Sunday, December 25, 2011

Is a secular Christmas possible?

Jesus Christ brings to mind the story of the temple bells, told by Father Tony de Mello, a Jesuit priest.

The story is about a temple which had sunk into the sea but whose bells, ringing out ceaselessly, according to a legend, could be head by anyone capable of listening.  Inspired by the legend, a young man travelled thousands of miles and reached the place to hear those bells.  But all that he heard was the sound of the sea.  He kept at this task for weeks but in vain.  Disappointed, he decided to leave the place.

It was his last day in the village.  The young man went to the shore to say goodbye to the sea.  He lay on the sand and, for the first time, tried to listen to the sound of the sea.  Soon, he was so lost in the sound that he was barely conscious of himself; so deep was the silence the sound produced.

Now he heard the temple bells!  First he heard the tinkle of a tiny bell, followed by another, another, yet another till every one of the thousand bells was pealing out in harmony and his heart was rapt in joyous ecstasy.

This is how Father de Mello commented on the story: Do you wish to hear the temple bells?  Listen to the sound of the sea.  Do you wish to catch a glimpse of God?  Look intently at His creation.

That seems to be the essence of all that Jesus preached.  He said, "Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all they heart, with all they soul and with all thy mind."  In the same breath, he said, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour."  To put them both in different words, this is what Jesus seemed to be saying: Use your faith in the service of the living men in the world.  It appears, then, that his plan of action is not so much for the salvation of the soul in the other world as for the liberation of mankind from, say, oppression and misery in this world itself. 

This is indeed a humanistic ideal which ought to be the concern of everyone who cares for others.  If Christianity is a convenient name for this ideal, a religionless Christianity should also be possible as, indeed, it was possible for the German theologian, Bonhoeffer.  It was he who coined the term, "religionless Christianity".

I don't know if there is a secular Christmas as well, but I don't see any reason why there shouldn't be one.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

More about lying with statistics

"What have you got against statistics?"  a Facebook friend asked after reading the piece, 'Lies, damned lies and statistics.' "Nothing at all", I replied.  "I only distrust those who work with statistics."  Then I told her a couple of real-life stories.

One of them will bear repeating.  Thirteen years ago, I was working on a research project which involved a lot of statistical analysis of data.  I consulted two well-known statisticians in Chennai who agreed to do the work for me for a hefty fee.  They said that, in their analysis, they would be using three tests (namely, Kruskal-Wallis, Wilcoxon-Mann-Whitney, and Kolmogorov Smirnov) which, they claimed, were "spanking new".  A month later, they gave the results.  When I checked their calculations at random, I found even their arithmetic incorrect.  I had to get the entire data reanalyzed, and it was done with great competence by a young man in Vijayawada.  The young man told me that the three tests used in the analysis were far from new: they had been in use even two decades ago.  He showed me the 1977 edition of a book called Non-Parametric Statistical Inference by JD Gibbons, which spoke about the tests.

Lots and lots of such lies pass unnoticed, thanks to what the mathematician John Allen Paulos calls our "mathematical illiteracy".  In a lovely little book called Innumeracy he has written, Paulos points out that most people are uncomfortable with basic mathematical principles which makes them poor judges of the numbers they encounter.  We accept statistics, both good and bad, with reverence because we don't have a good head for figures.

I never had a good head for figures when I was a student.  But a friend of mine whom we called Statistics Srivatsan had a wonderful head.  At the slightest provocation, he would launch into a lengthy statistical explanation.  Once a language teacher asked him why he was often late.  "Often?" Srivatsan asked with a quizzical expression on his face, and continued, "So far in this academic year, you've taken 98 periods, sir.  And I've come to 82 of them on time, which is 8.3 per cent higher than the class average of …"

Once Srivatsan quizzed me with a statistic.  "Do you know, Ramanujam, that, in this world, every ten seconds, a woman gives birth to a child?  What do you think about it?"  "Think about it!" I burst out. "Who is that irresponsible woman? We must tell her to stop it at once."  Srivatsan fixed me with a gaze of cold hardness that would have frozen an Eskimo.

I wonder where Statistics Srivatsan is now.  Wherever he is, he must be a statistician; I can't picture him as anything else.  And he must be lying with statistics as impressively as he did when the teacher asked him whey he was often late.

Lies, damned lies and statistics

A story I read in the Lifestyle magazine fascinated me.  A woman was told that she would be granted three wishes but that her husband would get ten times more or better than whatever she wished for.  For the first two wishes, she wanted to become the richest and the most beautiful woman in the world, and both were granted.  Her third wish was malicious: "I'd like a mild heart attack."

Of course, the woman had a mild heart attack, but what would the husband have got for the third wish?  He would certainly have had a heart attack.  But would it have been ten times severer or ten times milder than the wife's? 

That depends on how we interpret the condition in relation to the wish.  And if we are required to generalize the "sample" (one woman) to the "population" (all women), what conclusion can we come to about women in general?  That also depends on our interpretation.  If our interpretation is that the husband's heart attack was ten times severer, then women are clever indeed.  If, on the contrary, our interpretation is that it was ten times milder, women are dumb, though they think they are smart.  Most women might argue that the first interpretation is the correct one, and most men, the second.  Truth, it is said, "will out".  But it looks as though there are no truths; there are only interpretations.

If you think I am splitting hairs, you are right.  And I am splitting hairs because I have just finished reading two books about statistics in which there is plenty of hair-splitting: How to Lie with Statistics, written more than forty five years ago, and Damned Lies and Statistics, published in 2001.

Joel Best, the author of the second book, talks about the following statistic he once came across in an article in a prestigious journal: "Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled."  What does it mean?  Well, let's assume that the number of American children gunned down in 1950 was one.  If the number doubled each year, there must have been two children gunned down in 1951, four in 1952, eight in 1953, and so on.  By 1980, the number would have been one billion (more than four times the total US population that year).  By 1995, when the article was published in the journal, the annual number of children gunned down in America would have been over 35 trillion.  Absurd!  Actually, the author of the journal article had borrowed the statistic from a 1994 yearbook in which the information had been given as follows: "The number of American children killed each year by guns has doubled since 1950."  In other words, the deaths in 1994 were twice as many as in 1950.  But the statistic had got garbled in the journal article. And considering the reputation of the journal, the statistic must have been uncritically accepted and quoted by several researchers.

Let me go back to the point I made with reference to that funny story with a clever punchline: you can prove anything with statistics if only you know the "art" of interpretation.  Benjamin Disraeli was not wide of the mark when he said: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Charming wife: an enigmatic cliché

One of the books I occasionally dip into is a Reader's Digest selection entitled, Sixty Golden Years.  It carries a brilliant piece of writing by Mark Twain.  What has urged me to read the piece ('The Fraudulent Ant') many times over is Twain's inimitable description of the movements of an ant.

Here is a sample:

…he (the ant) fetches up against a pebble and, instead of going around it, he climbs over it backward dragging his booty after him, tumbles down on the other side, jumps up in a passion, kicks the dust off his clothes, moistens his hand, grabs his property viciously, yanks it this way, then that, shoves it ahead of him a moment, lugs it after him another moment…

Each time I read the piece, I am struck by Twain's use of dynamic expressions.  In ruthlessly avoiding stereotyped descriptive phrases, Twain is a refreshing contrast to the cliché expert to whom every mountain is a "majestic mountain", every city is a "bustling metropolis", and every good school or college is a "reputed (not even reputable) institution".

If there is one cliché in the English language which can be most indiscriminately used to describe any woman, it is the word "charming".  I was driven to this conclusion after listening to the overuse – and misuse – of this word by speaker after speaker at the annual convention of an international association that I have recently attended.  The object to which this descriptive expression ("charming") was applied was the wife of a dignitary from abroad, seated with him on the dais.  It was when the first speaker at the convention described the woman as "the most charming wife" of the dignitary that I looked at her for the first time – and wondered what he meant.  When the second speaker used the same epithet, I sat up and stared at her.  The mystery only deepened.  When the third speaker used the phrase twice with reference to the woman, I became fidgety.  I took off my glasses, polished them, and put them on and goggled at her.  The charms of the woman still remained a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.  Unable to stand the "charms" any longer, I left the hall.  Before I did so, I cast a brief glance in the direction of the "most charming wife" who sat serenely with the all-knowing expression of a Sphinx on her face.

Have you seen the Sphinx?  In pictures, I mean.  If you think the Sphinx looks charming, the  woman certainly did.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Unkind review: A writer's nightmare

Sometime ago, I had the good fortune of listening to a talk by Shashi Deshpande, the well-known Indian writer in English.  The talk was out of the ordinary, as Deshpande chose to hit out at reviews and reviewers.

Deshpande had good reason for being so aggressive.  Some of her reviewers, she complained, had not read any of her books beyond what had come their way for review.  One of the reviewers of her Small Remedies had written about the book as though it were an autobiography!  Amusingly enough, a reviewer in the Washington Post had complained that there were too many Indian names in Deshpande's books.  Besides, there were the smart alecs who wrote condescendingly and passed destructive judgements.  Deshpande spoke about her "sense of angry impotence" and asked, "What do we do when ridicule and supercilious pieces of judgement are all that reviewers seem to be capable of?"  She looked relieved when she concluded.  "Tonight I can sleep in peace", she said.

Reviews can make or mar a writer's career.  It is said that Keats "died of the Quarterly Review", having taken deeply to heart the savage onslaught of the reviewers of his poem, Endymion.  Hardy stopped writing novels after his Jude the Obscure, a rather frank novel, got damning reviews.  Virginia Woolf felt depressed whenever she got a bad review. 

Critics rarely rise above prejudice.  Keats's association with Leigh Hunt, who was known for his political radicalism, had made him odious to the great Tory Reviews.  Boyer, who was unsuccessful as a playwright for fifty years, was another victim of prejudice.  When his new play, Agamemnon, was staged, he gave it to be understood that it was written by a young man who had just arrived in Paris.  The play was unanimously acclaimed.  Among those who praised the play was Racine, the arch-critic of Boyer.  On the second day of the staging of the play, the real author's name was announced.  The play was hissed.

"Never pay attention to what critics say", advised Sibelius, the famous Finnish composer.  "Don't forget that there has never been set up a statue in honour of a critic."   Among the writers who followed this advice were Doris Lessing, who never read any reviews of her books, and P G Wodehouse, who challenged his critics to get a sob out of him.  To this small group belonged our R K Narayan: he had only contempt for reviews, though his books often received favourable reviews.

But Lessing, Wodehouse and Narayan were exceptions.  Most writers have only looked forward to the reviews of their books and agonized over the unfair ones.  Shashi Deshpande belongs to this vast majority.  By appealing to reviewers "not to ruin the morale of writers", she only repeated the appeal Carlyle had made to Voltaire about a century and a half ago.  Voltaire's criticism was devastating: he delighted in tearing down in words all the cherished institutions of humanity.  Once Carlyle asked him, "Have you only a torch for destruction?  Have you no hammer for building?"

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What three books say about Nehru

Having broken my ankle in a minor accident, I couldn't go to work for a few days.  Staying at home, I read three books which I had wanted to read long ago but couldn't for want of time.  One of them was Raja Rao's The Meaning of India, published in 1996.  The second book was Dom Moraes's travelogue, Gone Away: An Indian Journal, originally published in 1968 and now included in the collected memoirs of the author entitled, A Variety of Absences (2003).  The third book was Jawaharlal Nehru: A Communicator and Democratic Leader (1997) by A K Damodaran.  One of the interesting things about all these three books is that each of them has something perceptive to say about Jawaharlal Nehru.  

Raja Rao glorifies Nehru whom he always refers to as "Panditji".  He met Nehru for the first time in 1935 when he was 26 and Nehru 44.  Nehru wanted Rao, who was in France at the time, to act as an interpreter during his meeting with Malrux.  As Rao looked at Nehru at the entrance to Gare de l'Est, "his grey coat in hand, fair and fresh as ever, round in face and firm in stature, firm but supple", he seemed a Gandharva.  "One always felt with Panditji", Rao adds, "that he was listening to a music which arose indivisibly within him, and engrossed his mind and all of his heart."  Translating Malrux's French proved difficult as he spoke with "concentrated rapidity", and it turned out that Rao's translation was corrected several times by Nehru.

In Gone Away, Moraes offers, in just three pages, a thumb-nail sketch of Nehru, who, at 70, was still "beautiful" and "sensitive".  Nehru wished, says Moraes, that he had had  more time to read poetry.

Damodaran's tone is far from adulatory.  He describes Nehru as a "late starter" who, however, proved to be a "quick learner".  Nehru entered politics when he was thirty, but within ten years, he became the president of the Congress party.  In the very next decade, he was one of the six key figures in national life, sharing the limelight with Gandhi, Patel, Bose, Rajaji and Jinnah.  But Damodaran's insinuation that Nehru was a Hamlet in national life is not quite fair. As Sharada Prasad, a former information adviser to the prime minister, pointed out, Nehru never shirked decisions.  In an age in which political debate consisted of dogmatic assertion, Nehru was democratic enough to discuss problems in public before making decisions.  This perhaps lent credence to the Hamlet theory.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

In praise of blunders -- and blunderers

It was a hot and sultry morning.  For the captive audience of about 1000 men and women inside the over-crowded auditorium, it was stifling.  And the emcee, a perfect match for the weather, was making it much more oppressive for the audience who were groaning at his sloppy, long-winded introduction to each and every guest of honour.  Then he did something enlivening: he forgot to invite the chief guest on to the dais and announced the prayer.  There was a ripple of laughter among the audience, and the heat seemed beaten out of the auditorium for a few brief moments.

A half hour passed, and it was foul weather again inside the auditorium.  When the audience were twisting about in agony, there was a break in the "weather" again, as the blundering emcee announced, "The chief guest will now have the privilege of lighting the lamp…"

The world would be an extremely miserable place if people did not make mistakes.  If there were no mistakes, there would be nothing for us to laugh at.  If laughter is a blessing, then error, which never fails to raise a laugh, ought to be welcomed.  And the blunderer who helps you laugh your head off should sufficiently be rewarded.  The most incorrigible blunderer should even go into the Guinness Book.

Errors don't just entertain us; as Robert Lynd points out in his essay, 'In Praise of Mistakes', the discovery of an error in a serious work gives us a temporary feeling of superiority over the great person who has produced the work.  A dry-as-dust reader who comes across a blunder in chronology in Shakespeare feels an inch taller than the immortal Bard of Avon.  So does a pedantically accurate reader on discovering that Sir Walter Scott has made the sun rise on the wrong side of the world.  A lady felt excited when she noticed a mistake in Dr Johnson's dictionary: the word pastern (the part of a horse's foot between the fetlock and the hoof) had been wrongly defined as "the knee of a horse".  It was a heady experience, and she couldn't contain her excitement.  She went up to the great Johnson and asked him how he could commit such an error.  When Dr Johnson replied, "Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance", she must have been in seventh heaven.

If you don't consider me a ghoul, I'll share with you the feeling of amusement a misprint in the Vijayawada edition of an English language newspaper gave me a few years ago.  "Siddhartha Academy found dead", read the headline of a news item.  What the headline writer had intended was this: "Siddhartha Academy founder dead".

The tall-short debate

There are quite a number of contexts in which the word "small" carries a pleasant sense in the English language.  We are happy about smallness when we say, "Small is beautiful."  I don't think anyone wants to hear a long talk or read a lengthy piece of writing; shortness is a virtue here also.  We don't require the authority of a Shakespeare to realize that "brevity is the soul of wit"; it is common knowledge.  Again, when we say, "It's a small world", we express a pleasant feeling -- a feeling of wonder or surprise.  Even when we say, "A little bird told me", the feeling we express is an agreeable one.  In fairy stories, the fairies and elves, which endear themselves to children, are described as "the little people".  Even a person's conscience is not big: it is only described as "the still small voice"! 

But, smallness is not agreeable when it comes to a person's body size.  Here, small or short is not beautiful; tallness is invariably the preferred size.  No one says to a short girl, "What a nice shortie you are!"  A girl who is tall enough is eligible -- for marriage, more than anything else.  Recently, in a neighbour's family, a short girl had been rejected by a young man who had come to see her, and the girl's parents had difficulty telling their daughter the reason for the rejection.  "He feels he is too tall for you", was what they finally managed to say. 

If you think that the preference for tallness came with civilization, you are wrong. Even in primitive societies, tallness is the preferred stature. A study by Thomas Gregor, an anthropologist, has revealed that tallness is considered attractive by the Nehinaku tribals of Central Brazil and the Tobriand Islanders of the Pacific.

Do many people think that tall people are healthier and better-looking?  Are they considered more capable, too?  Yes.  The subjects of a survey conducted in some American universities have said that, in their estimate, short people were less capable, less positive, and timid.  But I know quite a few people who are only as short as Napoleon and as capable.  We must also remember the fact that the study I have referred to was only an opinion survey.

What's the long and the short of this debate?  Well, people who are neither tall nor short strike a balance: they represent the golden mean.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The NK magic at a grammar seminar

The star attraction at an international grammar seminar I attended sometime ago at Nagarjuna University was a short, scraggy old man with pan-tainted teeth and a run-down look.  When he spoke, the audience, consisting of university and college teachers of English, listened with rapt attention.  Every now and then, they either laughed or clapped, even though the man was speaking about the dreariest of all subjects, namely, grammar.  And when he concluded his speech, the delegates wanted him to continue.

    Natesan Krishnaswamy is the man's name.  He is more familiarly known as "Professor Krishnaswamy". His friends and admirers call him "NK".  The 80-year-old NK is the envy of teachers (How I wish I could be unpedantic enough to say, "Teacher's Envy", after the Onida advertisement!): he has the right recipe for regaling the audience.  But it is a recipe than can work only with NK.  People who have tried to use it have only revealed themselves to be a bunch of amateurs.  But, in the process, they have gained the most important lesson that the cook is as important as the recipe.  NK's cooking is authentic and distinctive.  And "vegetarian"!  But "vegetarians" and "non-vegetarians" alike enjoy his meal, savouring every mouthful.

It's the English language that NK "cooks".  He "cooked" it for about three decades as a professor of English grammar and linguistics at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad.  Among those who have feasted on his grammar teaching is the well-known British novelist AS Byatt, who said in a letter to the London Times: "I was part of a course for teachers, listening to Professor Krishnaswamy talking about modern English grammar with a wit and passion I've rarely heard in any lecturer."  Though retired officially about fifteen years ago, NK has never taken retirement from grammar teaching, teacher training, and materials writing, the last two of which he practises now with much greater charm than in the past.

At the grammar seminar, NK was the first to lecture after the inauguration.  As soon as he took over the mike, he cast a spell on the delegates – a spell that didn't break until he left.  With sturdy ideas and charming illustrations, he disproved the theory of post-colonialism and offered a neo-colonial perspective.  A delightful iconoclast, he held Crystal's concept of "World Englishes" up to ridicule, and rubbished Kachru's idea of "Indian English".  When he spoke about the celebrated "native speaker competence", the audience were not just amused; they collapsed into laughter.

On the second day of the seminar, Professor Tickoo gave a scholarly lecture on dictionaries.  At the end of the lecture, he cautioned, "No dictionary can be expected to be always correct."  NK substantiated the warning with a delightful example:  "As a grammarian and linguist, I have always wondered what the part of speech of 'Yes' is.  I looked it up in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary; it said 'Yes' is an interjection.  Then I looked it up in Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English; it said 'Yes' is an adverb.  What is the correct part of speech of 'Yes'?  Nobody knows, least of all lexicographers.  Only God knows!"  It was greeted with peals of laughter.

NK believes that inspiring people to study grammar will be much more effective than implanting grammar in their minds.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The decline and fall of the sari

On a Friday, I entered my classroom and became as bewildered as the proverbial bull in that china shop.  (But I was not, I must hasten to add, rough and clumsy like that bull.)  What caused the bewilderment was the sartorial extravagance that lay before me: the girls in the class were draped in silk saris of vibrant colours and decked out with gold necklaces, bracelets and chandelier-like objects that dangled from their ears.  "Fascinating!  Absolutely fascinating!"  I said, wondering at the difference six yards of fabric could make to a dreary classroom, and asked them, "But what's the occasion?"  "Today is the first Friday of the sravana masam", they replied blushing and laughing.  It was all very pleasing – the saris, the chandeliers, the laughter and the blushing.

When I think about it now, I feel that there is something else that is much more pleasing: the thought that the sari is here to stay, and that it still enjoys a presence on campuses, however scanty the presence may be.  And with the sari stays its magic: I have always wondered how the sari manages to stay where it stays without a belt or band to strap it in place.  Defying the pull of gravity, I mean.

The sari story is at once heroic and sordid.  Its gallantry lies in its defying the attempts of innumerable ravagers – from Dussashan in the Mahabharata to his modern counterparts – and in its obstinate refusal for a long time to be replaced by the outfits that came with the invaders, the Moghuls and the Europeans.  But it has shrunk alarmingly – from 24 yards to 18 and from that length to 12 and to the present 6, the last of which is barely insufficient, if you want your sari to be draped not just round your waist but the entire lower part of your body, and tucked up between the legs, with a pallu that is long enough to go across or around the shoulder and come down to be securely tucked up into the folding round the waist.

There is nothing, however, sordid about the sari shrinking to six yards.  Convenience rather than perversion must have dictated it.  And aesthetic sense.  Imagine Aishwarya Roy being draped in an 18-yard sari!

When did the sari begin to decline and fall?   When its various possibilities began to be exploited in our films about four decades ago.  Two films come to my mind immediately.  One is Raj Kapoor's box office hit, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, in which there is a bathing scene with the heroine, Mandakini, draped in a diaphanous sari.  The second is a love scene in Mr India in which Sridevi dances in a sari that leaves little to the imagination.  With the navel-baring potential of the 6-yard fabric being fully exploited in the movies of the following decade, the sari literally declined and fell.

When the sari fell, the salwar rose – the salwar that seemed to represent a happy compromise between the inconvenient sari and the "indecent" western wear – and  rose to prominence.  It has already gained social acceptance even in South India, the last bastion of the sari, relegating the latter to the status of the "costume dress", to be worn on formal occasions like weddings and the first Friday of the sravana masam.

But is the salwar half as aesthetic as the sari?  "The apparel oft proclaimeth the man", said Shakespeare's Polonius.  It "proclaims" women much more loudly.  Now, what the salwar proclaims about a pear-shaped woman is not aesthetically very pleasing.  And the world seems to be so full of pear-shaped women!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Trivialization of Sanskrit in colleges

In one of my columns in an English language newspaper, I complained that an average Indian student at the school or college level knows no language well enough and that the proficiency in English that students of medium schools / colleges have acquired can only help them communicate in a few limited contexts.  I traced this linguistic impoverishment to their linguistic apostasy – the almost total neglect of their mother tongue in favour of English – and urged that parents, teachers, and educational authorities should encourage children to develop a healthy interest in their own mother tongue.

By a curious coincidence, the government of Andhra Pradesh announced on the very day the column appeared that Telugu would be a compulsory language for all classes upto Class X from this academic year.  Even in schools where the medium of English is other than Telugu or English, the second language will be Telugu for Classes VI to X.  The new policy seeks to give the mother tongue its due place in the curriculum and implement Telugu as the first official language.  It is a good move against the loss of the mother tongue that I wrote about, though the success of the new policy depends upon how the people concerned at the school level implement it. 

I hope the government introduces a similar scheme at the intermediate and the degree levels also.  At these two levels, there is a great demand for Sanskrit, not because students are fanatical about this so-called deva basha as much as Professor Murali Manohar Joshi was when he was the HRD minister, but because it is easy to score high marks in that language.  At the intermediate/degree level, the majority of students who opt for Sanskrit cannot read or write in the language.  Why should they, when the system doesn't require them to?  In the examination, the students can answer all questions in English and score 90 per cent and above.  Nothing in the college curriculum is so grossly abused and trivialized as the teaching, learning and testing of Sanskrit.

This can be corrected only if the intermediate boards and universities impose two restrictions: one, students who have not studied Sanskrit (or at least Hindi) in the earlier stages should not be allowed to opt for Sanskrit; and, two, in the examination, students should be required to answer all questions in Sanskrit.

Poor merchandise and easy money

Spoken English is on the market now.  Thanks to globalization, the IT revolution of the 1990s, people’s desire to emigrate to their dreamland, call centers, societal pressures and the need to ‘arrive’ in society, the demand for spoken English has greatly increased.  To cash in on this surge of demand, a large number of spoken English ‘shops’ have sprung up.  The traders have certainly prospered.  But do they provide good value for money?

 Once I guided a project on which some of the spoken English ‘shops’ in my own city were investigated.  Our sample was large and representative and so our findings (namely, that the ‘merchandise’, low in quality, is not good value for money) is generalizable.  The inadequacy of the spoken English courses is due to three unsound assumptions on which they are based.

The first unsound assumption is that learning is additive.  The courses attempt to simplify the language learning process by reducing the language into units – words, structures, sounds, etc.  They assume that if the learner masters these units, he will be able recombine them into verbal messages in real-life communication.  But this process doesn’t work: the learner is unable to communicate effectively, putting together the language bits and pieces he has learnt.  Research has disproved this discrete-elements approach; it shows, on the contrary, that learners perceive and acquire a language in complex chunks.

The second unsound assumption is that the sentence is the appropriate unit of planning and performance.  The students of the spoken English courses are given practice exercises in which the utterances exist in isolation; little importance is given to how a sentence takes on meaning in the context.  Even when dialogues are used, the emphasis is on interactional communication (which is meant for the maintenance of social relationships) rather than transactional communication (which is message-oriented).  An Indian learner requires English for transactional reasons.  He is frustrated when he is unable to perform transactional functions in real life, in spite of his having “learnt” spoken English.

Thirdly, the spoken English courses give undue importance to pronunciation.  There are two problems here.  One, the teachers themselves cannot pronounce words in English correctly, stress the right syllables and use the right intonation, and so their trying to teach pronunciation, that too with the Received Pronunciation as the model, is a futile exercise.  Two, in most cases, learners who benefit from the teaching of pronunciation are those who already have a reasonably good accent; those who need remediation seldom show much improvement. But, ignoring these two factors, our spoken English teachers readily accept Professor Higgins as their model.  Higgins is a wrong model because his student was a native English speaker.  She had her English already; all that was required on the professor’s part was to rub off the rough edges of her Cockney tongue.  But our own learners are totally different: they don’t have the language to support the niceties of pronunciation.

Whenever someone asks me to recommend a spoken English course offered in my town, my reply is this colloquial catchphrase: You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Language lab: can it really help?

I wonder if the language laboratory is a current fad in the teaching of English in our country.  At a weekend workshop I ran for teachers of English, a school teacher proudly announced that her school had set up a language lab.  “Things are looking up now”, she added.  She was looked up to by her fellow-participants from other schools who seemed so down-hearted at not having a language lab in their own schools.

On several occasions in the recent past I have heard both school and college teachers complain that they have not been able to make much headway in the teaching of English because they have not been equipped with a language lab.  Interestingly, most of them don’t know what a language lab is and what it can be used for.  If they get one, I’m sure they will be disillusioned.

In Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion (or in its film version, My Fair Lady), Professor Higgins taught a Cockney flower girl the finer graces of English speech.  If you have a similar aim, you can think of a language lab as a means of achieving it.  But there is one problem.  Professor Higgins’s student, Eliza Doolittle, had her English already; the professor’s job, therefore, was not to teach her the language but to rub off the rough edges of her Cockney tongue.  You can’t say the same thing about your own learners.  Most of them don’t have the language to support the niceties of pronunciation you want to teach in your language lab.  This apart, learners who benefit from the teaching of pronunciation are those who already have a reasonably good accent.  Those who need remediation seldom show an appreciable degree of improvement.

Producers of language lab materials are sure to protest.  They will claim that they have interactive packages for developing different language skills.  I have examined the packages produced by some of them.  They can at best be used for developing proficiency in interactional communication rather than transactional communication.  For the latter, the classroom is the best place.

A machine can seldom sustain people’s initial enthusiasm for it; the novelty soon wears off.  A few years ago, when my wife asked me to buy her a static cycle, I was reluctant.  It was because the static cycle had a history of not being touched after a couple of months’ use.  But, as it always happens, my better half’s wish eventually got the better of my better judgement.  The object of her wish, the static cycle, which cost me Rs 4000, lies almost untouched now in a corner of our bedroom.  I hope it doesn’t happen to a language lab.  Even a very small one will cost twenty-five times as much as the static cycle cost me.  If it is left to gather dust, it will certainly pain you, even if you have money to burn.

Accuracy of memory and memorizing

Sometime ago, I interacted with some language teaching experts on the principles of language teaching.  When they said that, in the education system, at any given level in India, the examination tests only memory of reproducible content and that, given the importance the examination enjoys in the system, the entire teaching-learning enterprise is content-based and memory-oriented, I was in complete agreement with them.  But not with the antidote they proposed, which was: "Don't test memory at all."

I'll explain what they meant with a very simple example.  Let's suppose that one of the tests prescribed is Shakespeare's Macbeth.  If one of the questions in the examination is, "Why did Macbeth decide to kill Banquo and his son?"  it is invalid because it places a severe demand on the student's memory.  Instead, if at all you want to ask that question, give the relevant passage from the text in the question paper itself and then ask the question.  Or, make it a multiple choice question.

This seems to be an extremism to me.  If what the experts advocated is representative of how experts in testing think, the pendulum seems to be swinging too far away -- from a preponderance of memory to no memory at all! 

We must distinguish between accuracy of memory and memorizing.  The former is not just desirable but necessary and ought to be promoted.  Otherwise, we will have to suffer, in our everyday life, the embarrassment that Wiener, a famous mathematician, suffered.  Forgetting that he had changed his residence, he went back to his old house on an evening and didn't find his family there.  The neighbours gave him his new address.  He reached the area but couldn't locate the house.  Then he saw a girl in the street and asked her, "Excuse me, do you know where the Wieners live?"  "Oh, come on, Daddy," said the girl, "I'll take you home."

Wiener was an exception; his mind was preoccupied with mathematics.  But in the life of an ordinary person, negligence of memory will lead to decay of accuracy.  Bertrand Russell pointed to a greater danger: adults developing slipshod habits of mind and failing to notice distortions of facts which will have a sinister motive.  What needs to be discouraged, therefore, is not accuracy of memory but rote-learning – memorizing  something without thinking about it or trying to understand it.

It makes sense to say that, in language teaching, what is important is not the ability to remember the content of the set texts but the ability to communicate competently.  But communicative competence does call for accuracy of memory.

Examinations: who guards the guards?

Our education system puts a high premium on examinations.  As in any other aspect of the system, here, too, the teacher factor is crucial: it is teachers that set question papers, administer examinations, and evaluate students' performance.  In any discussion on examinations vis-à-vis teachers, the first and the third are given a lot of importance, but the second, namely, invigilation at examinations, is ignored.  For two reasons: one, the system trusts invigilators, and, two, it doesn't have an alternative.  Do teachers, as invigilators, prove themselves worthy of the trust placed in them?

Well, I'll share with you a couple of representative incidents.  Twelve years ago, I took an examination for a diploma in creative writing (DCW).  I was the only candidate taking the DCW examination in my centre, and all the others were MBA candidates.  Within an hour of the commencement of the examination, the invigilator, the only one for all of us, fell asleep, and the MBA candidates had a field day: there was mass copying for a good half hour.  I woke the invigilator and told him what was happening, but he didn't seem upset.  Within minutes, he dozed off again, which led me to suspect that it was a strategy on his part to help the MBA examinees.

During the course of an SSC examination in Andhra Pradesh, I overhead the students of a Catholic mission school who were taking the examination in one of the centres in Vijayawada complain to their teachers that cheating was rampant in the centre.  The invigilators, they alleged, were busy helping the students from two private schools with answers.  A girl who was taking the SSC examination in the same centre reported something more interesting.  Ever since the examinations commenced, her neighbour in the examination hall, a boy from a different school, had been troubling her for the answers.  When the girl refused to oblige on the first day, the boy's mother went to the girl on the second day, shed tears and begged her to help her son.  "I haven't yielded so far and the boy is getting desperate", the girl said.  Here is the punch-line: one of the invigilators in the examination hall reportedly asked the girl, "What are you going to lose if you help that poor boy?"

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  (Who guards the guards?) asked Juvenal.  Centuries have passed since, but there is no answer.

Some little known facts about exams

“What are you writing about in this week’s column?”  a friend asked me just a day before I was to email my column for the week to the newspaper I was writing for.  “I haven’t decided yet”, I said.  “Then write about exams”, he suggested.  “The examination season begins this week with the Class X students taking their exams from Wednesday.  There will be examinations galore till the end of April.  Why don’t you give students some tips – some inside information – for tackling exams?”

Inside information.  I liked that phrase.  As an insider, I know a thing or two about my fellow-insiders – the people who set exams and mark answers.  Knowing what kind of people they are and what will be acceptable to them will go a long way towards your securing a high score, even if you have a wonderful memory, which is basically what is tested in examinations in India.

Examiners like neat writing.  If you have a good hand, you certainly have an advantage (not just an edge) over people whose answers are as good – or as bad – as yours.  This I discovered even as an outsider thirty-three years ago.  I hadn’t expected to get more than 80 per cent in history and geography in my SSLC examination.  But I got 92 – the highest in the state of Tamil Nadu.  The extra 12, I’m sure, was for my handwriting.

Secondly, a typical examiner is a stick-in-the-mud.  So, you would do well to take the old line.  For instance, if, in the English exam, you are given the sentence, “It is me”, for correction, correct it as ‘It is I”; don’t write that there is no error in the sentence.  I know that you have heard native English people say, “It’s me” on BBC, HBO and sundry other channels.  But the problem is that your examiners don’t seem to watch these channels.  In fact, “It is me” is as old as Shakespeare: in Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew says, “That’s me, I warrant you.”  Today, if someone is quirky enough to say, “It is I”, we must insist that he say, “Whither goest thou?” instead of “Where are you going?”  But the English teacher and the grammar book he has prescribed are quirky enough to believe that “It is I” is the correct form.  But give them what they want; the game you are playing in those three hours is a numbers game after all.

Thirdly, examiners love length.  If the word limit prescribed for an essay is 200 words, don't use just 200 words and disappoint your examiner.  Use at least 300.  The more, the merrier.

Fourthly, if you don’t know the answer to a question and decide to waffle away, be sensible at least in your first paragraph.  Once I evaluated a script which had tolerable first paragraphs with trash in the rest.  Curiosity led me to go in search of the earlier years’ scripts of the same student.  Decorated trash – that’s what I found in them: the scoundrel had got it down to a fine art.  And the rubbish had been ticked and given high marks!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Charming wife: an enigmatic cliché

One of the books I occasionally dip into is a Reader's Digest selection entitled, Sixty Golden Years.  It carries a brilliant piece of writing by Mark Twain.  What has urged me to read the piece ('The Fraudulent Ant') many times over is Twain's inimitable description of the movements of an ant.

Here is a sample:

…he (the ant) fetches up against a pebble and, instead of going around it, he climbs over it backward dragging his booty after him, tumbles down on the other side, jumps up in a passion, kicks the dust off his clothes, moistens his hand, grabs his property viciously, yanks it this way, then that, shoves it ahead of him a moment, lugs it after him another moment…

Each time I read the piece, I am struck by Twain's use of dynamic expressions.  In ruthlessly avoiding stereotyped descriptive phrases, Twain is a refreshing contrast to the cliché expert to whom every mountain is a "majestic mountain", every city is a "bustling metropolis", and every good school or college is a "reputed (not even reputable) institution".

If there is one cliché in the English language which can be most indiscriminately used to describe any woman, it is the word "charming".  I was driven to this conclusion after listening to the overuse -- and misuse -- of this word by speaker after speaker at the annual convention of an international association that I once attended.  The object to which this descriptive expression ("charming") was applied was the wife of a dignitary from abroad, seated with him on the dais.  It was when the first speaker at the convention described the lady as "the most charming wife" of the dignitary that I looked at her for the first time -- and wondered what he meant.  When the second speaker used the same epithet, I sat up and stared at her.  The mystery only deepened.  When the third speaker used the phrase twice with reference to the woman, I became fidgety.  I took off my glasses, polished them, and put them on and goggled at her.  The charms of the lady still remained a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.  Unable to stand the "charms" any longer, I left the hall.  Before I did so, I cast a brief glance in the direction of the "most charming wife" who sat serenely with the all-knowing expression of a Sphinx on her face.

Have you seen the Sphinx?  In pictures, I mean.  If you think the Sphinx looks charming, the lady certainly did.

Blaze a trail and break new ground

“In computer education, the college has blazed a trail and broken new ground”, read a sentence in a recent newspaper article about the achievements of a college in computer education.  I tried to picture the situation: the students and the staff of the college burning a path and breaking a new ground at the same time.  It seemed a purposeless task – the blazing and the breaking, not the picturing.  Then I tried to place computers in the situation: what were they supposed to be doing in a place where a good deal of blazing and breaking was going on?  Whatever, they had to be there because the sentence talked about computers also.  But their presence only made the picture even more incongruous.

Incongruous it may be, but delightful – or, delightful because it is incongruous.  Both “blaze a trail” and “break new ground” are cliches.  By bringing them together in the same situation and creating a metaphorical confusion involving two images at war with each other, the newspaper hack has unwittingly infused life into them.  Here is another odd mix: “He was rushing about like a bull in a china shop, until he found himself on the horns of a dilemma.”  Even more ridiculous – and, therefore, more pleasing – is the metaphorical confusion created by the scientist who announced the discovery of “a virgin field pregnant with possibilities”.  The most delightful of all mixed metaphors, however, is the one produced by that cautious statesman who claimed that he was “sitting on the fence with one ear to the ground”.  Picture that monstrous ear!

Poets are notorious – I mean, famous – for mixed metaphors.  Shakespeare, a densely figurative poet, often mixed metaphors.  Hamlet, in his famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be”, talks about taking “arms against a sea of troubles”.

But that’s just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.  The plot thickens – it’s a plot within an iceberg after all! – the moment we enter the realm of multiple mixed metaphors.  One of the early masters of this art was Sir Boyle Roche, a British parliamentarian, who is reported to have said: “Mr Speaker, I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky; but I’ll nip him in the bud.”  

If you gird up your loins and plough through the mountainous mass of mixed metaphors, you’ll find that the richest crop has been produced by politicians.  (By the way, how’s that multiple mixed metaphor?) The following example (cited by Beresford in his A User’s Guide to Grammar) in which a politician mixes maritime and equestrian imagery, will vouch for the quality of that bumper crop: “We shall sail forth, riding roughshod over the backwoodsmen, to establish a new Jerusalem…”

Mixed metaphors make possible what would normally be impossible.  Thanks to them, you can stir up a hornet’s nest and end up with egg on your face; you can open a Pandora’s box, and Trojan horses will jump out; and, of course, a college can blaze and break the ground at the same time.  Let’s not, therefore, bite the hand that lays golden eggs.

Deferential forms of addresses

Sometime ago, a friend of mine, a young woman whose stable intellectual diet is Hollywood movies and television chat shows, committed a faux pas.  She was walking out of an auditorium after watching a cultural programme when she saw in front of her Krishna Rao, a retired professor of English, whom she had met a couple of times earlier.  "How are you, Mr Krishna Rao?"  she greeted him in a chirpy voice.  The rising intonation fell flat on Krishna Rao's face: what greeted her back was an admonishing look from the professor.  "I only greeted him.  Why did he give me a dirty look?"  the young woman asked me.

Krishna Rao answered the question when I met him a few days later: "I am used to being addressed in a respectful way – as ‘mastraru’ or 'sir' or 'Krishna Rao garu'.  But the lady mistered me: she called me 'Mr Krishna Rao'!  I couldn't stand that familiarity."  I would have shocked him if I had told him that the young woman, who is ten years my junior, and I are on first-name terms.

But Krishna Rao is far from being an exception.  As likely as not, any other Indian of Krishna Rao's stature would have taken offence at being addressed as "Mr--".  We may have taken easily to western social mores, but the old Indian practice of addressing an elderly or a respected person formally in the third person is too deep-rooted to give in to western modes.

There is another aspect to it.  If you are treated with respect in a particular manner by a large number of people over a period of time, you grow to like it and expect to be treated that way, however excessively mannered and ludicrous it may be.  I am used to not only being addressed as "sir" but also being referred to as "sir” ("Sir said he would help us.") by people who are either younger than me or below me in the professional hierarchy.

A young friend carries this a bit too far: he addresses me as "your goodself"!  Here is a sample: "If your goodself comes here at 10 o'clock…"   I won't be surprised even if he says, "Your goodself says in your goodself's column today …"   This deferential form of the second person is in effect the third person and springs from the belief not only in Indian culture but several others that the singular form ("you"), when used with reference to a respected person, is over-familiar and therefore vulgar.  I am so used to this overcourteous form that I wonder whether I will take kindly to the use of the unadorned "you" with reference to me by the same person.

Deferential forms come in handy: they can tone down offence.  If the above-mentioned friend of mine, a master of the Oriental hyperbole, were to apologize to me, he would do so in style: "Your goodself is certainly right and I am wrong, as your goodself always is."  And I would look stupid.