Thursday, February 17, 2005


In the novel 'English August', a character- a Professor of English remarks that teaching English is burlesque. That prompted me to scan the dictionary for the word 'burlesque'. The word is used to describe a foolish way of describing a serious subject. This I feel this is an apt way to describe the way English is taught in the schools and colleges in my locality. The ultimate aim of learning a language is to communicate in an effective manner.

In the name of English language students are inflicted a lot of punishment. A lot of time and money is wasted to master the nuances of grammar. The syllabus and the teachers are rather serious about making the students know the syntax of English in a rather difficult way. If the student is unable to grasp, then cramming is the preferred solution. The parents and the teachers spare no effort in making the children master English.

I have nothing against the learning of English. I realise that this is one of the few areas where the Indian economy has a comparative advantage vis-a-vis the Chinese economy-the supply of a large English reading and speaking labour force. I have problems with the way English is taught. The students are made to read and digest the works of famous English poets and novelists like Keats and Shakespeare at a very early age. This continues right upto the college level. I wonder how many in the land of the famous Bard of the Avon use the kind of English contained in the works like Othello in daily matters. The so-called trained teachers of English also make the matters worse.

Recently, the son of a colleague of mine wanted to know the meaning of 'shipping magnate'. The reason being that his school teacher said it to mean “a big magnet attached to a ship”. I know a bit about ships having gone through many novels of Allistar Maclean and watching the Discovery channel. I have never been told about any such thing! He wanted me to give the meaning of a 'brook' as in the poem by Keats. No wonder, because many living in the towns and cities have seen a river.

There is a great fascination about the kind of education offered in the public schools(read English schools). People go to great lengths to educate their wards in such schools. One thing they specialise in is to ask the pupils to prepare 'project reports' on various topics and themes. Invariably, most of the topics are beyond the comprehension of the young. What took the cake was the recent project given to a class 9th student. He was asked to write on the kind of influence the wives had on their husbands in the Shakespearean dramas! Just imagine the enormity of the task for a 14 year old who does not have the faintest idea of a wife. In an attempt to help him, I browsed the world wide web. Surely, there was a lot of analysis of Shakespearean plays by very famous pen pushers including Coleridge. But no one touched upon this point. Wonder where from the teacher got this famous topic.

Finally, I have a complaint against the course material that is pushed and shoved into the minds in the name of English. Most of the material is alien not only in terms of the language but also in terms of the content having been taken from a foreign soil. Wonder how many Indians can relate to the bullfights mentioned in the works of Hemingway. If any work of Indian origin is chosen, then it is invariably one of a tragedy. The teachers struggle and make the students go through the wringer while explaining the philosophical ideas of a S.Radhakrishnan(a former President of India) or a J.Krishnamurty. There is no element of fun or something with which the young ones can correlate their world to.

Till the course content is redesigned and restructured, the poor students will have to pull their hairs out to master the funny and most tricky language called English.Until then the public schools, the spoken English centres and the English teachers will go laughing all the way to the banks at the expense of ordinary mortals like me.


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