Is English India’s first or second language? For a minority of Indians who have had the good fortune to be educated in the country’s 11,000-plus elite CISCE and CBSE English medium schools it is, clearly, the first language. For the rest of the population, including children who attend state board affiliated vernacular and so-called English medium schools, the status of English is ambiguous. I say ‘so-called’, because most of these schools are only nominally English medium institutions. Their lingua franca is the local language, or the mother tongue.
In vernacular and nominally English medium schools, besides having to cope with learning English in English classes, children struggle with the language while studying other subjects as well. This is a traumatic experience for most of them. Vernacular school children suffer more because complete unfamiliarity with the language apart, the pedagogies used to teach English do not train them to speak the language. They learn English by rote as they do maths or science.
Contrary to the assertions of language chauvinists and parochial politicians, parents from all economic strata want their children to learn English. There’s wide-spread awareness that learning this universal language will make ladies/gentlemen of their children, and they will have the opportunity to enter the professions in India, and perhaps even study and work abroad.
And so, what’s wrong with English teaching in Indian primary and secondary institutions? To my mind, first of all, a conducive environment has to be created. Children learn from their environ-ments. Unless they hear good, correct English, they will never learn it. Since English is not organic to Indian soil, it will take years before they understand its finer nuances, but meanwhile they can learn it well.
That’s where the catch is — our teachers. Besides acquiring high level of proficiency in the language, teachers of English should master the various ways of teaching it. There is a responsibility here, because when we teach a language, we are also giving children tools for thinking. Next, English has to be taught scientifically, as a foreign language. Though the stress is on spoken or communicative English, teaching grammar is critical, if children are to write correctly.
The language teaching principles advanced by Erasmus and Comenius still hold good. We need to tweak them to our situation. Children have to first understand the content and then master linguistic nuances. Therefore it is imperative that teachers of English are bilingual, so they can use the vernacular to explain a point. Moreover, for children to understand words, visuals should be used to connect every word with an article or action. To this end, playing word games and group inter-action makes English learning fun, and grammar and vocabulary evolve from such activities, which triggers the motivation for further learning.
Ideally written English should be introduced from class I onwards. Care should be taken to teach children the print form of writing (an adaptation of the Marion Richardson writing system), followed by cursive writing of letters of the alphabet from class II. Here again, practice is the key. Teaching children to express themselves in short, simple sentences comes next, and as they grow circa class VI onwards, children should be encouraged to speak publicly say, at the morning assembly or in class before the daily routine begins. This takes only a few minutes, but works wonders. This progression works particularly well for children who learn English as a second language, as well as in the junior classes of English medium schools. Since many examination boards give ample freedom to schools to design their own curriculum from K-VIII, teachers can create English programmes that stretch students. In elementary schools, only those books whose content (i.e names of people and places, flora and fauna, local festivals) children can identify with, should be used.
Reading — beyond the curriculum — aloud, and in the mind, is critical for developing comprehension and good expression. Here’s where school librarians can play their role, by encouraging children to read all types of books. When teachers encourage and challenge students, they will rise to it.
Listening to good English from native speakers can now be introduced. Once a week, children in classes IV-VIII should listen to recordings of English drama, poetry and stories, which should be followed by practice drills to develop vocabulary, syntax and pronunciation. If through these methods children can slowly start thinking in English, or even translating their thoughts into English, teachers will have achieved something wonderful.
For English language teachers, exposing children to the beauty and majesty of English literature should be an enduring commitment. Children’s versions of the classics are available in print and audio-visual mediums. Moreover taking children to watch meaningful films in English can be a highly effective teaching/learning experience.
(Elizabeth Gupta is a former teacher with 25 years of experience in India and abroad)