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.