The autobiography of a District Education Officer

My decision to join the post of a District Education Officer in a district far away from the State capital was received with disbelief, derision and disapproval by my colleagues, friends, relatives and well-wishers. “Has he gone mad?” the Principal asked my colleagues. “Why did you go abroad for higher studies in literature if your ultimate aim was to be cog in the machine in the Education Department?” my colleagues questioned me. “Wants to mint money,” remarked the righteous relatives, “There’s enough money to loot,” they whispered at my back. ‘What a shame!” lamented the friends, “From the seat of higher learning to the bastion of corruption and nepotism!”
Braving the adverse criticism of my ‘well-wishers’, I accepted the offer and made all the arrangements to proceed to the District assigned to me. On the preceding day of my departure, on the advice of a senior officer of the Education directorate, I went to meet the Education Minister. It was my first visit to a minister’s bungalow. After all the formalities of a security check, I was ushered into the air-conditioned room in which the Minister was busy reading newspapers. “Come in, come in,” the Minister welcomed me with a smiling face. “You’ve decided to join, right?” the Minister asked me . “ Yes, Sir ” I replied. I was in a shock. How could he know my predicament? “From the ivory tower to the open field!” I don’t remember if it was spoken in jest or in earnest.
I was with the Minister for about 30 minutes and when I was about to leave the room, he said, “Go and join, but don’t go to office every day.” Being startled, I exclaimed, ”Sorry, can’t follow you.” A Minister asking me not to go to office every day! “Yes,” he said emphatically. “At least, for the first month. You will get a jeep and a driver. Go and visit as many schools as possible. They need you. If you sit in the office the whole day, you will be too busy in transfer, posting, court cases and trivial complaints pouring in every day. Visit all the elementary schools of the district in the first month itself and have a rapport with the teachers, not with the middlemen.” Thanking the Minister, I left his room. “Go and join, but don’t go to office every day!” What a peculiar instruction, I told myself.
On the first day, soon after reaching the office, I was flooded by fifty or sixty letters kept on a tray of my table. A Grade IV employee of the office had opened the envelops and put the letters on my table for my perusal. So many letters on a single day! Not knowing what to do with these letters which seemed like arrows aimed at a hapless new officer, I summoned the Bara Babu, the Head Assistant. The nice, all knowing Bara Babu allayed my fear with a smiling face. “Sir, you have nothing to do. Please put your initial with the date on the top of the letter, read the subject line and mark it for the concerned assistant. If it is related to ‘Midday meal’, mark it to Mr XX, if it is related to finance, mark it to Mr. DB, if it is about disciplinary action against a teacher, mark it to Mr.SB and if it is about any data required by the Government, mark it to Mr, CKB, the Statistical Assistant. The letters will be processed by the concerned assistants. They are very trusted people, Sir. You can approve their drafts without any hesitation. Your predecessor must have briefed you while handing over the charge!” The Head Assistant stopped with a mischievous smile. “But, what about the letters regarding academic matters? I enquired, “Who handles letters related to academic matters?” “Academic matters?” the Head Assistant stared at me, “All matters are academic in this office, Sir. We don’t do anything non-academic” It was my turn to stare at him.
Streams of visitors came pouring in. The two Deputy Inspectors of schools and the twelve Block Elementary Officers of the District came one by one to pay their obeisance to the district head. The two Deputy Inspectors of Schools were on the verge of retirement. They knew the names of all the schools of their subdivisions. The Block Elementary Officers were quite impressive in their attire. Some of them knew their rule books by heart but not the names of the textbooks used in the schools. I was happy to know that they were well qualified, trained and experienced. All of them had been working in the district for a pretty long time and had a very good rapport with my predecessor. In spite of the hardships faced by them they were committed to their duties, they claimed. Some of the leaders of the teachers’ unions were not good and I should be cautious, they told me rather casually. As a new comer to the district, I should seek the opinion of the local people and the local MLAs, they opined in a rather roundabout way.”Don’t worry, Sir. Please call us whenever you need any help.” they assured me while departing with a handshake which did not seem very warm.

It was a very spacious room. There was a big map of the district decorating the wall in front of me. It showed the location of the schools. As there was no Google map in those days, I could not figure out the distance of the schools. I memorized the names of a few schools and dialed the number of the Deputy Inspector of Schools whose office was just on the other side of the road. Knowing my intention of visiting two randomly selected schools next day, the Deputy Inspector said, “Don’t worry, Sir. I’ll inform them. Your driver knows the route. He will take you straight.” “No, no. Please don’t inform them. It should be a surprise visit. I would like to find out how a school runs on a normal day.” “ A normal day!” my subordinate officer exclaimed. “Normal is abnormal and abnormal is normal, Sir”. What an amazing statement. “Do you write poetry?” I asked. “Why are you asking such a question, Sir?” the Deputy Inspector of School was shocked, it seemed. A District Educator Officer talks of poetry? How to tell him what happens when the opposition between two words is neutralised. Deviation is a stylistic feature for me , not for my poor official at the sub divisional level whose life revolves round the files. (to be continued)

Linguistic pluralism: A lesson learnt from a cab driver

Though I am proud of them, I envy them too. They are the epitome of linguistic pluralism, they switch from one language to another just as they change the gear, the first gear to the second, the second to the third, and again from the third to the second depending on the speed of their cabs. Yes, I am referring to the Bengaluru cab drivers. Majority of these cab drivers who hail from various parts of Karnataka have a working knowledge of Kannada, Telegu, Tamil, Hindi and English which a linguist like me could not acquire in spite of my love for these languages. I may know how to analyze a language from the point of view of Generative phonology, I can tell you what are the allophonic variations of a phoneme or I can give a talk on how a language like Mullukurumba spoken in the Nilgiris has the character of a ‘mixed language’ sharing various phonological, morphological and lexical features of Kananda, Tamil and Malayalam, but I don’t have the linguistic prowess that a poor cab driver of Bengaluru possesses. Have I not the reason to envy them?
Linguistic pluralism is a condition in which languages spoken in a context are multiple and are understood by many. It thrives when speakers do not hesitate to speak in a language he or she desires and the language spoken is accepted even if it is not fully understood by the person to whom it is spoken.
Just two days back, I was in a hurry to leave the university soon after my lunch. I booked a cab and it reached the pickup point as shown by the App. The moment I got into the cab, the driver asked me, “Oota aitha, Sir?”(Had your lunch, Sir?). “Aithu”, I replied hoping that he would pay his attention to driving rather than to his oota’ (lunch). But the cab driver of a highly cheerful disposition continued, “ spostobagini borolla? (Can’t speak fluently?”). I was silent knowing my limitation, but he went on. “No problem, Sir. I know Kannnada, Telegu, Tamil, English, Hindi. “That’s nice,” I spoke in English, the language of my livelihood. “Nimda Hindi?” (Are you a Hindi speaking person?), the cab driver enquired.
Linguistic pluralism is not encouraged by the votaries of linguistic chauvinism. All of us love our languages. We think in our mother tongue, we look at the world through our mother tongue, we are always ready to fight and die for our mother tongue. This is quite natural as we owe our existence to our mother, motherland and the mother tongue. But carrying pride in one’s language “too far” is called linguistic chauvinism. My mother tongue is the best, why should I speak your tongue? This kind of linguistic intolerance is anachronistic in the modern period of globalization. The more the merrier.
My musing on linguistic pluralism this morning is triggered by a news item published in the Times of India a few days back. It is reported that the Delhi Government is launching a ‘Spoken English’ course for students studying in Government schools from June onwards and the Directorate of Education, NCR, Delhi will organize the programme in collaboration with the British Council, India-McMillan Education, Academy for Computers Training and Trinity College London. Expressing his happiness, the Delhi Chief Minister has tweeted “Government school students mostly come from economically poor backgrounds. When I meet them, this was their biggest demand – Sir, ‘hame English bolna sikhwa dijiye.’ (Sir, help us to learn spoken English). I am so happy this course is now starting for government school students.”
Will this initiative remove the great English divide plaguing the language teaching scenario of the country? It is unfortunate that the benefits of learning English have not percolated through the various strata of our society. The vernacular medium students coming from the disadvantaged sections of the Indian society are desperate to have the English card to get an access to the protected citadel of the English knowing elites. The following remark by David Graddol, the author of the book, ‘English Next India’ is quite relevant in this context: “As part of that up skilling programme, India now aspires to make English universal, after a couple centuries of it being the preserve of an elite. But that must remain no more than an aspiration for longer than most people imagine. It will take another two or three generations to come near realising it. And is it necessary? Is it desirable? And if English is not democratised in this way, can India find a way of exploiting its English potential in a manner which leads to inclusive development, improving the lives of the masses?”
What are our strategies to democratize English? “No one should be left out”, as sang by Tagore: “The West has opened its doors, and everyone brings its gifts (home),/to exchange and to assimilate, and no one left out—/on the shores of this mighty ocean of humanity.” (Sanchaita, Kolkata). How long should an English-starved child of a Govt school cry “Sir, ‘hame English bolna sikhwa dijiye.” ?

A 5 day course on Academic Writing in English

Can we think of a short 5 day introductory course on ‘Academic writing in English’ which will familiarize the participants to the relationship between the forms and practices of disciplinary genres and will empower them to articulate their ideas and perspectives as per the established norms of academic writing in English? Postgraduate and M.Phil. students, research scholars working for their PhDs. across India and young writers interested in getting their papers published in international journals often feel the need for undergoing a short course on Academic Writing in English and keeping in view the felt need of a large number of Indian scholars and postgraduate students, the present course has been designed as a skill development exercise. It is meant for developing writing skills in Academic English, not for awarding a degree in Academic Writing in English. It is a 30 hour face to face course followed by online support as per the needs and the areas of interest of the participants.
1.Introduction: As a topic of inquiry and pedagogy, writing has been gaining increasing importance in the language classrooms throughout the world. Writing is no more viewed as a mere non-verbal means of communication, it is viewed as an index of the writers’ ability to interpret, analyze and express themselves clearly, correctly and vividly. It is the culmination of a language user’s repertoire in the target language.
Writing, whether academic or non-academic is always interactive, it is the interaction between the writer and the reader. Writing becomes meaningful and communicative only when the writer has an audience and a purpose for writing. The notion of writing as an organic interactive process is based on three solid blocks: audience, purpose and topic and these three blocks are equally important in all types of writing, shared writing, interactive writing, guided writing and independent writing. In order to sharpen the cognitive processes involved in process writing, language teachers have to use ample practice techniques for generating ideas, such as keeping a journal, brainstorming, free writing and to help the learners to understand the difference between revising and editing.
2. An Academic Writing Course in English:
In spite of the important role played by writing in the diverse fields of human interaction, academic institutions in India often ignore the importance of cultivating higher order writing skills among the students and the professionals. There is a paucity of institutions that run certificate, diploma or degree courses in academic writing in English. Some English Departments of a few Indian universities have papers on ‘Written English’ at the major or the post-graduation level, but these papers hardly equip the students with the specialized skills of writing in English. Postgraduate Departments of Modern Indian Languages in the colleges and universities in India often take it for granted that basic writing skills learnt in schools are enough for writing any discourse in the mother tongue at the graduation level. The absence of adequate academic literacy skills often poses serious problems for Indian undergraduate and postgraduate students who are required to conduct research, summarize, paraphrase and cite sources and adopt genre specific writing conventions. Writing tasks even in the first language involve a highly creative use of composing processes and a good command of the language.
3. Objectives of the Course
The present course aims to introduce the participants to the theory and practice of academic writing and to equip them with the tools necessary for writing academic essays, reports, articles, research papers and dissertations in English as per the accepted principles and conventions of academic writing in English. The course will enhance the participants’ conceptual understanding of the nature and scope of academic writing and will enable them to communicate their ideas in English in an appropriate manner, thematically as well as stylistically.
Topics like how to write the abstract of a research paper, how to present an argument and validate it with supporting evidences, how to reflect and write down the findings, how to paraphrase without resorting to plagiarism and how to maintain structural and thematic cohesion of a written text will be explored during the course.
There is a lot of controversy on the nature and scope of teaching, learning and assessing writing in English in an international context. The contrastive rhetoric theory propounded by Kaplan(1966) presumed that L2 students wrote in English according to the rhetorical conventions of their home cultures. Connor (1996) tried to explain why L2 students’ writing lacked linearity, logic and coherence of well-written English texts. But the findings of Kaplan and Connor received a great deal of criticism as ‘many novice L1 writers also exhibit nonlinear and digressive rhetorical patterns, implicating a developmental stage’ ( Casanave,2012:286).The present course on academic writing in English is based on the assumption that improvement in writing comes in developmental stages and in order to help the learners in acquiring the skills of writing academic English, we should provide them with adequate practice, through reading and through exposure to the models of academic writing. The second language writing development is neither linear nor monolingually achieved. Nurturing the cognitive and linguistic resources of the L2 learners can alone help her write competently in the target language.
4. Course content:
(a) What is academic writing, Basic elements of academic writing, relationship between writing and speaking, writing as a social and cultural phenomenon, writing as a cognitive activity
(b) Models of the writing process, integrating knowledge of topic, knowledge of audience
(c) Approaches to writing: genre based approach, Product based approach, Process based approach
(d) Language and rhetorical style, writing in first language and writing in a second language, Exploring the linguistic features of the written communication in English, semantic and ideological considerations in academic writing
(e) Presenting the stylistic features of English, helping the learners to navigate through genre specific written works in English, explaining relevant written styles with the help of exemplars.
(f) Stages of Writing: Generating ideas, Focusing on ideas, organizing ideas, drafting
(g) The Essentials of Writing: Thesis Statement, Topic Sentences, characteristics of body paragraph, conclusion, hands on experience, responding to the learners’ writing, focusing on content and structure, making the learners’ aware of the correlation between the global content and organization of ideas, prompting the learners to reflect on their own writing
(h) Writing with sources: Types of sources, locating sources, taking notes from sources, avoiding plagiarism, documenting sources

5. Course Strategy
The course strategy is based on the models of enhancing advanced writing skills which prompt the participants to produce relevant ideas, evaluate these ideas, organize and structure the ideas, conform to grammatical and stylistic conventions, write a draft, revise it and produce a final version.

(Anyone interested in organizing a 5 day course on Academic Writing in English in their institutions/organizations may write to

A silent linguistic invasion in the family circle

The purists of Indian languages may frown at the use of English during our interpersonal communication in Indian languages. The champions of the mother tongue education may consider code switching from Indian languages to English or ‘translangauging’ a sign of our snobbery to a foreign tongue that we inherited from our former colonial rulers. But the language behavior of an average educated Indian often indicates an all pervasive influence of English in our day to day life. Though English is an associate official language of India, its use in our daily life is not always official, it is often more than official, it is personal, emotional and social. English has become an integral part of the inner psyche of a large number of educated Indians who are exposed to English in numerous contexts. The spontaneous use of English words, phrases, idioms and expressions in the inner circle of the educated Indian families is amazing indeed! The way English has been replacing the use of mother tongues in the verbal repertoire of the educated Indians in their emotional life is a fit case for sociolinguistic study.
While analyzing the language of a a number of TV serials in Bengali, I started wondering if the word ‘Husband’ comes from the Bengali lexicon. In a popular Bengali TV serial broadcast in the evening, the anchor asks a participant, “Who has come with you?”, Quick comes the reply, “amar husband”. (my husband). Being intrigued, I watched some other serials in which the female characters had to refer to their husbands. In all the cases, it was “amar husband” (my husband). Though Bengali equivalent of husband is ‘swami’, ‘pati’,’bor’, the characters in the TV serials never use them. Doesn’t it follow the general trend followed in the educated Bengali society? A young educated girl asks her newly married friend, “ ei, tor hubbir khobor ki?” ( Hi, how is your hubby?). Hubby, not ‘Bor’. Are Bengali words ‘swami, ‘Bor’’ becoming obsolete?
আন্টি (auntie) is another word that has replaced Bengali words like মামি,(mami) পিসি (pisi) and মাসী (masi). Mother’s sister (Masi in Bengali) or father’s sister (Pisi in Bengali) had an emotional bondage for the Bengali children of the earlier generation. But these words are often alien to the tongue of the Bengali children of the present generation. The Bengali lullaby, “Ghum parani masi pisi, moder bari eso” does not make any sense to the English fed Bengali children. Similarly, Words like ‘kaku’, ‘jethu’ are being systematically replaced by the word ‘uncle’.
‘Girl friend’ and ‘boy friend’ have also become Indian terms of reference. No young man refers to his ‘girl friend’ in translation! In a number of regional films, the hero and the heroine express their feelings in Indian language, but when the ultimate moment of proclamation comes, it’s in English, “I love you…..”. Is the intensity of the emotion lost if it is uttered in the mother tongue? No, English is spontaneous, the voice of the inner self!!!
The language landscape of the educated young generation of India is too complicated and should be studied dispassionately. The so called linguistic boundary of the fifties and the language debates of the past make no sense to the multilingual young people of India. They speak languages, not a language, they have thousand voices, not a voice, they have multiple perspectives, not the sole didactic perspective of their parents.

Learning a language is the ability to look at the world through that language

It is amusing to listen to many Indian ELT experts and policy makers using the expressions ‘English for empowerment’, ‘English as a global Resource,’ ‘English for upward mobility,’ ‘English for social equality’ and ‘English for global citizenship’.The publication of Graddol’s monumental books ‘Future of English’ and ‘English Next: India’, made Indian ELT luminaries ecstatic, I should say. They started chanting these phrses without trying to translate into action Graddol’s observations. I was present at the British Council, Kolkata when Graddol’s ‘English Next: India’ was released. On that day, I sincerely hoped that the ELT fraternity of India would be inspired by Graddol’s pioneering research and the ELT scenario of the country would move to a positive direction. Was it a day dream? I wonder in retrospect.
Phrases like like ‘English for Empowerment’ or ‘ English for Development’ sound good, they could lead us to better days, but when I meet students who are unable to utter two meaningful sentences in English even after studying English in the regional medium schools of this country for eight to ten years, I realize the hollowness of these highly eulogized expressions which are now a days the staple food for many ELT experts. Go to the regional, national and international seminars and conferences held in various Indian colleges and universities throughout the year and you will listen to a galaxy of ELT experts repeating the same old rhetoric to a gullible audience. The Indian ELT world is full of sound and fury, but nobody knows what it means to millions of our students whose dreams are shattered at the altar of ELT.
The paradoxical position of English is an enigma to many people. On the one hand, the ‘English advantage’ acquired and nurtured by the Indian youth is the envy of the rest of the world and it is this language that has given our engineers, doctors, scientists and academicians access to the global workplace. But, on the other hand, it is this language which hinders the success of millions of school children across the country. While English is the lamp of Alladin for the privileged, it is the proverbial Achilles heel for the underprivileged!
What ails ELT in India? The answer is simple: The syllabus, the textbook and the pedagogy: three points of the vicious triangle that haunt me even in my dreams.
It is really unfortunate that the teaching of English and the teaching of the mother tongue are placed at opposite poles in our school curriculum. Though the NCF Position Paper on English Language Teaching categorically pointed out that ‘English can occur in tandem with the first languages(s) of the learners at the lower primary stage, or at least in class I to III’, no attempt is made at the primary level to align the learning of the first language with the learning of the second language, that is, English. Have a look at the class 1 textbook of any Indian language and the class 1 English textbook prescribed by a State Board or the NCERT and you will see the disconnect between the two textbooks. Why does an English textbook alienate the young learners? The English textbooks often fail to prompt them to make a connection between the new language and their mental and social world but it is not the same in the case of the textbook used for teaching the mother tongue or the school language.The textbooks used for teaching the mother tongue or the school language, use the materials very carefully to prompt the learners to make a spontaneous connection between the language and their mental world.
A study of the class I language textbooks of a number of State Boards and the NCERT will bring out the mismatch between the English textbooks and the Indian language textbooks used by the same child in the same class .Can’t the English textbook writers and the writers of other Indian language textbooks develop textbooks in a collaborative manner to avoid this mismatch?
Learning a new language is not learning a few new words, expressions or the syntactical patterns of that language. Learning a language is the ability to look at the world through that language and therefore, a multilingual person has the ability to look at the world from multiple perspectives.
Learning a new language is bound to be a mechanical exercise if no experiential learning takes place through that language. Let’s take the poem, The Flying-Man prescribed in the NCERT class I English textbook. The learner is given the following task? “Choose your answer: The Flying-man is Superman. The Flying-man is a pilot. The Flying-man is an astronaut. The Flying-man is Batman.” What kind of experiential learning is visualized in this task? Compare this task with the true/false task given after the poem Rosoighar (Kitchen) of Rimjhim, the NCERT Hindi textbook for the same class. The poem Flying-Man alienates the child from her environment and she fails to connect her world with the world of the Flying-Man. The Hindi textbook for class I can have a poem about ‘Kitchen’, but the English textbook will be un-English if Batman is not mentioned in that book!

The Tyranny of English Textbooks at the Primary Level: An Indian Experience

Have you ever looked at the English textbooks used in the regional medium primary schools of India from the perspective of the children who are taught English as a second language along with their mother tongue? These textbooks are by the experts, for the experts and of the experts, not for the poor children who are subjected to the ingenuity of the high profile text book writers.
Textbook writers writing English textbooks for children learning English at the primary level in the vernacular medium primary schools often fail to look at the world through the eyes of the children for whom they prepare English language textbooks and consequently, these children find the materials presented in these textbooks silly, boring and meaningless for communicative purposes.
Consider this activity given in the Class I English textbook of NCERT: “ Have you seen an aero plane? Let’s pretend you are a pilot flying an aero plane. (a) What will you see outside your aero plane (i) during the day, (ii) at night? (b) What will you see inside your plane?” How can a child imagine what a pilot sitting in his/her cockpit notices inside the plane? High flying textbook writers are too obsessed with their adult world view. Don’t they know that for the spontaneous use of the target language, the activities should be suitable from the child’s cognitive point of view too? Many activities given in Indian English textbooks, unfortunately, are too threatening for the young children. Far from generating lively conversation in English in the classroom, these activities give rise to route learning. Shouldn’t we try to put an end to these teacher-centred activities thrust upon the poor children struggling with English in a non-English environment?
Let’s take another English Text book for class I currently being used in one of the Indian States. Following the principles of situational Language teaching, the said text book for class I presents English in familiar situations, but these situations, unfortunately, are so contrived that the children stop communicating in the target language! To quote three examples from the said text book.
Example 1:
The teacher asks questions, “Is this my nose?” (Pointing to nose) Answer – “Yes.” (pointing to leg) Answer “No.” “Is this your ear?” (Pointing to a child’s ear). Answer –“Yes.” (Pointing to a child’s mouth) Answer-“ No.” Even before coming to school, an Indian child of class 1 can identify her ear or her nose and knows the names of these two body parts in her own language. In the name of introducing new vocabulary in English, why should we subject her to these silly questions? How will your child react if pointing to her leg you ask her “Is this your nose?” Won’t she feel irritated? Well, this is English teaching at the primary level in our vernacular medium schools.

Example 2:

There is a picture of a boy along with that of a girl. The teacher asks the children to color the picture of the boy, if they are boys, or to color the picture of the girl if they are girls. The teacher goes to a child and asks, “Are you a boy or a girl?” What a mockery in the name of situational language teaching! The first lesson in gender discrimination! Asking a child of class 1 if she is a boy or a girl is again a silly question. What kind of Communicative language teaching is visualized by the textbook writers?

Example 3:

Read the story with the help of your teacher: I went to the market

“I went to the market. I bought a white reddish. I bought two purple brinjals. I bought three orange carrots. I bought four red tomatoes. I bought five green chilies.”
Will a Hindi, Bengali, Kannada or Tamil textbook for class 1 ask a child to read such a boring and unproductive story in her own language? A child of class 1 goes to market and buys “five” green chilies! In the name of using English in real life situations, we are sending a child to market where she will count five chilies and buy them to learn English.
All the English textbooks prepared by numerous textbook preparation committees of many States claim that they are prepared as per the principles enunciated by NCF 2005. In the Prefaces of these text books it is also claimed that by using these textbooks, the children will be in a position to use English in real life situations. The English textbooks, unfortunately tell a different story. The lack of correlation between the objectives of the syllabus and the English text books, the absence of a connection between the learning experience of the child in the classroom and the life outside the classroom, the inability to relate the new to the earlier knowledge of the child and the lack of authenticity of the materials presented in the English textbooks negate the ultimate objective of teaching English at the primary level.
Experts conversant with the theories of learning, child psychology, early literacy and the pedagogy of teaching English in a multilingual context should be sensitive to the linguistic, cognitive and the cultural needs of the children who are the end users of the English textbooks. Look at the world through the eyes of the child if you are preparing a language textbook for your child.

Why is it difficult to learn a new language in a formal language classroom?

Learning a new language is always a fun as long as you don’t have a language teacher around you! There is nothing more interesting in life than exploring and appreciating the beauty of a new language. Many language teachers, unfortunately, do not accept this simple truth. They make the life of a learner miserable by using their ill-conceived theories of language acquisition and language learning. It’s a pity that many language teachers frighten their learners with their ingenious pedagogical practices. Ask a child if she is afraid of her language teacher and you will find out the grim truth! Why can’t the language classroom replicate the universal success in the acquisition of basic language proficiency that a child spontaneously achieves outside the classroom?
When I was young I fell in love with a language which belonged to an alien language family. The songs and the folktales of that alien language impressed me so much that I learnt how to respond to that language even without knowing the intricacies of its grammatical rules. The language called ‘garao dima” by its native speakers is popularly known as Dimasa, a member of the Bodo group of languages which come under the Tibeto Burman family of languages. As a speaker of an Indo-Aryan language, I found it very difficult to learn a tone language in which the adjective follows the noun: ‘a beautiful girl’ in that language is a ‘girl (malasa) beautiful (Majangbi)’, If you pronounce the word ‘hatai’ with a level tone, it means ‘tooth’, but if you pronounce the same word with a high tone, it means ‘market’. If someone asks you: “bra thangma?” (where are you going?) and you reply “hataiha” (to the market) with a level tone, you will mean that you are going to the “tooth”! It should be “hataiha” with a high tone. My rendezvous with that fascinating language came to an end rather abruptly when I had to leave the place called Dima hasao. But the echo of that language resonates in my ears even when I am thousands of miles away from the beautiful land of the Dimasas.
In retrospect, I am amazed to recollect how I learnt Dimasa informally, from the market place, from my chats with friends, from my interaction with villagers in interior villages like Didambra and Nobdilangting and through my immersion in Dimasa folk songs and folktales. In those days, I knew nothing about the “top down” and “bottom up approaches”. There was neither CLT nor CALL, but I learnt a language just because I loved it and was surrounded by the sounds and the rhythm of that language. Many of my friends of my youthful days used to laugh at me as I lived for years together in a hut built exclusively for me in a Dimasa village by a large hearted person who appreciated my tryst with a little known language. It was total immersion, total dedication and an unconditional love for a language. All the theoretical discussions on the role of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for learning a new language were meaningless for me. I learnt it as I got a total exposure to that language.
Years later, when I started learning Kannada, (ಕನ್ನಡ)/ˈkɑːnədə), I was amazed to find out that ‘I had breakfast’ is “Naanu tinDi tinde” in Kannada but ‘I finished my lunch’ is “ooTa aaytu.” The word for breakfast is “tinDi” but I can’t say “Naanu tinDi aaytu”, it is always “tinde” not ‘aaytu.” No language teacher taught me this usage, I learnt it the way the Kannada speakers use it. To cite two more examples. (a) When to say “hEgideera” (How are you) and “hEgideeya” (How are you)? (b) “What are you doing?” means “Enu maaDutta ideera?” as well as “Enu maaDutta ideeya?”. Well, it depends on the context, for elderly people, I would say, “ Enu maaDutta ideera?” but for my friends or juniors, I would say “Enu maaDutta ideeya?”
Language is a social behavior, don’t spoil it with the prescriptive grammar. Listen to the people, talk to the people, love the people, you will learn a language in spite of your language teacher. Using a language is a performing art and while performing in a new language context, we should remember ‘who speaks what language to whom and when?’.

English Textbooks and the rural children of Indian Primary schools: the great rural-urban divide

As I teach a course on ‘Curricular Material Development in Language’ in my University, I have collected/downloaded almost all the English textbooks used in the regional medium primary schools of various States of the country. These textbooks are prepared by groups of highly experienced English teachers, edited by a galaxy of ELT luminaries and approved by highly competent authorities of the respective States. But the suitability of these textbooks for the first generation rural learners of English is debatable from a pedagogic point of view. How authentic are these textbooks for the rural children of Indian Primary schools?
An analysis of the English textbooks used in various States indicates that the materials used in some of these textbooks are alien to the socio-cultural milieu of the first generation rural children learning English as a second language at the primary level. Lexical items, the locale, the points of view, the life style and the values presented in numerous English textbooks of various State Boards betray the perception of a strong elitist urban based educated middle class of the Indian society and consequently, the incomprehensible input presented in these books act as a demotivating factor in acquiring the required skills in the target language. A close stylistic analysis of the materials presented in the English textbooks used in the vernacular medium primary schools of India reveals the pedagogical irrelevance of these materials for a meaningful interaction in the target language. Many primary teachers have told me that some of the texts used in the English classes are not suitable for developing the learners’ communicative and strategic competence in the target language. Psychologically, culturally, socially and geographically, the materials used in the textbooks do not appeal to the rural children of Indian primary schools, they point out ruefully. English textbooks are about Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai. In the English textbook for class V of a particular State Board, for example, out of the six heritage buildings four are from Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Amritsar!
Though the NCF Position Paper on Curriculum, Syllabus and Textbooks suggests the preparation of suitable teaching learning materials to engage the child in active learning, English language textbooks used in the rural areas of the country fail to engage the rural children in active learning as they cannot relate themselves to those textbooks which are visually, culturally, socially and psychologically far removed from their immediate environment. An utter lack of context specificity of these textual materials and the absence of their relevance for the real life use of the target language pose a serious challenge for the rural learners trying desperately to use English for their so called ‘upward social mobility.’
Why should there be a mismatch between the pedagogic objectives of teaching English and the stylistic features of the materials presented in the English textbooks? It is really unfortunate that in the name of linguistic empowerment, the traditionally deprived rural children of India are often subjected to the tyranny of English textbooks. They often suffer from a sense of cultural displacement.
The English textbook for class V of a State Board has a lesson named “The Nuclear Test” which is narrated from the point of view of a little girl. Note the following sentences used in the story:
(a) “Anjali’s mother worked in an office and she left along with her father every morning. Breakfast was always cornflakes and it was usually sandwiches for Anju’s tiffin.”
(b) They would not go with them to eat out in restaurants. They would not watch movies in theatres. They would not enjoy shopping just for fun. They thought strap dresses were too foreign and short skirts totally avoidable. Pop music was ‘noise’ and ice-creams were ‘not good for health’.
Lexical items like ‘cornflakes’ ‘sandwiches’ ‘strap dresses’ ‘pop music’ and ‘ice cream’ are too urban-centric and they perpetuate the urban-rural divide. Supposing, you are a teacher of a Kannada or a Hindi medium rural primary school of India. How will the class V children of your class respond to “enjoy shopping just for fun?” How many teachers teaching English in the rural primary schools of India can use ‘window shopping” in an appropriate context?
The class V English textbook of another State has an activity for the learners. “Old age homes are becoming very common in big cities. Find out why do old people go and stay there .What sorts of services are provided in these homes?” Introducing the concept of “old age homes” to the rural Indian children of class V? Not to speak of villages, how many Indian towns have old age homes?
In another English textbook for class V of another State, the following activity is given to the class V learners of English: “ Suppose you went to a zoo with your parents and saw many interesting things there. Write five sentences to describe your experiences.” A typical urban perspective!

A Language pedagogy rooted in Indian tradition

During my childhood, my father used to ask me to get up early in the morning to recite after him an incomprehensible song
“मां निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः।
यत्क्रौंचमिथुनादेकम् अवधीः काममोहितम्॥’
“mā niṣāda pratiṣṭhā tvamagamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ/ yat krauñcamithunādekam avadhīḥ kāmamohitam” which can be translated in English as “ Hey hunter, you will find no rest for the long years of Eternity/For you’ve killed an unsuspecting bird in love.” Though the sound and the rhythm of the verse enthralled me as a child, I did not know the meaning of these two lines even during my high school days. Later, I was glad to know that I used to start my day with the first sloka of Sanskrit literature that had emerged spontaneously from Valmiki’s rage and grief.

Ours was a basic primary school modelled after Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of basic education. The school would start with two songs, one in Sanskrit and another in Arabic. As soon as the school bell rang 10 o’clock in the morning we would start singing

ॐ ईशा वास्यमिदँ सर्वं यत्किञ्च जगत्यां जगत् ।
तेन त्यक्तेन भुञ्जीथा मा गृधः कस्यस्विद्धनम् ।।
“Ishaavaasyam idam sarvam yat kim ca jagatyam jagat/tena tyaktena bhunjithaah maa gridhah kasyasvid dhanam” (The entire universe is indwelt, enveloped, covered by the Supreme Being; /Live a happy life in this world. Enjoy your existence; do not suffer.) Though we could not understand a single word of the sloka, we recited it for long five years day after day twisting our tongue to make the correct pronunciation.
Years later, when my daughter started her nursery classes in a Christian missionary school, she would start her day singing ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Without knowing the meaning of the prayer, she recited it days after days and loved reciting it just as I loved reciting those incomprehensible Sanskrit hymns or slokas taught by my father and my primary teachers.
What was the purpose of bombarding me with incomprehensible input? Was it a meaningless ritual or was it an attempt to introduce me to my rich linguistic and cultural heritage? Was it indoctrination? What was the theoretical justification? The behaviorist approach? I do admit that learning by memorization echoes the behaviourstic principles of repetition, practice and habit formation. But my exposure to poetry in an unknown language or my daughters exposure to psalms sung in a foreign language did not go in vain. They introduced us to the world of sound, music and rhythm, they enhanced our language sensitivity in a very impressionable period of our lives. It does not matter, if you are introduced to Sanskrit or English. What matters is the linguistic input, comprehensible or incomprehensible.
The notion of’ ‘input’ propounded by Krashen is not relevant in the context in which we learn languages in Indian schools. Krashen’s input hypothesis states that learners progress in their knowledge of the language when they comprehend language input that is slightly more advanced than their current level. He called this level of input “i+1”, where “i” is the learner’s interlanguage and “+1” is the next stage of language acquisition. The pedagogy used in Indian classrooms does not and cannot follow the input hypothesis propounded by Krashen. It should be “incomprehensible input +1”. Don’t we start acquiring our mother tongue with incomprehensible input? Read aloud sessions advocated by the champions of Early Literacy Programs also start with incomprehensible input.
The euro centric ELT pedagogy being followed in Indian primary schools is fraught with dangerous consequences. The elitist ELT pedagogy which is linked with the global ELT industry is alien to the Indian tradition of language pedagogy. I fail to understand how the same teacher can follow two pedagogic traditions in the same school for teaching two languages to the same students in the same class! In ancient India, knowledge was transmitted orally and a great emphasis was given on ‘Sruti’, learning by the ear. Even today, in Indian schools, language learning in the mother tongue mostly depends on verbal learning at the primary level. Supposing, as a primary teacher, I teach Hindi and English at the primary level. In the Hindi class, I follow a pedagogical approach, in the English class, I follow another. What a mockery of the language pedagogy! How do children learn more than two languages informally even before going to school? It is the oral pedagogy, the listening to learn. Can’t we replicate the context and the pedagogy in our formal classrooms in the vernacular medium schools of India?
The NCF position Paper on ELT advocates a multilingual pedagogy but it is strange to note that even after the publication of this highly acclaimed document twelve years back we have not prepared our English textbooks as per the pedagogical approach advocated in that Position Paper. Why should there be two separate periods for languages? One for the school language and another for English? Can’t we have an integrated language class where both the languages are introduced simultaneously? We learn all languages in the same way, be it the first or the second and therefore, a differential pedagogic treatment does not seem to be desirable during the early years of language learning.
Oral repetition was one of the common pedagogies used in ancient India not only for teaching languages but also for teaching mathematics. (Reference: Subramanian,J. 2012. Indian Pedagogy and Problem solving in ancient Thamizhakam, History and Pedagogy of Mathematics Those who are interested in exploring the traditional Indian pedagogy of language may read the article The relevance of Hinduism to English language Teaching and Learning by Bal Krishna Sharma

ELT and Social Justice: Opportunities in a time of chaos”

JJ Wilson’s plenary on “ELT and Social Justice: Opportunities in a time of chaos” at IATEFL 2017 Glasgow conference had enough food for thought for the English teachers attending the conference. How can an English teacher explore issues related to social justice in his/her language classroom? Why should he/she do so? What are the theoretical issues involved in such an exploration in a language classroom? What will be the nature of the pedagogy involved? Are all English teachers capable of venturing into a terrain which may affect ELT itself?
JJ Wilson is widely published in the USA and the Uk and his blogs at and are very popular. According to the IATEFL brochure, JJ Wilson has trained teachers in 30 countries and he is at present the writer- in- residence at Western New Mexico University where he teaches ESL Methods, Linguistics and Creative Writing. Based on my reading of his blogs, I expected a lot from his plenary talk given at the Glasgow IATEFL conference and I am glad that JJ Wilson was at his best on that memorable day. The style of his presentation and the message that he shared with the audience can never be forgotten by anyone who listened to him delivering the plenary.
JJ Wilson examined the arguments for including social justice issues in ELT classrooms and demonstrated the ways in which social justice issues can be used in the ELT classroom for enhancing the learner’s competence in English along with developing awareness of emerging social justice issues across the globe. He not only spoke about the theoretical issues, he also showed how classroom activities such as storytelling and poetry reading can provide input rich environment for introducing social justice issues in a language class.
The three questions raised by JJ Wiliams were : (a) What is social justice? (b) What does social justice have to do with ELT ? and (c) How are we qualified to teach social justice? The answer to these questions is based on the assertion that “All education begins with what students bring to the class.” Education, we must agree, starts from students’ experience and therefore, English teachers should explore the desirability of using social justice issues in their English classrooms.
In order to demonstrate the actual classroom practice involving ELT and social justice issues, JJ Williams asked the audience to take a piece of paper and perform the following tasks: (a) illustrate an issue that you are passionate about, (b) find a partner and explain to him/her what you illustrated, (c) discuss how the issue is represented in your work and (d) lift up your picture and show it to the world. Apparently, very simple tasks, but they were very effective in sending the message of his talk.
He showed a few photos of classrooms around the world and asked the audience to ponder on the materials, technology, environmentand decoration used in those photos of the classroom.
JJ William read a wonderful poem “I remember” and asked the audience to repeat each line. The tasks to be done: (a) Write a list of words which represent your background, (b) What has changed since you were a kid? (c) Why?
Referring to stories, JJ Williams asked the audience: What kind of stories can we use to teach social justice? The answer, according to JJ Williams, is “ Stories of ordinary people doing great things.” What a great message! It has implications for ELT material writers too. JJ William wondered why ‘it takes rich white western celebrities to save the developing world while so many people in the developing world saving themselves?”
The talk prompted the audience to look at social justice issues from a new perspective and raised a pertinent question: Can I teach English without taking into consideration social justice issues confronting the learners across the globe?