It has been reported that this year about 80,000 Class X students in Punjab had failed the English language board examination. That number should be worrying but not really surprising when teaching of English does not appear to be in the right hands in the state. We can also not ignore that there is a political constituency almost in every part of India that delights in denigrating English as a 'colonial' language and, in fact, discourages its learning.
The irony is that the leaders who do their politics by running down English prefer to send their wards to the so-called 'English-medium' schools and then to a university in the UK or the US. They know that English is the lingua franca of the world, the language of world trade, commerce, politics and research. This is not to say that other languages, including Indians languages, are poorly endowed.
The tendency to pitch English against Hindi or any other Indian language is not only unnecessary and irrelevant but is to be condemned. The artificial 'language war' in India, however, cannot take away the fact that the supremacy of English in today's world is undisputed.
It is also not in dispute that the standards of teaching English in India, not just Punjab, are dismal as a result of which the English language skills of most students who study the language in schools are deplorable. What makes the situation worse is that many English language teachers are totally unfit for the job as they can barely write and speak the language properly. Further, students who feel that English is needlessly forced down their throats cannot be avid learners of the language.
A look at the way English is taught in most schools in India would show that the teacher or rather the teaching method is to be blamed more than the unwilling and recalcitrant pupil. The teaching method of the language fails to connect with the pupils who come from families where English is not spoken. The dull manner in which lessons are imparted provides no incentive for learning the language. The sole emphasis in our education system is to cram lessons, whether in a language or any other subject. The first time learners of English are unable to or fail to make any attempt to converse in English. There is no question of their reading 'extra' material.
The Punjab education minister had a firsthand experience about the problems in teaching English in Punjab. Addressing a gathering of 200 English language teachers, he discovered to his horror that most of them were unable to write and speak the language correctly. It is not known if the minister also took note of the 'accent' of the English teachers; it could not have pleased him. The more shocking thing perhaps was that many of these teachers had an M.A. degree in the language.
His discovery actually followed his query to the teachers on the reasons of the large scale failurein the English language tests. The teachers were asked to write out the reasons and their suggestions to correct the situation. One teacher blamed it simply on 'lake' of interest among students. The teacher was certainly not referring to the Sukhnalake in Chandigarh.
Another bemoaned that the 'staff of our school was vacant' which was articulated in another way by yet another colleague with the suggestion that the 'vacent' posts (of English teachers) need to be 'fulfilled'.
One teacher was very specific that it was all due to the fact that 'our school has situated in remote area'! Despite faulty grammar It can be inferred that the location of the school was a handicap of sorts, but this teacher was careful not to suggest as another one did without feeling any embarrassment that the remedy lay in starting 'fresh periods before recess'!
The teachers in Punjab may not be strong in grammar and spellings but they had apparently done a quick mental exercise to diagnose the reasons for the failure of the large number of pupils who had studied English. 'Poverty' of students, said one; another one was more forthcoming: 'Students mental level are not well in their syllabus.' Figure it out yourself what it means!
The teacher who acknowledged that 'English are international language' was at least aware of the importance of the language even though his grammar did not seem to support that idea. Sensing the anger of the minister at the dismal performance of the teachers, at least one teacher had a logical explanation for the fax pas he had committed; 'I forgot to bring my reading glasses'. You couldn't accuse this teacher of poor grammar and spelling!
The kind of mistakes that the Punjab teachers made may have shocked the minister but the fact is that the approach to teaching the language is most government schools all over the country is rather half-hearted. One would, in fact, argue that it is only marginally better in many of the private schools which show better results. Many everyday mistakes that the pupils make are overlooked in school classrooms as being 'minor', both in the public-funded and private schools.
Both good and bad students are able to pass English language tests and board examinations. The good marks they get in tests are mistakenly taken as indicators of their proficiency in the language. Students who have done poorly in the English language do not bother to improve their English language skill while studying; some do rediscover the advantage of learning the language well later in life and do manage to make amends.
Indians who pay scant attention to learning English properlyare reviled for writing and speaking 'funny' English. The 'murder' of the 'colonial' language is most commonly displayed in the shape of signboards on shops and other business places. That these are written in English is an indirect admission about the importance of the language. Here are a few samples of signboards contemptuous of spelling and grammar noticed in different parts of the country.
'Child Bear' may lead one to expect the sight of a cuddly bear cub. But imagine one's surprise when, instead, onefinds oneself standing in front of a shop selling 'chilled beer'. Don't entertain any naughty idea if a sign on the road points to an 'Accident Porn Area'. It will be something more serious: the area ahead is 'prone' to accidents. A wedding card informing you that 'Raj Beds Deepika' may be a startlingly frank statement but a lot of blushes could be avoided if only the person who wrote the card knew that the word to be used was 'weds'.
-BAZH Special Correspondent