Saturday, 15 August 2015

Appropriateness of terms for languages

Naming a language as x or y

This is based on a theme discussed in Chapter 1 of H H Stern’s Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching, published by OUP in 1987 as the fifth impression.

In his book, Stern provides the following terms to refer to mother tongue and other languages a person knows and uses; the terms imply varying levels of knowledge and proficiency:

first language
native language
mother tongue (the vernacular)
primary language
stronger language

second language
non-native language
foreign language
secondary language
weaker language
language of wider communication
standard language
regional language
national language
official language
modern language
classical language

Terns under L1 and L2 groups indicate the relationship between an individual or a group and a language at a personal level whereas terms in the third group refer to the relationship between a language and a group in terms of geography, social function, political status etc. The first relationship is subjective whereas the second one, objective.

The L1 and L2 terms indicate two things:
    1. acquisition process
    2. proficiency level
But the terms in both groups are not clearly distinct and are fluid in the descriptions and so don’t mean the same thing to all people living in an area. The distinction between L1 and L2 poses no problem in countries like England, France or German where the populations speak one common language which is L1 for the natives and which is L2 for non-natives living or staying in those countries. ‘But in many language situations the relative position of the languages is not as simple. The languages of the home, neighbourhood, school, region or nation may form intricate patterns of bilingualism and multilingualism. The language experiences in these situations make the boundaries between L1 and L2 learning far less definite.’(Stern 1983: 13)

Indefiniteness of terms under L1 and L2 groups
I’ll take myself as an example to illustrate this, living as I do in Thamizh Nadu, a South East Indian State on the shores of Bay of Bengal.

I can say I know six languages: Thelugu, Thamizh (generally spelt as ‘Tamil’), English, Hindi, Malayalam, Amharic. Thelugu, the regional language and the native language of Andhra Pradesh, I acquired from my infancy, early childhood (hence, ‘first’, ‘native’ or ‘primary’) and within the family (hence ‘mother tongue’). However, it’s NOT my stronger language for several reasons. I lived in Andhra with my parents till I was nine years old and so my Thelugu was ‘native’ enough to communicate. But I lived with my maternal grandmother in Thamizh Nadu for the next twenty years, learnt formal Thamizh (through study in school) and informal Thamizh (through social interaction) and I spoke Thelugu only with my grandmother, my parents and relatives from Andhra Pradesh when they paid visits or when  we met during festive occasions. My vocabulary was a mixed bag of Thelugu and Thamiz words, the ratio being higher in the case of the latter), so much so my speaking proficiency rate of Thelugu became lower and lower as time passed and my relatives in Andhra during visits used to be amused at my poor (‘corrupt’ as they called it) use of Thelugu; yet, I can get the general drift, even today, of written Thelugu in newspapers and of lectures. Thamizh gradually became my stronger language and I’ve been as good as any native user of the language, and it has thus become and been my another first language.  

English I learnt as a subject in school (1952—1957) where teachers explained in Thamizh. At home, I read and wrote chapter-wise summaries of abridged versions of famous English novels and showed them for correction to my maternal grandfather’s younger brother, went to public library to read English newspapers and dutifully summarised the news items to my grandmother, I had to write to my father letters in English stating my monthly progress in studies. English became the medium of learning in my P.U.C., BA and MA courses. This was when I started using English to speak. I started my teaching career in 1963 which ended in 2005. Thus, initially English was my third language and over a period of time became my second language and for several decades it has been my first and primary language along with Thelugu and Thamizh.

Hindi, the national language of India, I learnt as my fourth language as part of school curriculum. It was my second language in my PUC and BA courses and I was so good at it that for a short period I considered doing my post-graduation in it. I began to use it in Ethiopia to converse with Indian colleagues from North India—from Delhi, Punjab, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Orissa (now Odisha)—who spoke Hindi as well as they did their first languages. The Hindi that I knew was bookish and I learnt conversational Hindi from these friends where to my shock I found that grammar was the casualty, like it is in Thamizh and other languages. Since my return to India from Africa, though I’ve hardly had occasion to use Hindi to communicate, I’m fairly fluent in Hindi even today.

Malayalam, the regional language and L1 of Kerala, a South-West Indian State, is my fifth language. I learnt it from my colleagues in Ethiopia, and I was almost thirty; learning it was easy because it’s closer to Thamizh. I learnt to speak Malayalam like my friends. Since my return to India , I’ve had almost no opportunity to use it and whenever I need to use it I struggle to express myself.

Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, is my sixth language. I was almost thirty when I learnt it because of ‘atmospheric pressure’—I needed it to communicate to shopkeepers, servants, neighbours. Soon I began to speak like an Amhara, and this pleased the locals no end. I learnt it also because I could use it to teach English and to help students grasp English lexis and structure by comparison. Honestly, I didn’t know then that bilingualism was a teaching technique. Even though I left Ethiopia in 1977 and I haven’t spoken it since, I’m confident that I can greet Ethiopians with ease and surprise them if an occasion arose.

In sum, Thelugu is my mother tongue, first language, (native language ?). It is my primary language as well while communicating with those to whom Thelugu is the mother tongue—anywhere in the world. But it’s my weaker language by comparison. Thamizh has moved from second language status to primary language status since 1957. English has moved from third language status to primary language status since 1959. Hindi has remained a second language and is neither weak nor strong. Malayalam is my weaker language, and there’s no term to describe my relationship with Amharic, except to say it’s my weakest. I thus have three primary languages, one second language and two weak languages, the proficiency level being equal in Thamizh and English and in decreasing order in Hindi, Malayalam and Amhric.       

Other multilinguals in India and elsewhere may have similar language experiences. 

SL and FL
Two terms under L2 group that are not clearly demarcated with reference to countries like India, Ethiopia are second language and foreign language. A language is deemed ‘foreign’ to its learner when native speakers of that language live outside the country of the learner. In this sense, English is a foreign language. A language is called ‘second’ to its learner when it is learnt and used in their country. In this sense, English is a second language. What is not clear here is for what purposes the so-called second language is used. For instance, it may be the medium for official communication between the national and state governments, for written correspondence and medium of instruction of education from the start or later in the process but not the spoken medium and whose native speakers live thousands of miles away. In Ethiopia for instance English is only used as the learning medium only at university level. In India, it’s an optional medium of learning from school level but it’s the only medium of learning in higher education; socially, it’s used as the spoken medium only when people from different states visit another state, which is not very often but it’s used to speak and write in private firms. In Canada, English is number two language for French-speaking Canadians and French is number two language for English-speaking Canadians. However, the proficiency levels may vary from person to person, and either language can become first language along with the mother tongue.    


The ELT literature uses TESOL in place of TESL and TEFL. Existing terms have been found wanting in describing a person’s ability to use languages in addition to their mother tongue. So I feel another language can be used in place of ‘non-native’, ‘second’ or ‘foreign’ as an umbrella term to cover any language other than the mother tongue. The quality of other languages as far as their use is concerned can be thought of as subsets under ‘another’ language. We’ll now have only two expressions: mother tongue and another language and there’ll be no confusion. I suggest TEAL/LEAL: Teaching English as Another Language/ Learning English as Another Language       

Friday, 14 August 2015

Two contrasting theories

Acquisition of Language

In terms of theoretical significance, language acquisition is no different from language learning, barring of course the technical distinction brought about by Krashen. Modern linguistics and modern psychology are two of the disciplines that are intimately tied to language and the paradigms proposed in relation to language and language acquisition. A paradigm is a set of shared assumptions regarding what is relevant and what is irrelevant. As far as language acquisition is concerned, we have two paradigms: Structural and Chomskian.

The Structuralist Paradigm (S. P.)
In this paradigm, answers to
   a. what is language?
   b. what are the goals of linguistics?
   c. what are the relevant data for linguistics?
   d. what are the procedures used in linguistics?
were attempted. The answer to question (a) is closely tied to concept of language in terms of language acquisition.

In this paradigm, language was treated as the sum total of sentences produced by a speech community. “The totality of utterances made in a speech community is the language of that speech community” (Bloomfield). Such treatment of language was the result of two factors. One , Bloomfield took it upon himself to delimit the role of linguistics (no longer as an auxiliary of anthropology, rhetoric and philosophy) and to make linguistics autonomous and scientific. To Bloomfield, ‘scientific’ meant rejection of all data that was not directly observable or physically measurable. The other is the influence on Bloomfield of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour. Rejecting the parole—langue distinction, Skinner adopted a strictly behaviouristic point of view and argued that the only observable object of scientific study is the verbal behaviour, the speech utterances and texts (parole). Langue, according to Skinner, is a mentalistic and unscientific abstraction. Consequently, passion for being empirical, for being ‘scientific’, for making linguistics a discipline in its own right led Bloomfield to ignore the existence of meaning, to decide ‘in the division of scientific labour, the linguist deals only with speech signal’ and to assert that language learning was a matter of imitation and reproduction. Thus based on its assumptions about the definition of science and of language acquisition, the structuralist paradigm proposed parole as the corpus of linguistic analysis and discovery procedure for identification of linguistic elements and their classification.

Chomskian Paradigm (C.P)
Again, we are concerned here with Chomsky’s answer to the question ‘what is language?’ Chomsky criticised the structuralist paradigm and proposed a new one.

Chomsky rejected the Stimulus—Response based and environment-based theory of linguistic behaviour because structural linguistics did not lead to an understanding of a language as a system of rule-governed relationships. These ‘rules’ are instructions for generating all possible sentences of the language and are based on what people say (Palmer: Grammar).

By describing language as overt behaviour conditioned by response to stimuli through imitation, reinforcement and reproduction, the S.P. had failed to account for the creativity of language use. It has no explanation for the native speakers’ ability to produce and understand an infinite number of sentences. Obviously, they couldn’t have acquired an infinite set of sentences through imitation and practice.

S.P treated language as behaviour and equated this behaviour with other forms of behaviour. But language is now considered species uniform and species specific. C.P. claims that the human brain must have certain properties that determine the nature and acquisition of language. It acknowledges language as a rule-governed system where the rules are ‘not only intricate but also quite abstract’. Such mentalist paradigm contrasts with the mechanistic paradigm.

S.P. cannot explain how a child is able to exhibit in an incredibly short period a rich and systematic mastery of language for all purposes, considering the exposure to language (environment) is so meagre, incomplete and unsystematic. C.P. explains this ability as the result of a process in the brain. The innate language learning ability takes the form of language acquisition device (LAD) that processes by hypothesis testing. Consequently, children acquire a language by making hypothesis about the form of the grammar with which they are surrounded. They then compare this with their innate knowledge of possible grammars based on the principles of universal grammar. In this way, the child internalises a knowledge of the grammar of the native language use (performance) possible. Language use is thus rule-governed behaviour that enables speakers to create new utterances to conform to the rules they have internalised.

Thus Chomskian paradigm proposes competence (langue), explains performance (parole) and predicts all potential sentences with the intuitive judgements of the native speaker.

In conclusion, stuructualism considered environment basic to learning, and learning was conditioned, imitative and mechanical. The Theory of Innate Language Structures plays down the role of environment and stress the importance of genetic characters.   

Relationship between linguistics and classroom teaching

The linguist and the teacher

It would not probably be untrue to say there was never a moment in the formal teaching of language when linguistics has not had a say in deciding the language content. Decisions about words and structures were always taken, and fluctuation has always been there in deciding the language mode through which language needed to be introduced. The teacher had always taken decisions for the absentee or non-existent linguist. Non-teachers like Erasmus, Marcel, Prendengast, Sweet certainly there were. But teachers like Quintilian, Palsgrave, Hoole, Hamilton, Ollendroff, Gouin, Pestalozzi, Palmer were the ones who provided principles of language teaching. While West was wedded to reforms on practical concerns, Vietor, Passy, Jesperson were teacher-turned-phoneticians. However, like in the 18th century when teachers in general used only existing form language study in spite of increasing interest in historical and comparative studies of languages, language teaching theorists except Palmer at the turn of the century hardly revealed any distinct awareness of the need to use linguistics in its new formal shape. (As though reciprocally!) neither did the theoretical linguists concern themselves with issues in language teaching, say the question of vocabulary control.

But with the arrival of Bloomfield and his Language, everything changed. Both were to have tremendous influence on linguists and language teaching. Bloomfield was critical of conventional language teaching. Linguists became more interested in his concepts and began to refine and use them for more rigorous descriptions of languages. Linguistics had come of age and had become a discipline in its own right. Fries and his colleagues rejected approaches like the Direct Method and, applying structural linguistics, showed how the sound system, the structures and the most useful lexical material could be derived from available linguistic knowledge and organised for language teaching purposes. and with them the linguist had arrived in the language teaching, and the teacher had to follow him. The applied linguist began to tell the teacher what to teach and how to teach. The teacher was supposed to remember constantly the most compelling commandment: Teach the language, not about the language.

A sudden transformation had come about. The teacher without a grounding in linguistics would not be considered knowledgeable, let alone be permitted to contribute to language teaching. The arrival of transformational generative grammar did not help though questions began to be raised about the role of linguistics in language teaching. Now the teacher had to know about deep structure, too. He had to make sure learning took place through problem-solving tasks.

This was not the end of the story. Hymes questioned Chomsky’s linguistic competence and introduced communicative competence. Newer concepts and practices for the benefit of the teacher of course have emerged in the garb of communicative language teaching. And since about 1970 linguistics has begun the study of language beyond the sentence through discourse analysis. And in between these developments, English for Specific Purposes with its language variations, registers, discourse is another thing the teacher has to contend with. And he has to comprehend creative construction hypothesis as a counter claim to interference hypothesis of contrastive linguistics. And for the teacher of literature, stylistics has changed the colours of critical appreciation by introducing and emphasising the linguistic aspects of a literary piece.

Curriculum, syllabus, materials writing have become sophisticated and are supposed to reflect in their objectives, language content, texts and techniques, of course for the benefit of the teacher, a given theory and its realisation in pedagogical terms. Teacher trainers are also expected to introduce the teacher to all new, ever-growing innovations, classroom techniques geared to successful teaching: motivate, draw and retain attention through presentation, arouse the learner through thinking exercises, consolidate, revise, remediate. A variety of drills for pattern practice has become central to classroom techniques. Language teaching also reflects the theoretical concepts that have formed the base for the edifice of language teaching. And the teacher is supposed not only to know how to write test items in conformity with the underlying concepts but to be able to evaluate objectively learner performance, achievement, proficiency.

Now the question is whether or not linguistics is behind the teacher, whether or not linguistics has a place in the classroom, whether or not a knowledge of linguistics is useful to the (classroom) teacher who teaches mechanically might not need a knowledge of linguistics to perform for he is likely to follow the text and the syllabus blindly, and his failure would be that of the writers of materials, syllabus and curriculum. And technically he might not be wrong. However, as no curriculum, no syllabus, no text can bring to classroom a theory in its fullness, in its richness, as none of them can minimise the inherent weaknesses, the teacher becomes responsible.

Traditional grammar / Traditional grammarian

Traditional grammars are largely remembered for their fundamental conceptions about the nature of language. They relate to quite basic issues about language. And they fall under three essential categories:
    1. The written language was more fundamental than the spoken
    2. A particular form of the written language, namely the literary language, was inherently
        purer and more correct than all other forms of the language, written or spoken.
    3. It was the task of the grammarian to preserve this form of the language from corruption. As a consequence, they prescribe rather than describe.

Traditional grammars fail to recognise the spoken and written forms of a language as different modes, displaying very different patterns of grammar and vocabulary and the illogicality of applying rules to one that are made for the other. For instance, rules instruct us to say ‘shall’ after ‘I’ and not ‘will’; in speech, however, ‘I’ll’ is most common. Besides, we begin to speak before we write. Most of us speak far more than we write in everyday life. All natural languages were spoken before they were written, and there are many languages in the world today which have never been written down. To base one’s statements about language on writing rather than speech is therefore a reversal of linguistic priorities.

Related to this is the point that in most traditional grammars the material presented does not even cover the whole range of the language’s written forms, but is restricted to specific kinds of writing—the more formal styles, in particular. Anything informal tends to be religiously avoided or if included is castigated as ‘slang’ and labelled as ‘bad grammar’; though very often the informality is in regular and widespread use by educated people. For example, it is not a question of ‘whom’ being correct usage and ‘who’ being incorrect. It would be inappropriate to introduce formality in an informal conversation, as it would be to introduce informality in an official occasion. ‘Never end a sentence with a preposition’ fails to take the formality difference into account. Besides, we tend to get a distorted view of the proportions and function of language forms that the language described in grammar books is normal general usage. In language description, absolute standards rarely exist.

Traditional grammarians turned to the ‘usage’ of the ‘best’ authors. Early dictionaries did this also, including only those words which had been used by a reputable author. Most of the quotations illustrating grammatical rules in even fairly modern grammatical handbooks are taken from novelists or non-fiction writers. Clearly, the result of applying such standard is to produce a description of a very restricted, specialised literary English.

Traditional grammar described English on the basis of another language—Latin. We find rules about English which tell us to say “it is I’ instead of ‘it’s me’. English has only two noun cases. To think it has five or six is an obvious example of Latin interfering with the description of the English language. Gender is assumed to be a characteristic of all languages because of Latin and is therefore assumed to be a category of English. But English has no gender. Pairs of words such as  brother/sister, bull/cow refer to ‘male’ and ‘female’ and are hence lexical; the suffix ‘ess’ is also a lexical feature—a matter of derivation, not of grammatical gender. Traditional grammar says English has three tenses but in actuality only two—the past and the present—are there. The paradigm ‘I shall’, ‘you will’, ‘he will’ is purely a grammarian’s invention. Careful investigation has shown that there is no evidence for the use of ‘I shall’, ‘we shall’ as regular forms.

Traditional grammars are guilty of semantic fallacy. Traditionally an interrogative sentence is one that asks a question. But the interrogative sentence:
                     Would you mind closing the window?
is not really a question but a request. The sentence:
                      you’re working at IIT?
is a declarative, though an echo question. If we go by the description ‘A noun is the name of a person, place, or thing’, words like ‘red’ ‘blue’ should be nouns because they are names of colours. If verbs are ‘doing words’, then what about words like ‘seem’ and ‘be’ which are definitely verbs but which do nothing?

Word is said to be a linguistic unit that has a single meaning. The difficulty is, of course, in deciding what is meant by ‘single meaning’. If ‘dance’ has a single meaning, then ‘dancer’ has more because it means ‘one who dances’, ‘look down upon’ cannot be divided into three meaning units but have a single meaning of ‘have a low opinion of’ and word division does not appear to correspond to meaning division. For instance, a ‘criminal lawyer’ is not both ‘criminal’ and ‘lawyer’. The sentence is, it’s said, the expression of a complete thought. How do we know what a complete thought is? Aren’t ‘carrot’ and ‘woman’, for instance, complete thoughts? Does the sentence ‘My wife read while I watched TV’ contain one complete thought or two?

That the traditional grammars mix up different criteria is evident in the definitions of parts of speech. If the definition of ‘noun’ is based on meaning, the definition of adjective is based on function. Besides, is ‘college’ in ‘college girl’ a noun or an adjective?

Latin was not the only authority these grammarians turned to when wondering about what to do about English grammar. They used logic to explain or condemn a usage. Logically, two negatives may make a positive: I’m not unhappy, which is almost synonymous to ‘I’m happy’. But two negatives can also make a more emphatic negative as in ‘I’ve not done nothing’. Taboos on common usage like ‘more perfect’, ‘rounder’ are examples of logical fallacy. ‘I didn’t like nobody’ may not be ‘good’ English but no rules are broken because this structure is common in an English dialect. Logic was invoked to say ‘He’s taller than I’ is right because ‘than’ was a conjunction and so required ‘I’. But this argument fails if we insist that ‘than’ is a preposition, too and so requires ‘me’. Traditional grammar would not consider logical sentences like ‘If everybody minded their business...’ because ‘everybody’ couldn’t be referred to by ‘their’. But ‘their’ functions not only as the plural possessive but also as a singular possessive when sex is unknown.

To sum up, the ‘traditional’ attitude to language was ‘prescriptive’ Traditional grammarians  didn’t try to describe the language as it functioned since they believed that the language of the past and the language of literary writers was the best and everything else was corrupt. Thus they ignored two realities—history and language variations. No wonder then if they made rules about how language OUGHT to be used in conformity with their standard.

However, there’s no gainsaying the fact that traditional grammar did provide us with a beginning in language analysis.

Two modes of language

Spoken and Written Language

Speech and writing are two of the modes that language has always used for purposes of communication. Most languages exist in both these modes though there are some that exist only in the spoken mode.

The kind of relationship that was considered to have existed till recently between speech and writing is largely attributed to the debt of the traditional grammar to the kind of literary and linguistic research that ensured in Alexandria in the third and second centuries B.C. During this time, restoration of original texts that had come intolerably corrupt, attempt to decide between genuine and spurious works, admiration for the great literary works of the past encouraged the belief that the language in which they were written was itself inherently ‘purer’, more ‘correct’ than the colloquial speech of Alexandria and other Hellenistic centres. Thus the Hellenistic scholars combined the aim of establishing and explaining the language of the classical authors with a desire to preserve Greek from corruption by the ignorant and the unlettered. The Roman grammarians followed the Greek models in general assumptions about language and also in points of detail. A typical Latin grammar dealt with the art of correct speech, understanding of poets, treating of parts of speech in terms of tense, gender, number, case etc. and discussed good and bad style, warned against common ‘faults’ and ‘barmarisms’ and gave examples of the recommended ‘figures of speech’. The grammar of Priscian was used as teaching grammar through the Middle Ages and as late as the seventeenth century. And when English as a vernacular assessed itself, its grammar was fashioned after that of Latin which in turn had been fashioned after that of Greek.

Naturally, English grammar reflected the ‘classical fallacy in the study of language handed down to it from Greek times. Greek linguistic scholarship was concerned primarily with the written language because of the tendency to consider the spoken language as dependent on and derived from the written language. The second misconception was the assumption that the language of the fifth century Attic writers was more ‘correct’ than the colloquial speech of their own time and that the ‘purity’ of a language was maintained by the usage of the educated and ‘corrupted’ by the illiterate.

But the contemporary linguist maintains that the spoken language is primary and that writing is essentially a means of representing speech in another mode. Of course he’s not without his arguments. We know of no system of writing with a history of more than some six or seven thousand years. On the other hand, there is no group of people known to exist or to have existed without the capacity of speech; and many hundreds of languages have never been associated with a writing system until they were committed to writing by missionaries or linguists in our own day.

For more relevant to understanding the relation between speech and writing is the fact that all systems of writing are demonstrably based upon units of spoken language. In the description of spoken language, the linguist generally finds that he must recognise units like ‘sounds’, ‘syllables’ and ‘words’. Now all commonly-used systems of writing take one or other of these units as basic: alphabetic systems being used on ‘sound’, ‘syllabic’ on ‘syllables’ and ideogrpahic on words.

However, this argument cannot be carried too far. It may be said that homophones like ‘great’ and ‘grate’, ‘meat’ and ‘meet’ are not distinguished in their spoken form. Spelling ‘reforms’ is another instance.

However, it should not be forgotten that in the more advanced civilisations at least, where a highly developed written language is in daily use by millions of people, even purely passively, for example, in the reading of newspapers, there are likely to be developments in written language which are not preceded by or even paralleled by developments in the spoken language. Literature is the obvious and perhaps the most important category, scientific and legal writing are some others. Again there are likely to be circumstances in which independent developments in written language do have an influence on spoken language: expressions like ‘chortle’, ‘galumph’, ‘UNESCO, ‘POW’, ‘zap’ (Wallwork: language and linguistics 1969:15—16). Both the modes may in advanced societies cam to diverge from one another considerably in vocabulary and grammar. Modern French affords a particularly striking example of this. Written and spoken French (to a greater degree than written and spoken English) are learned and used by educated Frenchmen as partially independent languages (Lyons—Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics 1971:40—41). And societies have employed languages like Latin, Sanskrit in their written mode even when they have ceased to exist as spoken languages.

From another angle, considering the amount of printing that takes place (books, journal, newspapers) written language, more than the spoken one can be said to have been responsible for dissemination of information, sharing of views, spreading of concepts and philosophies. From yet another angle, that of ‘durability’, of themselves as it were sound-sequences died away and if they are not ‘decoded’ on the spot, were lost forever. But the availability of written mode ensures transmission of messages and their preservation for future reference. The differences in the conditions under which speech and writing are employed are such that it would be inaccurate to say of languages with a long history of literacy behind them that writing is merely the transference of speech to an alternative substance.

A word about teaching language—whether first, second or foreign—since both the modes  under discussion are as intimately related to teaching as to linguistics (Or rather to learning as curriculum is being thought of more learner-centred than linguistics-centred.) In ancient times, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the written mode had always followed the spoken mode. And between sixteenth and till the 1950’s the focus was on the written mode. During every period, there were dissenting voices (Comenius, Montaigne, Locke). Reaction to the Grammar-Translation led to the Direct Method. Palmer in Britain and Fries in America made teaching scientific, drawing respectively on Associationism and behaviourism. However, both insisted on teaching starting with oral training. And through efforts by several independent agencies moving towards the same goal of making teaching more meaningful than it was, there has been shift in emphasis from form to meaning through Communicative Language Teaching. This latest move recognises mutual interdependence of receptive and productive skills as reflected in spoken and written modes of language.

Do Learn Grammar

Grammar and You

If there’s one thing you don’t like to learn or know about, it’s grammar—be it English or mother tongue. In fact, you’re averse to learning English grammar. Even teachers may not be happy teaching it because you may raise issues for which they may not have ready- made answers. 

What is grammar? You may say it’s a bag full of dos and don’ts. I won’t blame you because that is the impression or feeling every non-native student of English gets or experiences. You’ve learnt the grammar of your tongue right from the time you were in your mother’s womb, you hear it everywhere all the time, you speak and write it all the time. This is not the case with English. Do you hear it used around you—in your home, in your street, in your school, in shops, in public places? No, you don’t, unless you’re in a big city. Yet, English is very important to you for various reasons—they being obvious. You have to learn to use English. How do you do that? From grammar lessons, from English textbooks, from fiction, from films, from TV channels.

Your dislike or hatred for grammar is an unnecessary burden you thrust upon yourself. This is because of the way traditional grammar books have treated grammar and the way teachers have taught them. But there’s no need to look at grammar that way. Hear me out, will you? Thanks.

Grammar is no more than a mirror; it records how people have been using a language they call theirs. I can call to mind two classic examples: 1. The use of plural pronoun ‘they’ for a singular noun like ‘everyone’ and 2. Ending a sentence with a preposition, like for instance, ‘he’s the one you should talk to’.

Today you don’t have to memorise rules and exceptions for you’re not tested on them. Instead you’re tested on how English is used in certain contexts or situations. Grammatical errors are no longer frowned upon, and committing mistakes is no sin; on the contrary it’s the way you learn to get to know to use English.

Grammar is not a villain, it’s a friend, I tell you. For the simple reason, it just provides information on how educated native users use English in speech and writing, how they put nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions in certain ways, how they form sentences and questions, paragraphs, how they use English in formal an informal situations.  

Your mother knows the recipe for idly, dosa, puttu, fish or chicken curry. Suppose you ask her to cook food the Mexican way or the Chinese way, she has to look for a recipe. You know the recipe for how to use your mother tongue. But to use English the English way, you have to look for a recipe. Grammar is that recipe.

Use it, you’ll soon become an international chef! God bless you! 

Please also read 'grammar educates' which you'll find at the bottom of page 5.


Interpreting a visual

This piece is an example for learning to interpret a visual.

1. Cartoon Interpretation

This was my response to a question I had to answer in my Certificate Course at CIEFL, Hyderabad in 1987.

The Cartoon I have chosen is in Tamil.

The Cartoon Scene:
A cricket Test Match is on. Balram Jakkar, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, is the straight umpire and R Venkatraman, the Leader of the Rajya Sabha, is the leg umpire. Opposition parties are fielding. Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister, is facing the bowling. The ball being bowled is the demand for discussion in Parliament about the President—Prime Minister relationship, especially in the light of the exchange of letters between the two P’s. An ‘opposition’ bowler bowls Rajiv. Jakkar declares the delivered ball a ‘no ball’ and thus Rajiv ‘not out’. Venkataraman from the other end says: ‘shut up! Not out!’ The bowler asks exasperatedly: ‘If you abuse your office in this fashion, how can we ever get him out?’ And Kapil Dev, the Indian Cricket Team Captain, thinks aloud: ‘If we had the benefit of two such umpires, we should never lose a match!’

The EFFECT the cartoonist intends
               1. fear of loss of office, favours
               2. partisan attitude
Political  3. Abuse of office
               4. mockery of democratic norms

               1. fear of criticism
               2. poor umpiring decisions
Cricket   3. Abuse of office
               4. mockery of the game

The Cartoonist blends into one two independent but similar situations that have arrested the attention and engaged the minds of the public for weeks. One is the long-drawn battle between the opposition parties and the Officers of both Houses of Parliament over the issue of President—Prime Minister relationship. The other is the marred India-Pakistan cricket series (Tests and Onedayers) besotted with poor and bad umpiring decisions.

The result is a high class coffee the public tastes with relish: decoction—political scene, milk—cricket scene and sugar—Cartoonist’s values. It’s his original focus that makes us laugh and think.

Overall content
Situation One—background
It all began with (at least as far as Parliament and the public were concerned) when the President asked for clarifications regarding the Postal Bill waiting his Assent. Then the cats began to come out of the bags one after another: leakages, veiled accusations.

Content (decoction)
Then ensued a constitutional furore and the resultant refusals in both Houses by their officious Officers for a discussion in Parliament about the President—Prime Minister relationship on the premise (pretext, the cartoonist would perhaps say) that the President was above and beyond discussion.

Situation Two
The age-old rivalry between the two nations of the sub-continent reflects itself in cricket, too. Imran Khan came to India with his personal ambition to defeat India on her soil.

Content  (milk)
Bat-pad catches, lbw’s, caught-behinds, runouts had a controversial ring about them. The umpires, overpowered by their desire to exhibit impartiality, afraid of being criticised of being partisan, and harassed and bullied by the visiting team took their duties too seriously and too overzealously and erred and erred and went on erring that cost India the series and more than the series.

Unlike in the political scene, here the situation is inverse and hence all the more significant. Funnily enough, India, the home team, is the opposition party and Pakistan, the visiting team, the ruling party. This adds to the richness of the metaphor.

Sugar (Cartoonist’s values)
In both situations, the Officers of Parliament and the umpires are charged by the oaths and the positions they hold with the sacred duty of protecting their respective constitutions and the rights of people under the umbrella of their authority.

Whether it be overzealousness or personal considerations, the fact remains that they have betrayed the trust, they have sided with one group, they have failed miserably in the discharge of their duties, they have eroded people’s confidence in the very system that forms the foundations of national philosophy and thus been responsible for the consequent loss of faith in that system. They have committed the crime of inaction in that they have protected the ‘strong’ and wrong action in that they have suppressed the ‘weak’.

The humour is in Kapil Dev’s wishful thinking. The seriousness of today’s problem in democratic India is aptly heightened by Kapil’s dreamy observation and the bowler’s exasperated but rhetorical question.  

Comment by the evaluator
Good but you could have commented more especially upon the choice of batsman, umpires and bowler.


Wednesday, 12 August 2015

A Permanent Solution to the dilemma in assessment of learner performance

A Permanent Solution

This piece discusses what happens at the end of learning over a given period of time in mass education through schools and colleges run by government or private trusts or organisations.

Award of numbers (say, out of 100) or grades (letters A, B, C, D) as indicators of learner performance levels as pass or fail or distinction in annual exams conducted by schools for promotion to higher class and end-of-year/semester exams conducted by external examining bodies for award of qualifications such as certificates, diplomas and degrees and also as the first qualifying step to deciding study scholarships, to pursuits in higher education and job getting has been in vogue for centuries as the evaluation tool. Equally importantly, such award builds or destroys self-confidence, erodes self-esteem and self-belief of individual learners.

The implications of such evaluation are self evident. Subject knowledge is gained not for acquisition and permanent retention of knowledge for lifelong use but for securing high marks or grades which form the basis for any kind of progress—scholarships, admission to higher education institutions, job getting. As a result, learners typically fail to make important connection between concepts within and across the subject areas they’re studying and they forget quickly and easily the knowledge they’ve acquired. This is definitely true of students in India and may be true in the case of students elsewhere in the world. Besides, Low marks or low grades have their own consequences: disappointment, frustration, undue mental stress that students experience when they go unrecognised and this may even lead to unwanted social behaviours.

One improvement to this has been to evaluate learner performance through internal assessment as formal (as mandatory by bodies governing education at different levels) or informal (teacher’s efforts to make a comprehensive assessment) means. The formal one has had its critics and the informal one is rather subjective.

An alternative indicator could be descriptive evaluation. In a forum in Linkedin an excellent teacher asks:
      Is it not enough to simply graduate from a programme with a certificate,
      diploma, or degree that states a learner's competencies in an intuitive and
      understandable way (e.g. with descriptors) instead of opaque, abstract numbers
      and letters?
But it’s not just viable in a scenario where thousands or hundreds of thousands have to be evaluated.

I go one step further—a really long jump, it may be felt, but worth considering and implementing.

Two things are evident. Our evaluation system doesn’t ensure retention of knowledge. Two, we’ve taken it upon ourselves what should be the responsibility of learners, namely learning. In other words, we education providers are the guilty party.

How do we get learners to take responsibility of learning on their shoulder?

Learners go through the learning process—listening to teachers and reading related literature including the textbooks as they complete syllabuses for a given period of years, receive course completion certificates at different levels (school, college), compete for jobs and higher education courses, exhibit the knowledge level they’ve acquired, get selected and move further or get stagnant. Now they’ll realise that the fault lies with them and they haven’t learnt enough. They will stay stagnant if they don’t make the effort. Now they are the authors of their own success or failure. 

(Of course, governments will have to educate the parents, students, teachers, employers and higher institutions what’s in store for them.)

Two things happen as a result. Employing agencies and higher education institutions will have a huge task of evaluating hundreds of thousands of learners. They shouldn’t complain because now they can select really knowledgeable candidates. Once this system is introduced, it will take some time for how the system now works to sink in in the minds of students and their parents. But then they’ll soon settle down to this inevitable environment and get down to the business of learning. And now the burden of learning will be on the right shoulders.

Of course, this is not to say award of marks or grades is to be done away with. Grades or marks are to be used solely for the purpose of award of scholarships. But they should not decide the future of learners, they should not affect them emotionally; now it’s learners who will decide their future by learning or not learning, by retaining knowledge gained or not retaining knowledge gained.