Teaching English the modern way: Mind your language

By Zubeida Mustafa

It might sound paradoxical but the fact is that in spite of English being quite commonly used in Pakistan, a foreigner visiting this country can face considerable difficulty in communicating with the people he meets in the course of his travel. Not many of the people he would come in contact with in restaurants and hotels (not the five-star ones), on the road, at airports and railway stations can speak English.

Marion-GeddesThis was Ms Marion Geddes’ experience when she recently visited Islamabad for the first time on a three-week assignment for the British Ministry of Overseas Development and the Allama Iqbal Open University. The AIOU is considering introducing a non-credit course in English language to be taught through television which would also be accompanied with printed material.

Marion, a free-lance English teacher who has conducted English language courses for foreigners in Britain and is a teacher trainer, has been asked to prepare a feasibility report on the project.

“There is tremendous amount of need for teaching English in Pakistan at different levels,” Marion observed while she was in Karachi for a day. “Many people use the language. But they can only read and write English. They lack the confidence and practice to speak it.”

It is not difficult to understand why. English is not taught as a language should be, that is, as a vehicle of communication as Marion described it. She felt that in Pakistan the approach to language teaching is too bookish. The large size of the classes and the orientation of the textbooks encourage this approach even more.

“English is taught as a language of literature and not as a language of everyday communication,” Marion said. “Thus there is very little stress on conversational English. The teachers do all the talking and the students never get to learn to speak the language.”

This is a pity especially if it is recalled that every pupil who matriculates from school spends at least five years learning English which is a compulsory subject. This period should be sufficient to make him functionally proficient in the language. But it invariably doesn’t. This is to be regretted all the more because, as Marion pointed out, English is important as the language of international communication — in diplomacy, commerce, trade, travel and education.

In the last decade or so there has been a fundamental shift in the approach to language teaching all over the world — and it might be English or French, a mother tongue or a foreign language. The emphasis is not so much on form or grammar. The thrust is towards looking at the functions of a language. Not that grammar is no longer needed.

It has to be taught to help a student understand the structure of a language. But it is considered more essential that the student learns to use a language in real life situations. That is why Marion lays particular stress on group work in which students act out roles and use conversational English. She feels that the opportunity to experience and use the language is more important than accuracy.

Moreover, she feels that students are not taught different skills such as skimming and scanning in addition to reading for details. As a result they miss out on so much because they cannot employ their reading skill for different purposes.

Seen in this perspective, Marion feels that television can be a useful medium to teach English because it concentrates on the spoken language. With the experience she gained in India in 1970-72 when as a British Council expert she helped Doordarshan prepare English language programmes,. Marion says confidently that television can make the language learning process lively, entertaining and fun.

“When teaching a language on television you do not have to project the classroom situation. Instead you can have short plays and skits depicting real life situations to teach a person how to speak the language,” Marion observed. Marion might not know but this is not exactly how many of PTVs programmes are designed. Vide Iqra with all its classroom paraphernalia: a teacher with his wooden pointer, the blackboard and the students learning by rote.

Marion represents one of the new class of English language, teachers who want to apply the latest methodology to impart reading, writing and speaking skills more efficiently. She is widely travelled, having visited 50 or so countries, mostly Third World, on her mission to teach English the modern way. She came to Karachi from Islamabad specially to meet members of SPELT (Society of Pakistan English Language Teachers) who, she finds, are fully aware of the scope, opportunities and problems of English language teaching in Pakistan.

SPELT is affiliated with the UK-based International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign, Language (LATEFL) of which Marion is also a member. Since 1984 when SPELT was founded, it has been active in the field. The Society has conducted workshops for teachers and has prepared an indepth study on the English curricula and textbooks in use in schools and colleges.

SPELT protests that the approach to English language teaching in Pakistan is not scientific. It has a point. After all, you cannot dispute what Marion says she saw on the signboard of a garment shop in Lahore: that the store specialised in Bridle Wear!

Source: Dawn  1 April 1988