Wednesday, November 28, 2007

SHAKESPEARE OR SAKALESHPUR?

He didn’t know he was writing the name of a taluk in Hassan district, Karntaka. Nor did he even read having written it. Neither was he aware if what he had written would fetch him a mark. He flirted with the phonetics perhaps and wrote the way he possibly could.

Valuing second degree English scripts of a university, this writer to his shock and disbelief found an answer paper where a student had written Sakaleshpur instead of Shakespeare. I could discern the student had the right answer in his mind, but translating into a word by a proper arrangement of letters, the student had badly bungled. Announcing this to my co-valuers, I found the responses ranging from rebuke and ridicule, which is typical of English teachers, to an instant acknowledgement of the fact that there is something amiss in the collective process of teaching and learning. Few could realize, hegemonising skills of grammar over knowledge-based texts would result in such a faux pas.

There is a strange similarity between the two words. Both have eleven letters. Each almost rhymes with the other. Spoken as an Australian or an American would, they sound similar! Except for an ‘L’ and a ‘U’, the letters used are the same. A sub-conscious permutation of letters would only have caused the misspell.

Should I award him a mark? I thought for a moment for I knew he knew the answer. But then it would, though the purpose was served, be a fatuous assessment of the student and also, it would go against the pedagogic principles of language learning and evaluation.

In hindsight I believe I should have awarded him the mark for a teacher of literature and language has cultural as also social responsibilities and further, he cannot act as a pedagogue beyond a point. The student was wayward, no doubt, but the word he wrote in any case resembled that of Shakespeare.

Two and a half decades ago when I joined a mofussil college as an English teacher, grammar learning would stop at plus two stage. Teaching literature was the sole repertoire of English teachers at the degree level. We didn’t have a chimerical notion of grammar. It was when we had firmly believed learning or teaching language per se would make a student know neither literature nor language. The language component was assiduously kept out. The nuances of language we thought had to be imbibed through a literary orientation for literature is always an engagement with the masses speaking different tongues and churning out different possibilities of life. Teaching literature, we would have taught life and language together.

Only recently has imparting genesis of language acquired a preponderant space what with globalisation demanding intricacies and skills of English as more than essential things in the much hyped up economic and cultural discourses.

Coming as it did to us as a colonial baggage, English has acquired a super-speciality status donning as many roles as it can to suit the need of the hour. Being used as a link language to begin with, English became a cultural and social necessity in course of time. Leaving behind all Indian languages to their territorial and parochial boundaries, English over the last few years has impregnably conquered an unenviable space denting fanatic murmurs of native language activists. The result, fanaticism has grown, so also has English.

As a language, English in the formative years of India’s independence was learnt and spoken in the same manner as the native speakers of English did. Our English writers of fiction and poetry wrote in the way that almost superimposed either a Hardy or a Dicken’s or even a Wordsworth on their writings. R. K. Narayan’s novels strangely resemble Hardy’s Wessex narratives. Kuvempu in the early stages used to write poems in English that taken off the wrapper would prove to be ones written by Wordsworth. English had thus begun to acquire a hegemonical importance over and above native languages. At the cultural level English became a new lease of life, a source of liberation from the hierarchical structures of class, creed and other distinctions. Gradually, the same language, may be, in varied hues became a decolonising tool as is evident in the writings of a Rushdie or Arundathi Roy or even Vikram Seth. Ambedkar embraced English as an antidote to overcoming social and cultural hiatus.

Things have further changed since then. English is no more a language that would preempt and dislodge our own languages. On the other hand, English has simulated into our psyche a working ethos without which a great deal of modern India stands still. Whether we want it or not, English has grown into a paradigm of modern culture and development. No alternative appears in sight to a language which has taken on itself avuncular as also patriarchal responsibilities in the context of a global culture. English as a monolith has seeped into our social and cultural fabric transforming it beyond its frenetic, nevertheless diverse anatomy. For political and civilisational reasons, English has been a homogenising tool needed to transform a divisive and heterogonous cultural and social landscape into a unique and tendentiously pristine monologue of a singular mode of thought and expression.

In the last few years, universities which believe they have a stake in englishising a laid back culture and society have started modifying literature oriented English syllabi by bringing in bouts of language learning skills and prescribing separate work books on grammar and composition for the students to work out in the class. A language teacher is more a facilitator, they say. But the pedagogic nature of these books is always suspect for what the students have since their school days learnt and studied is reproduced with abysmally easy illustrations. Universities seem to still believe students have not picked up threads of Grammar when they arrive at the plus two level and after. True, but language learning has to stop at some stage leaving a definite space for the students to think of higher truths of life. To continue to believe students are language infirm for the purpose is only to condescendingly judge their innate capacity at the undergraduate level when their perceptive responses to literature and culture are more positive than their tentative and forced leaning towards learning skills of language which are always stoked with fear and a sense of being intimidated to be learning something reluctantly. But the universities believe theirs is also some kind of white man’s burden in preparing our students with a wild card for an entry into global market!

The idea though looks noble at the outset is in itself stymied and short sighted. Reintroducing grammar component which is no different from what is in vogue at schools demoralizes students to be told over and over again their language needs mending. They would develop pathological hatred towards language learning and also towards teachers some of whom are characterized by an equal share of pathological discontent for teaching a pedagogical text shorn off its spiritual and mundane qualities.

Teaching language in a class room situation at the degree level lacks its emotive intent. At best it could be imparting skills in the use of language , and at worst it could precipitate into an absurd drama where only one person acts and facilitates while at another end students doze off! You teach a Dickens or a Blake or an essay on culture by Matthew Arnold of yester years or on imperialist discourses by Arundhati Roy of today, you will find students sit up and listen. They would begin to involve you and themselves animatedly. Ideas would flourish in a dialogic exchange. A monologic and enervating exercise would give way to refreshingly spiritful array of opinions and remarks. You would not enliven a class better.

Pedagogy in today’s system of education is the worst and most dangerous thing to happen to a student at the university level. It preempts knowledge acquiring and enhancing stimulus. College education should be anything, but pedagogic. Grammar lessons always have a pedagogic oeuvre, creating resistance and making students vary of attending classes.

Prescribing and enlisting topics for study of language has a way of transporting colonial legacy of a different kind where the importance of English language is too far stressed and romanticized. The talk of need based and practical linguistics too has a delimiting resonance. It avows to transform an English class into a clinical lab where your positions and prepositions would be tested. It would a clause correcting class act in a class of classic dynamism! You class struggle to pass, then you are a proud owner of a wild card.

English teachers have a stake here. They should not consider themselves to be at the helm teaching age old, worn out and clichéd expressions of grammar which ironically do not have a place even in English speaking nations. Queen’s English that we have been teaching for decades is a matter to be sent back to its colonial barracks. It is only a relic to be treasured in its own place of origin.

Nor do we have to consider teaching neo colonial and global outfits of English language which again are reflections of another legacy being seriously interrogated alongside the process of globalisation itself in the third world countries. A student graduating from a university would choose the kind of English he needs in the kind of world he chooses to live in for there are as many Englishes spoken in different worlds as there are intrepid and varied voices abounding in national and transnational situations. The kind of English taught at universities would prove increasingly detrimental as nowhere is such English spoken.

Yes, there are Spoken English courses offered by private institutes. In the little town where I reside crash courses in Spoken English are on a platter available to the needy not to speak of cities like Bangalore where every posh street is not without a spoken English clinic. They wouldn’t help them a wee bit either. For, which Spoken English they teach is a moot question. There is not one unique Spoken English spoken all over the world like the queen’s English. English today has many avatars changing its garb as the situation warrants.

Students too have their own share of blame. They don’t want to learn a language through its artifacts. What they desire is a capsule of spoken English to be swallowed whenever they have a symptom of their English being infirm and functionally deficient. They carry those capsules as a diabetic would a little lump of sugar to be used when he feels his sugar level is dropping!

It is high time that the universities as also English teachers paid their last respects to pedagogic nature of class rooms. English teachers in particular should present themselves not as pedagogues anymore, but as ideologues of overwhelming bearing in the context of a globalised world.

If we had taught more Shakespears, or Dickens, or Blakes, the student would have by reflexes alone known how to spell Shakespeare. Yes, reflexes are what a student trying to learn a language needs and it is what we should help enhance.

Whether we want more Shakespears or Sakaleshpurs is for the universities and English teachers to decide and halt future deterioration of sense and sensibility among the learners before long.

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