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September 2009--English in the New Republic

Page history last edited by Shyam Sharma 14 years, 7 months ago

Nelta Choutari September 2009 Issue

Recently the question of whether English should/could become a link language or one of the official languages of New Nepal has been quite interestingly discussed among Nelta colleagues. This discussion has been a lucky background to the September issue of Nelta Choutari that I am responsible to put together.

Ganga Gautam and Santosh Bhattarai in particular brought up the issue that English could possibly serve as a “link” or “official” language in the new Nepal. Using an external language would in some ways create a new platform where the language of the politically dominant communities that speak Nepali (Khas) would have a competing alternative for the linguistically less privileged communities. Indeed, we have long ignored linguistic diversity in our country in the name of (in effect) a one nation one language policy. The use of English as one of the link/official languages (if not the official language) would also help the new nation, as Kashi suggests, in competing in the global intellectual market. As Prem and Bal have pointed out, however, the “neutrality” of English, must not be taken without some critical thinking: we should remember that there is already a state of unequal access to English, as seen in the two classes created by public and private schools, further reinforcing difference of social and economic classes. It would be too naïve for teachers like us to celebrate the use of a foreign language simply because it can bring about practical conveniences, is financially viable, or has such other incidental benefits.

We can address the challenges as well as take advantage of using English as a link/official language if we, teachers of English, understand and act by understanding that we are not only teachers of a language: we are not, or should not be, only and absolutely “language instructors” who teach the grammar and sentence structure and social expressions of English to our students. We must be educators who know that education must empower learners, that teaching must mean helping learners become creators of new knowledge, and that pedagogy must be a politically responsible profession. (“Politics” here has nothing to do with parties, with policies, or with governance: it is a matter of being critically aware of the impact of our action on the society, a matter of social responsibility and sense of justice towards our students, and a matter of intellectual sensibility that makes the teaching of language a part of educating people and contributing to the society). We must be the bearers of the torch of knowledge for our society, and we must know that that role is all the more important at such a time of political and cultural upheaval in the country. We must also be intellectuals who connect our world of knowledge to other worlds of knowledge outside. We are responsible to promote the creation of knowledge from our own local bases—our experience, our heritage, our realities—for that is the only way that our future generations will not end up only reading books written by others but also write themselves. Honestly, if our students needed just the language, they could fulfill that objective significantly well by helping themselves with an English language learning handbook available in Bhotahity. We don’t have to teach someone a language for ten, twelve, or sixteen years–unless we also mean to educate people through or with it and with a view to achieving larger educational goals of the society. To look at ourselves as only language masters would be like using a Pentium 5 computer as a paperweight! We must be educators who know the larger educational context in which we are teaching language. If we limit ourselves to the mission of teaching language and language per se, we will continue to make our profession as shameful as it is indicated by Balkrishna’s example:

Have you ever been kissed by a stranger?
Do you prefer ham or steak?

It is absurd to teach English, as in using the educational material above, without respect for the students’ and their society’s values, experiences, meanings, and identities. Therefore, it will make little sense if English is made the lingua franca for the new nation without the society, and its educators, considering what social, cultural, and political impacts it might have on the many communities, many languages, many cultures of this country. This is by no means intended to reject the idea of English as a common language in the new nation and among the varied linguistic communities in it. It is rather to suggest that the discussion must not stop at the point where the suggestion for that possibility is made. In the context of the discussion that is taking place among us, we should pursue the hypothesis presented by Ganga Gautam and Santosh Bhattarai with sufficient attention to the issues raised by Kashi, Prem, Balkrishna, and other colleagues. This is a very important discussion so far as it matters to the destiny of a nation, not just the future of individual students or even a generation.

In the article by Alastair Pennycook that was attached to Nelta Mail, the author suggests that teachers of English around the world must take the political dimension of teaching it very seriously, rather than merely considering language just a politically neutral means of communication. Pennycook emphasizes on the need for political responsibility on the part of those engaged in teaching the language. He suggests that is politically insensitive and intellectually dishonest to impose a language from the outside without considering the need to promote learning of content in the learners. Simply put, if our students Sita and Ramu are brilliant in English language without being as brilliant in understanding, producing, and sharing ideas with the world, then we have not been good educators.

Pennycook’s article is one of the most intellectually engaging pieces that I have read on the subject of global English. He not only pays attention to the political nature of the “global enterprise of English language teaching” but also explores it as an issue of the coming together of epistemological cultures through the medium of English. I find the article significant as a student and teacher because the author injects himself into the discussion as a teacher with a concern for the most genuine purpose of learning as knowledge-making, and he also goes beyond describing the reality into suggesting what we can do about the spread of global English which, instead of benefiting people around the world by connecting their repertoires of knowledge, is actually destroying that very possibility.

On the surface of it, Pennycook uses the common word “translation” without defining or explaining it in the light of his argument. But as we read the article more carefully, it is clear that he is referring to the way language works as a channel through which knowledge flows, or the way the socio-cultural content of one language is affected during that flow. He also uses another synonymous term for this process, “traffic.” Drawing from Claire Kramsch, Pennycook says that

[the] traffic in meaning is precisely what language teaching should be about, so that language competence should be measured not as the capacity to perform in one language in a specific domain, but rather as ‘the ability to translate, transpose, and critically reflect on social, cultural and historical meanings conveyed by the grammar and lexicon’. The role of the language teacher from this perspective, therefore, is ‘to diversify meanings, point to the meanings not chosen, and bring to light other possible meanings that have been forgotten by history or covered up by politics’. (33-34)

The global enterprise of ELT is for the most part based on the mission of teaching a common language to people around the world, but for what purpose it is never made clear. It has a colonial history and neo-colonial agenda behind it, but most English teachers in both native and non-native situations believe that they are teaching just the language. This hiding of the politics of an inherently political phenomenon is what Bourdieu found problematic in the very discipline of linguistics; the self-denying politics of the applied branch of linguistics called ELT is a much more unacceptable crime in the context of a much more globalized twenty-first century than the self-denying politics of structural linguistics in the previous century.

In many countries around the world, especially in former colonies and other developing countries, English is a required medium of education—and required to the point that young students are severely punished if found using their mother tongue. By teaching just the formal elements of the English language, by confusing the learning of “English” with the acquisition of “good education,” and by imposing the content of foreign literature and culture upon students in the name of learning the language, the educational systems in these countries have effectively destroyed the appeal of local epistemologies among generations of students. This teaching of a language shared by many societies, instead of becoming a means to the transaction and mutual enrichment of epistemological cultures, has become a means to convince millions of people that their own local epistemological resources are not worth what is called “education.” On the other hand, in native English situations, where English is either the only or almost only language in education, there are programs in place that help students from different linguistic backgrounds with how to use their own languages to expedite the process of assimilating into the world of one language, English. Such is the irony of a world that is connected by a shared language, by extraordinary technologies of communication, and by numberless other means of understanding among societies and cultures. And it is in that world where language and education is much less liberating than oppressive that Pennycook’s suggestion that teachers be activists makes much sense. “When we think of translation in an uneven world…, we need to consider not only that uneven global linguistic field on which translation has to play, but also that pedagogical field from which it has already been given a red card, sent off, dismissed to scowl on the sidelines” (36). This “translation” is not the skill that English teachers teach their students when they start learning the new language: it is the translation of a learner’s own experiences into meaningful stories, the translation of the reality of a learner’s own social world into meaningful discourses, and the translation of a learner’s knowledge into education. As Pennycook rightly argues, pedagogy must be responsible towards the need to cure the malady of treating English in its own context, ignoring the content that flows through it, and disregarding the context in which it interacts with specific languages, cultures, and epistemologies.

Pennycook rejects all attempts at establishing non-native varieties, standards, or by implication, linguistic identities as ways that will only help us fall back into the same trap that we try to denounce or escape from. Citing Michael Cronin, he suggests that in order to escape that cycle of political injustice that the learning of language and acquisition of education can perpetuate, “there must also be ‘an activist dimension to translation which involves an engagement with the cultural politics of society at national and international levels’” (43). Pedagogically speaking, this activism involves not only helping students learn English (or any other language) but also helping them flow in and out of the global traffic of knowledge and knowledge-making. Only that activism can make both language learning go along with knowledge learning possible at the same time.  In particular, the suggestion that English teachers must also teach ideas is particularly important for us as teachers in a country in crisis which good education can significantly help resolve.

We are, no doubt, teachers of language, but since we are a lot more than that, we have absolutely no reason why we should be teaching language without at the same time helping students with creating, sharing, and promoting knowledge, and doing so especially out of their own personal and social worlds.

Hope to hear more on the issue from Nelta Colleagues!

Here’s some more khurak to go with the issue.

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