I do apologise to my readers for the interruption to my blog. Illness has stopped me from being more regular but I hope that I have now adjusted to the changes of climate which do affect one physically in moving from a “cool temperate” climate to the tropics. The fierce summer of Bengal followed by the monsoon is drawing to a close, and as we come to the end of October the Pujas or festive season have begun. In London, I would long since have made the reluctant change to my winter greatcoat – here in Calcutta, we have just started to bring out our longsleeved shirts and light cardigans. A bit like Alice through the looking-glass, while winter settles in one of the cities I call home and London-based friends remark that summer is over – I find myself doing things backwards and hoping for the early onset of a winter that will be something like an English spring.
While I have previously invited higher education professionals active in a number of different fields on to this blog and will do so again, I thought this time around readers might be interested in a firsthand account of English language teaching in India.
Over the last four weeks, I have had the great pleasure of being invited to conduct English language and theatre workshops at Union Chapel School in Calcutta. I was and am truly delighted to be able to do this, as it enables me to draw on not only my language teaching experience but also my background in theatre.
I teach two groups of students in the fifteen to sixteen year age group, all of whom have a first language background in either Hindi or Bengali (Hindi is the national language of India, and Bengali is the language of the state of West Bengal). When I asked my students how they related to English – and if they felt that they were dealing with a foreign language, I got some interesting answers. Most felt that in fact they were simply dealing with another “Indian” language, in the same way that they might try and deal with one of the many languages of the country, except that in the case of English they could see an immediate “use” for their knowledge.
As a teacher, I think getting this kind of reaction from a student is pure gold. Affinity is half the battle. The idea that when one starts thinking in another language one has come close to native-speaker/first language speaker status is compelling. But what about when one starts feeling in another language? It’s for this reason that using theatre exercises and the support of a Shakespearean play (“As You Like It”) in these workshops, I think is particularly useful. Functional English can never be discounted, but enabling students to tap into their imagination through the medium of a new language allows them to develop a full or active presence in it. Active language, I think, has to go beyond the somewhat limited idea we have of what constitutes a language “skill,” and become a language capacity. By capacity I mean the nuanced ability to maintain your speaking position in the face of changing circumstances (or, as some would call it outside the world of the assessment rubric – life).