder, Fluentlingua, Surat
Becoming an effective English Language Teaching (ELT) Professional in Gujarat.
If one keeps the international scene in mind, the knowledge of English is inevitable for intellectual growth and technological development. Along with the increasing use of regional language, a sound study of English needs to be encouraged as an instrument of acquiring knowledge.
—Dr. H. M. Patel
I feel privileged to have been asked to deliver the H. M. Patel Memorial Lecture. For this honour, I must thank the organisers of this event in general and the Principal of H. M. Patel Institute of English Training & Research, Dr. N. V. Bose, in particular. I consider it my privilege and duty to invoke the name of Dr. H. M. Patel, a senior ICS officer, whose visionary guidance led to the inception of this Institute 53 years ago in 1965, three years before I was born.
Well, I have fond memories of this Institute and of working in close association with ELT stalwarts like the late Dr Subhash Jain, and my well-wisher Dr Jadeja, the previous Director of this institute. I have had excellent discussions with them about the stimulating intricacies of the English language and the overwhelming complexities of English Language Teaching in Gujarat. Let me also put on record the guidance and support that I have got from my mentors Dr Sudhakar Marathé and Mrs Meera Marathé.
By the way, let me clarify at the outset that I make no claim to be an ELT expert. I am just a teacher of English with perhaps a slightly better-than-average ability to do a “sensitivity analysis”, if I may use a technical term from my engineering background: a sensitivity analysis determines how different values of an independent variable affect a particular dependent variable under a given set of assumptions. Nor is my lecture today for the experts sitting on and off the dais. My target audience today is the young ELT soldiers in the audience, the would-be teachers of English. I intend to shed light on salient features of the current state of affairs in ELT and suggest a road ahead.
And I must also make an important proviso at the outset: given that we have a limited amount of time at our disposal to deal with a subject that genuinely deserves a whole long series of lectures, my lecture today will naturally present a brief description of the reality of ELT in our State.
Now, first things first. What is the current state of affairs in terms of ELT in Gujarat? Let us face it, something is “rotten in the state of Denmark”—at least in ELT and in Gujarat. How can you say something is “rotten” in our ELT?
- Well, first of all, I have more than two and a half decades of classroom teaching experience—from the elementary to the tertiary level. So I can say that I know the field a little.
- Second, during my six-year stint as a National Vice President of the English Language Teachers’ Association of India (ELT@I), I had opportunities to visit the length and breadth of our country, not just our State, and discuss ELT situations with teachers across the board.
- Third, my personal contact with ELT so-called as well as genuine experts in India and abroad has put me in a position to analyse our situation reasonably objectively.
Now, sadly, my analysis does not allow me to say, as the poet Robert Browning did in his characteristic ironical fashion, “All’s right with the world!” We’ve got to face facts here—we cannot just bury our heads in the sand. We must admit that there is a malaise or disease in ELT in Gujarat.
Now, to cure a disease, one must first diagnose it. So let us begin with the erroneous and injudicious interpretation of the Indian government’s “Minimum Levels of Learning (MLL) Strategy”. The MLL emerged from the basic concern that irrespective of caste, creed, location or gender, every child must be given access to education. Alas, this noble attempt resulted, by and large, in inferior quality of study material and teaching practice and in lowering or weakening of standards in various areas of education—the situation of ELT in Gujarat is no exception. “Teach the minimum… expect the minimum…” became the unwritten mantra. Status quo or “I’m Ok, You’re Ok”. But believe me, virtually nothing is “okay” in our domain.
To give you a reasonably clear picture of the current ELT situation in Gujarat, please allow me to discuss the three M’s in this situation—the Material, the Method and the Man, the three pillars of any academic enterprise.
Let us begin with the first item in the list the Material. Under the term “the Material”, we will restrict our discussion to the English language textbooks currently in use in Gujarat. I am sure you will agree with me that textbooks play a pivotal role in the grand scheme of things. Teachers who are supposed to use the material are expected to follow the instructions contained in their prescribed textbooks. Students are supposed to learn as much language content as possible from them. Everything revolves around textbooks—be it classroom teaching, homework and projects, internal assessment and periodic and end-of-the-year examinations. Now, given that textbooks are the core factor in ELT, textbooks are important in our system—there can be no two opinions about it. But, alas and alack, any teacher worth his or her salt will agree with me that most textbooks are not only unimaginative and boring, but also contain unforgivable errors of every kind imaginable—spelling errors, improper use of punctuation marks, un-English expressions, grammatically questionable sentences, unattractive layout, inconsistent use of capitalisation, notable lack of internal logic and consistency, and so on.
A couple of years ago, I was asked to conduct a teacher training programme for a group of about fifty teachers of English. I chose two pages of their book at random and showed them more than twenty serious language problems in that small quantity of material. Honestly, we simply cannot sweep these facts under the carpet.
I can say a great deal more about other substandard or questionable “material” that teachers use. For instance, local grammar books, reference works, exercise books, additional materials teachers take into class, material the teacher creates or gathers to bolster the lesson and testing material. The list is endless.
I am presenting these basic and crucial facts before you:
- because I want you to feel the pain that I, and many others like me, feel.
- because I want you to look closely at the language of any material that you come across, and not take any material as gospel.
- because I want you to check it out, when in doubt. However, make sure that you use standard reference material produced by internationally reputed publishers.
- because you, dear young ELT soldiers, are our hope!
- And most importantly… because you and I are now here at an institute which has the power and prestige as well as responsibility to bring about a significant and real improvement in the ELT situation in Gujarat.
Let us turn now to the second “M”, i.e., the “Method”. By the way, I have used the word method in the title in the loose sense of the term. I will explain the term in a little more detail by and by.
Let me present here part of a conversation which I once had with a “veteran” teacher of English.
Me: What do you teach?
Him: I teach English since decades. (Two serious problems with this short glib sentence that is actually gibberish: the teacher said “teach” in place of “have been teaching”, and he says “since” in place of “for”. Besides, in uttering the word “English”, he used the sound “s” that we are expected to use in the word “same”, and not “sh” as in the word “shame”. We shall consider this problem again later.)
Me: What approach do you follow? What method do you use? (He looked at me as if I was an alien creature from outer space.)
Him: I… hmmm… English. Pair work and group work.
Me: How do you prepare for your work? What material do you use?
Him: Textbooks. I am having lot of experience… you see! (Two serious problems again—the teacher said “am having” in place of “have”, and “lot of” in place of “a lot of” or “lots of”. He perhaps wanted to convey that since he has a lot of experience, he doesn’t need to prepare.)
Me: How do you ensure that your students learn what you teach?
Him: We are having three unit tests a year. (The same problem as discussed above: “are having”. And what he said didn’t really answer my question.)
In fact, I asked a few more questions about the goals, the model, the views about language and language learning, the syllabus design, etc. He did not have satisfactory answers to most. This suggests that many teachers of English in Gujarat are not sure of what they are doing. They do not possess enough content knowledge and pedagogical skills. Obviously, they will not be in a position to identify what needs to be taught and the best way to do so.
It is important for teachers to be familiar with the approaches, methods and techniques in ELT. What do these terms refer to? Well, in simple words, an approach is a set of theories about the nature of language and language learning; a method is an overall plan for what is to be taught and in what order; a technique is what actually happens in a classroom. In this oft-quoted hierarchical arrangement, proposed by the American applied linguist Edward Anthony in 1963, method and techniques are based on the approach chosen at the outset.
Now I believe you know that in Gujarat, textbooks suggest a modified communicative approach or a functional approach. In other words, the goal of our teaching of English is to improve our students’ “communicative competence” (the tacit knowledge of a language and the ability to use it effectively), and not just their “linguistic competence” (the knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, phonology, etc.). Now, that’s a demanding task, is a pretty tall order, I must say.
Because you as a teacher of English are supposed to teach your students how to:
- use English for a range of purposes and functions,
- understand and use formality associated with various words and structures,
- modify the language according to participants, context, purpose, i.e., who is communicating with whom, where, when and why.
- deal with different types of texts
- develop cross cultural communication
- acquire ESL strategies so as to initiate, terminate, maintain, repair, and redirect communication
- negotiate meaning
- work collaboratively for successful communication
- learn from feedback, overt and tacit
- experiment different ways of saying
In a nutshell, students need to acquire natural, versatile and rich use of language that is appropriate to particular situations and audiences.
The socio-linguist Dell Hymes (1973) has succinctly presented his views on communicative competence. Taking a cue from that, we need to enable our students to know what in the target language is:
- possible (X Me is teacher),
- feasible (X I bought a dictionary from a shop that is run by a man whose son is a clerk in a factory whose owner is married to a person who cannot speak English.)
- appropriate (X calling your principal “Hi” or “Hello Darling”), and,
- “in use” (X Chips and fish).
What should ideally happen? First of all, you should carry out a thorough needs analysis, and then design syllabuses around functions and notions rather than grammatical structures. In place of memorisation, drills, and individualistic activities, you should plan role plays, pair work, group work, etc. You should focus on fluency activities rather than accuracy activities. You should keep in mind that your role is that of a facilitator. It is important that you and your students work “in” the target language and not just “on” it. You should develop activities such as problem solving, information gap/sharing, and task-based so as to generate meaningful interaction among you and your students. You need to encourage your students to apply newly acquired knowledge and skills to real-life situations. You should insist on using authentic texts for classroom study and self study.
Let’s move on to the third “M”, i.e., the “Man”, the teacher. We must accept the fact that even in this age of technological advancement and the Internet, the teacher’s role hasn’t changed much; be it in Gujarat or elsewhere. Everything that the teacher does or says in the classroom has a significant and measurable impact on the student. The teacher is supposed to provide the student with the most important “input” for language development. Students often copy whatever their teacher says or does, right or wrong. Therefore, “teacher talk” is at times far more important than anything else in language learning. It’s obvious that if you want to become an effective ELT professional, you ought to have a rich, flexible and varied command of English. Any survey, even an informal one, will suffice to prove that, in Gujarat, most teachers’ command of English isn’t up to the mark. It leaves a lot to be desired.
Now if you have decided to become a teacher or an effective ELT professional, what should you do first?
Stop listening to people who say:
- Grammar is not important
- Pronunciation is not important.
- Just a few hundred words are enough to communicate in English.
- Focus on fluency only and not on accuracy.
- Everything is fine as long as your message is conveyed.
Well, ignore them. They know not what they say.
You must make an effort to acquire an impressively good command of English. Become a spontaneous, fluent, and effective communicator in English. Your goal should be impeccable English. I know it seems like an unachievable goal or an unending journey, but it’s worth taking up. You might say: Fine, but what should I actually do?
First of all, decide what kind of English you want to acquire, i.e., the type of English pronunciation you (and your students) should aim for. Language is primarily speech! To my mind, it is useful to adopt one of the two easily accessible varieties of English—one, Received Pronunciation, RP, the kind of English generally used by the educated elite in the southern part of England. It is loosely termed King’s English or Queen’s English or old BBC English. It is the accent used as a recommended pronunciation in dictionaries, and as a model for teaching English as a foreign language in many parts of the world. And, two, General American, GA or Gen Am, which is spoken by a majority of Americans and which lacks any clearly noticeable regional or social characteristics.
Why not Indian English? You might ask. Unfortunately, in spite of India being the world’s second largest English-speaking country after the United States, we don’t have a standard or neutral variety of Indian English that can be adopted as a model for Indian learners of English. We have many varieties of Indian English each with distinct regional influence. Sometimes parts of two varieties of Indian English are mutually incomprehensible. Another point worth noting is that whatever you say in favour of local varieties of English, when it comes to job interviews or promotion, a person speaking English close to one of the two standard varieties I mentioned above (RP and GA) has greater chances of success.
Now once you have decided the kind of English you want to acquire, the next step is to find relevant material and opportunities work on your English. Remember, we can’t neglect any aspect of English; work on all the seven areas language experts suggest—Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing, Vocabulary, Grammar and Pronunciation. Also, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can master English by talking with people around you and reading locally produced books. You might reinforce common errors in English prevalent in the region.
First of all, you need to become a better learner of English. “How?” you might ask.
Well, you become a better learner by
- exposing yourself to good English on a regular basis. Enjoy and pursue vigorously, substantially, every day for as long as possible, the activity of reading excellent English of a great variety. Remember, no one can learn a language without meeting it, without being exposed to it. The most fruitful way to expose oneself to good and authentic language is to read it and to listen to it. The more you do this, the better, richer, more versatile your language will be. Fail in this one regard, fail to read and listen to good language as often as you can, and your opportunities to learn more language or consolidate what you know will practically vanish!
- becoming a reflective learner. You need to spend time at regular intervals and frequently evaluating your own language development. Which exercises or activities have you done recently and how have you done them and what have you achieved?
- exploring the nuances of the English language. A nuance is a small but sometimes significant difference in sound, spelling or meaning , especially in meaning. It is important to realize that, like all languages, English too gives innumerable opportunities because of its apparent illogicality and idiosyncrasies. For instance, as an example of a small difference in sound, the words “same” and “shame” are not the same; “fit” and “feet” are different; “appropriate” and “inappropriate” are actually antonyms, but the senses of “flammable” and “inflammable” are the same; the word “`subject” is a noun if stressed on the first syllable, and a verb if stressed on the second syllable, as “sub`ject”; “practise” (v) and “practice” (n) are spoken in the same way but spelt differently, but “advise” (verb) and “advice” (noun) contain different sounds in the second syllable.
- developing powers of observation. For instance, a learner with good powers of observation may “see” different kinds of clouds and find out words for each kind: a) cirrus, a type of light, feathery cloud that is seen high in the sky, b) cumulus, a type of tall, white cloud with a wide, flat base and rounded shape, c) nimbus, dark grey cloud that often produces rain or snow.
- becoming an alert listener and reader. For instance, when you read or listen to an advertisement, a hoarding, an announcement, a news item, or anything for that matter, keenly notice the language. Is there anything unusual, unfamiliar, odd or strange? Is it acceptable in standard English? Is it a slip or a deliberate mistake or even a useful new expression?
- honing and augmenting your repertoire of study patterns and techniques. For instance, if you do not record your progress, start doing so. If you regularly record your speech, try to find ways to do it more effectively, or better. If you maintain a vocabulary diary, think about how you can make it more fruitful.
- becoming careful in the use of apt words. For instance, a person who reads a lot is a “voracious” reader and a person who writes a lot is a “prolific” writer. If you want to describe someone’s extremely poor condition in life, you might say that they live in “great” or “abject” poverty.
- learning to make informed decisions. For instance, if someone asks you right now: what is the best way for you to remember words? Now, most people would guess at it. A better alternative would be to carry out small-scale projects on ways of learning and organising vocabulary and then make informed decisions based on the results.
- acquiring reference skills. For instance, how to use a dictionary is still a very serious challenge for many. In fact, I remember once Mrs. Meera Marathé, an ELT expert of repute from IIIT, Hyderabad, conducted a two-hour workshop on how to use a dictionary. It was an eye-opener for even senior teachers of English. As a language learner, you will need to know what material or helpful source of information to look for and how to use it. I sympathise with those who think that Google has all the answers. Yet that is as silly as hoping to learn grammar using the MS Word software.
- developing a culture of learning. Just as every country, every community, every recognisable group of people has a culture, every individual also has a culture of learning. Here what I mean by culture is the sum total of one’s assumptions, opinions, ideas, patterns of behaviour, study patterns, etc. Learn to study your own culture of learning critically.
- enjoying the idiomatic richness or riches of the English language. Idiom is language in crystallised form—that is to say, words often linked or used together to convey something. Idioms, which means idiomatic expressions, not only those listed in a dictionary of idioms, are one of the most interesting parts of a language. However, it is often difficult to guess at their meaning from the constituent words. For instance, “full of beans” means “lively and energetic”, and “be on cloud nine” means “be extremely happy and excited”. Almost always the context in which they are used holds clues to their sense. That is why you need to study them carefully and use or employ them systematically. Here are a few other examples of idiomatic usage: ”Would you like some tea?” “Not really, thank you”, “No, thank you very much”, “Yes, just a little, please”, and so on.
- asking genuine questions that occur to you. They often turn out to be interesting and rewarding. For instance, it is not always possible or even useful to ask someone for the spelling, meaning or pronunciation of a word. These are things you can find out on your own from authentic study material. And, believe me, most people, including teachers, are never really sure about such things. You can try asking them the pronunciation of “bury”, “police”, or “dais”. Or the spelling of “vacuum”, “foolscap” or “tuition”. Or the meaning of “simpleton’ or “inflammable” or “precocious”.)
- keeping abreast of the latest developments in your field. It is vitally important to maintain your professional credentials. Attend seminars, conferences, workshops, or explore other such learning opportunities. Read professional journals and magazines. Be in touch with like-minded learners and professionals.
- learning from mistakes, one’s own and others’. That means noticing, identifying, understanding and correcting mistakes one comes across. Here is an instance. A Spanish photographer who took portraits of 118 African refugees on a rescue ship on the Mediterranean, was asked if he had found any of them later. “Yes,” he said, “I have localised a few.” His sense is clear, his language is not. What exactly is his “error”? He meant to say “located”. This is a rich method of learning and improving one’s language, my “mentor” Professor Sudhakar Marathé reminds me. Errors are a Gold Mine!
- Setting oneself little language tasks. It makes a refreshing change to set oneself tasks containing language items—arising from reading, errors heard or seen, oddities encountered and even very good expressions encountered—to understand them, to correct them, to acquire them, to learn how to say them correctly, appropriately, and how to make them part of one’s own language richness.
- Trying to find alternative ways of saying the same thing. My mentor Dr Marathé suggests an extraordinarily useful exercise, especially when done with short sentences (say half a line to one and a half line long) that one meets. To try to reorder their sequence of words, with a small change or two, to arrive at alternative ways of saying (more or less) the same thing.
- relishing or enjoying learning. The result of your effort is directly proportional to the amount of joy you get out of it. Celebrate every small success. Enjoy every failure or puzzlement (what my most respected mentor Professor Sudhakar Marathé calls “two-minute puzzles”.) Form a group of learners or be a part of a learners’ community. Help each other, motivate each other by sharing discoveries with each other. Enjoy the progress.
In addition to an excellent command of English, you must do your best to acquire “pedagogical competence”, the ability to manage learning, which includes planning, implementing, assessing, evaluating, giving feedback, managing classroom, and motivating learners. With a good command of the English language and excellent pedagogical competence, you are ready to embark on a glittering career as an ELT professional in Gujarat.
I wish you every success in the future.
Happy Learning, Happy Teaching, Happy Living!
27 August 2018