Second language dilemma

Staff Correspondent
Thursday, May 18th, 2017


English, despite being the 2nd official language of the country, wanes in education sector due to multiple reasons


‘For the first time in my life, I shed tears of happiness,’ said an O level candidate as she proudly declared to her family her straight A results.


Across the nation over the past week, several boards released the results to thousands of candidates eagerly awaiting the outcome of their SSC and O Level examinations. Some candidates were enthusiastic, others dreaded the day – but everyone wanted their grades to be spectacular. Until very recently the SSC and O Level exams were the first public examinations the youths of Bangladesh appeared for, and understandably, nerves were running high.


The vast majority of this pool of candidates appeared for the SSC, under the National Education Board of Bangladesh. Not surprisingly most of them passed with flying colours. News of GPA 5s spread across the country like wildfire and everyone was happy – except about one anomaly: a lot of candidates missed an A+ in English Language, thus ruining a perfect golden GPA. It is unfair to say that the youths were not capable: the A+’s they scored on their other subjects were a testament to their talent. Why, then, did they not score the highest mark possible for a foreign language that has had more than enough exposure in our country in the form of mass media, communication, and the entertainment industry?


Farhana Rahman, senior English teacher at Rajuk Uttara Model School and College, believes that mainly three factors are to blame: the language environment; the lack and overworking of qualified teachers; and the huge teacher to student ratio.


‘There is a marked difference between the way students of English medium schools communicate, and the way students in Bengali mediums and English versions of national schools converse,’ she told Dhaka Courier. ‘In the Bengali medium the primary language of teaching is our mother tongue except during English classes, and in the English versions it seems to me that both languages are used interchangeably. As a result, unlike students from English medium schools, pupils under the national curriculum tend to think in Bengali. They are comfortable and well-versed in Bengali. It is very difficult to coherently translate these thoughts into entirely a foreign language during conversation or writing: consequently the environment for language is a bit of a hotch-potch.’


According to Ms. Rahman, this has been the primary reason for the emergence of the new trend called ‘Banglish’. Not only are conversations between friends carried out in a curious mix of both languages, this tendency has also extended to talks taking place in a formal environment. Because of this, the youth are not comfortable with speaking in one language completely and this has had an adverse effect when it came to answering questions on the exam papers.


Over the past few years the pattern of questions in the English exam changed from long open ended comprehension questions and analysis of words to more of an objective and straightforward type. The change was primarily due to the fact that very few teachers of capable of delivering such a critical level of instruction and that even fewer students were able to grasp the concept.


Unfortunately these changes were not made systematically: the board decided them arbitrarily, textbooks weren’t available until much later, teachers didn’t adopt them in time: it seemed that there was no general consensus to the change. Furthermore the focus was channeled to the technical aspects of English only: grammar, sentence construction and tenses. Literature was largely ignored: as a result, it was difficult to retain the students’ interest in English.


Studying literary works is perhaps the best way to learn the applications of language and in turn, communicate more fluently in that language. Literature, however, presented a challenge for the students – it wasn’t easy to really interpret and read between the lines of words that at first glance are quite alien. Consequently, English Literature was dropped from the curriculum: it was deemed that there was little need to demoralise students by forcing them to study something that they had little interest in. While this has led to an improvement in test scores ‘real learning of a language through existing high quality works’ became an issue, and it still did not address the problem of a lack of teachers.


‘When I first joined Rajuk, I taught English across both the school and college: classes 6 to 12, and around 4 periods a day, not counting substitute classes,’ she shared with Dhaka Courier.  ‘Adapting from the Class 6 instructor to a Class 11 one was quite a challenge: the syllabus was different, the maturity level of my audience was different. Adopting completely different methods of teaching within a few minutes was a very abrupt transition. It negatively affected my quality of work.’


Ms. Rahman cannot blame anyone. There simply weren’t enough teachers to go around. Despite undergoing several Teaching Quality Improvement programmes she felt she was unable to effectively apply that training. ‘I was tired and overworked, and classes towards the end of the day suffered most for it. I couldn’t give any of my students individual attention. I was one of the few teachers from an already sparse pool who underwent training. Fortunately for me I was able to somehow accomplish good scores in the English version section – 94/95 students got A’s this year. Unfortunately, not everyone is as lucky – maybe they were unable to attend TQIs, maybe they weren’t energetic enough.’


The lack of teachers has led to a huge teacher to student ratio – while the ideal class size, as in English medium schools, is less than 30 students, teachers in the public schools are left to instruct over 65 students single-handedly in a 40 minute period. This allowed room for exploitation: students could quite easily not pay attention, do their work, or even show up to class. Those pupils who wanted to take something away from the class were unable to focus because of the disruption around them; neither were they able to summon their teachers’ full attention because of sheer lack of time and energy on the teachers’ part, when they needed it the most. The large ratio also meant that teachers were unable to look through every student’s written work carefully because a deadline had to be met – they also were unable to form special bonds with their students to see where individual weaknesses lie.


While these problems identified by Ms. Farhana Rahman apply to all subjects, English as a second or foreign language in particular suffers most for it. Not only is it a complex and extremely global language, it is also one that is the most widely used of today – and a weakness in English simply cannot be condoned.

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