Friday, May 09, 2008

On How Languages Are Taught In School...

Over the last one year, I have taken a few online classes and been irregularly perusing books on fiction and non-fiction writing. Though the classes were a failure because of my aversion to homework and the books ineffective because of my inability to read without distraction, what I have realized is that the fundamental basics which these books espouse are lessons that should have been taught to me in school itself. You guys must be wondering, why a self-conceited prince of no man's land like your's truly will take a poke at himself. The reasons is that I found to my utter annoyance last year, that I had virtually no idea about those most basic voices used in writing that we all subconsciously utilize - the first person, second person and third person. Like every craft, writing also needs guidance and a little sprinkling of theory is needed for us to master it. Sadly the springboard for our lives, schools, have essentially failed in providing this critical ingredient to spur our writing ability - an ability which i believe is a valuable part of our personality development.

I went to a very good school, arguably among the best in Kerala, and how we like to believe, even in India. Yet, I can't remember a single instance of any English or Malayalam language teacher, giving us a lecture on what separates good writing from the bad or tips to improve our writing while they were adept at nitpicking on spelling and grammatical errors. The emphasis was always on grammar and vocabulary. I guess the blame mostly lies with the outdated syllabi we are all saddled with, which doesn't see writing as amongst the most important wheels in the creative process. A part of the blame could be apportioned to teachers who came up in another age, where the rigours of life had nipped out the last remaining bits of thinking out of the box and believed it is safer to stick to what works. Probably, another important factor is that these teachers are not equipped to talk to us about writing, as they themselves are unsure of their prowess as writers. Or it could be something as simple as lack of exposure to books on writing or something as complex as not having put in extra-academic thought about their own perspectives on writing through the books they studied or read.

Our writings were always called compositions. Even when we wrote a story on a fictitious incident, it was always called a composition. Using a term like "short story" for that budding piece of writing, would have given so much confidence to us. The English course was divided into English-I and English-II and same with Malayalam. English-II was fun from high school - we learnt Shakespeare, poetry and short stories in these classes. Similarly Malayalam-II had novels and until the 8th, short stories and a few poems we lapped up. English-I bored us - one period dedicated to grammar and another period to composition, comprehension or letter writing and the odd stab at precis writing, which though useful was considered to be of lesser value. Frequently teachers would use up the English-I period to finish English-II portions which always lagged, while a Malayalam-I period was a rarity! I can imagine the world of difference it would have made if English-I and Malayalam-I was more about us finding the writer in us. I also have doubts if any of us learnt grammar properly either, despite the importance given to it, because of its inherent dryness which bounced, right off our young restless selves sans imbibition.

Most of us learned to write, with some degree of comfort, thanks to the voracious reading appetite we had in those days, a result of the absence of distractions like the internet and cable tv. We were consciously and subconsciously inspired by the masters we read and to copy their styles, but the most frequent outlet to exercise our writing abilities was sadly only in examinations. Later came emails to friends or official ones at work and then came blogs. Writing for pleasure has continued in some form or the other for a lucky few, and as part of their profession for the rest. What we all continue to lack, is a better understanding of the craft. Some learn the finer points without guidance because these are mostly common sense principles, noticeable if people have thought, compared and contrasted theirs and others writing. Others fumble along blissfully without that self-realization. I for one, hope that schools take a hard look at the absence of well-rounded writing classes in their curriculum and the very real fact that writing is not just a natural or inborn ability but one that can be cultivated in every young mind through proper guidance.

30 comments:

Neena Padayatty said...

Déjà vu...I was shocked to realize the same on day one of my BA.I prided myself for having been to one of the best schools in the city but was at a loss when asked to classify verbs.My classmates who went to govt aided schools faired better than me.The language texts we did at school were excellent beyond doubt.The Oxford Modern English texts for English II would have been a treasure if I had managed to save all of them.The excerpts it had introduced an array of authors who would have been missed otherwise.Same with Malayalam.The rhythmic lines of "Chandalabhikshuki" and all those poems in those long,flat Malayalam texts upto class 8 are unforgettable.The question patterns were not rigid and gave much space for creative expression.Maybe due to the outdated syllabus,we still have texts we did at school level at the PG level too.
My grandmother from the 1947 batch at St.Teresa's had immaculate grammar(English)(though less creativity) even at the age of 70.She was renowned in the school she taught as the grammar specialist.Unfortunately those qualities didn't get transferred genetically.I still cringe at clauses and blink at tenses(mea máxima culpa):(.Our linguistics professor is often greeted with silence when he puts across a grammar question.
The root cause to this problem,I feel is crafting a syllabus without a vision.Our professors did grammar as paper for their MA,while all we do is mention strong and weak verbs in relation to their evolution from Old English.With spoken English classes mushrooming everywhere,all that an average Malayali cares for,is to be able to speak fluently in English to impress the interviewer,even though it is replete with grammatical blunders.The number of people qualified to teach grammar authoritatively is going down at an alarming rate and no steps are taken to make amends.However I feel that technical knowledge is not the only answer.Conscious reading of standard newspapers,books (particularly by British authors for English)and listening to good news channels do contribute a lot.

Karthik said...

Even the Langauges (Malayalm and English) were taught more as an academic requisite than as an exploration of the beauty of the language.

I think the school needs to think beyond just examination results. in order to be great school, they have to improvise and innovate with regards to the teaching methodology.

What is the use of learning the Bard's literature when the basic grammatical foundation of the language is not stronng within us?

Sands | കരിങ്കല്ല് said...

Lots to write..
Lazy to write..
Leaving it out...

I am lucky that I had a wonderful malayalam teacher - who knew what he should be doing and did that.

- Sands.

g-man said...

we were fortunate enough to have both shiela ma'am and dp teach us though...they let us run riot on our english papers in the 10th, 11th and the 12th (its better than nothing!), and there were a few creative writing sessions dp took up as well. so i kinda have to partly disagree with you there. the syllabus part though, is spot on. nobody who sets a syllabus gives a damn about writing and its pretty sad. just analyzing and interpreting some anachronistic piece of crap is not much use right now. at least that's what i think

p.s i know a few people, myself included, whose english-1 papers were filled with rabid clowns, nudist professors, insane cubicle-mates, mad people chasing cars down the highway, et al.

Jiby said...

neena, what you said is cent percent correct but what i wanted through this post and maybe what i failed in putting up forcefully was the argument to introduce creative writing classes as part of the curriculum.

karthik, along with grammar and reading what we weren't exposed to were some really good books on the art of writing or classes on the same.

sandeep, good for you man.

g-man, glad you caught the drift of this post. i wasn't being specific to loyola or any teachers when i raised my complaints here...its a system that pervades every school and just doesn't seem to change. glad to hear that DP started classes on creative writing. back then, she was the lone teacher who encouraged us to write by shedding all inhibitions. but there's a need for much more. its high time that schools initiate writing classes atleast from the 8th grade.

Neena Padayatty said...

Sorry i missed that point.Got carried away by an issue that troubles a whole lot of us who might be teachers of language in future.Those compositions,story writing,and letter writing exercises in English I and Malayalam I are probably the only space given to creative writing in the current syllabus.

sorry for the irrelevant rant..

g-man said...

dp did do that, when we were in the 11th. i wonder what loyola's become now that she isn't teaching there any more. the only time i go there is for batch get togethers when we go there and play some footie. haven't had a chance to ask the juniors about stuff because we never go there on working days...i know what you meant about writing being part of the curriculum, but don't you think its kinda dependent on the students too? to my knowledge, there are very few kids who are interested in writing as a career. i know people who want to write after they retire - hell, even i dream about doing that - and i also wish that i had taken up something like journalism, but i didn't. maybe its just because i'm getting fed up of engineering. shit, this is turning out to be some sort of confessional now!

ursjina said...

i completely agree..and situation is worser now..coz many of the teachers dont know vocab and grammar too these days..
and those compositions were outrageous..they dont even give a good grade if the piece is out of the box yet great..it has always like cow is our domestic animal types..i was considered to be a good student in english from a convent skool..but the moment i landed in blore..i realized i have miles to go...

George said...

A very valuble suggestion.I hope somebody who frames all these syllabi gets a wind of this idea. Your observation about the undistracted out of syllabus reading is very true. There is always a limit to which doordarshan could distract anybody.

mathew said...

Yes..unfortunately with the current system of education we are churning out students who are neither good at grammar nor at the creative aspects..But then the point is creativity is not a measurable quantity..and hence in our schools its easier to keep grammar as a yardstick which is easier graded..

P.S. If you see how english is taought in the CBSE and ICSE system its way different from each other..ICSE gave real stress on the grammar and we CBSE folks found the going tough with wren and martin approach..Am not sure of how things are going now..

Nikhil Narayanan said...

In school from class IX, I had "Interactive English".In this course,other than the normal letter writing and stuff, we had notice,poster writing etc.
Plus,some chapters were to improve our listening skills;audio cassettes were played and we had to asnwer questions.

I guess CBSE has taken this course backward(I mean forward) to lower classes...

Ta Ryan said...

Deyy Jabba I got what you tried to convey and where you are coming from..this is very very true..writing well is an art..check out Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" - awesome book on how to write well...thought about recommending the same to some faculty at Loyola!

Mal said...

agreed that the syllabus is not conducive to hone writing skills. Neither is the way in which the courses are taught. Equally important, however, is to open the kids' minds to literature and show them that there is a world beyond Harry Potter!! Most schools, at least in Kerala, fare pathetically library-wise.

Vimal Gasper said...

Its not just in case of language that creativity been pushed down the drain. Even science is limited to text books with no scope of creativity. The master of creativity, my drawing classes had strict boundaries fixed by the teacher. No room for creativity in our schools...

Jiby said...

neena, that's okay :) your earlier comment was really informative.

g-man, what you want to do will reveal itself in time....neways that's my belief. good luck to your future endeavors.

jina, so does blore compare favorably to kerala?

george, thanks. thats was a wonderful one-liner on doordarshan. :)

mathew, you are right. everywhere we have good speakers but the moment they write, you wonder where that eloquence went!

nikhil, i didn't understand that last line. what do you mean by "I guess"?

ta ryan :)), i have that book with me...yet to begin it. i am sure teachers know about these books, but if the syllabus doesn't enforce it who would bother?

mal, you are right...kids everywhere talk about harry potter these days as though there are no other books in the world!!

vimal, true...schools are not doing the best they can in fostering creativity. and i guess very few schools stock libraries with books that force you to come out of the comfort zones we live in.

Nikhil Narayanan said...

Not sure if the course has been extended to lower classes.
That is what I meant.
9th and 10th classes was a pilot that they did.

Jackson said...

i am sure baby has an idea that will help matters.. :/

http://www.newindpress.com/NewsItems.asp?ID=IEO20080509185754&Page=O&Title=Thiruvananthapuram&Topic=0

Jofu said...

And the writing abilities during exams.. I wonder how much creativity we cud bring under stress..... For me it was not much... I remember some reading periods we had....but not any writing periods....

Karthik said...

Jiby,
In my class I remember only a few guys like Reghu who would attempt the non-argumentative essays. Like Joseph said, creative writing would not flow out when we were under stress.

I am planning to post some of my favourite articles from the 'Loyolite' at a later time..Feels good to read such articles.

ursjina said...

well..comaprisons are always relative..but yes, I have found most of the bangaloreans do speak good english..atleast the college goin crowd did..and i do feel that bangalore speaks one of the best versions of indian english around..
wat do ya think?

Nikhil Narayanan said...

Aliya Fuli!!!
Veendum DP il :-)
Kidu...

usha said...

hey, you are bang on about it, Jiby. I would say, the schools will do better to have some kind of classes on improving the oratory skills of the kids too.. As much as I remember, we used to have competitions on short story writing and oratory skills, but then there was never a guided process of learning towards it.

That said, I'm more than thankful to some of my school teachers for having us take the library periods seriously. They used to hand us out books, ask us to read through it, and get back to them with a review on it. Though I doubt if the ever gave us their reviews on our reviews.

Meena said...

I found your post very interesting because it echoes my own thoughts on the matter. The way languages, or anything for that matter, is taught in schools leaves much to be desired. I loved your idea of making the English I classes into creative writing classes. Even if all of us do not end up as writers, we can at least benefit by learning the craft of writing in many other ways.Wish the people in charge wake up to the idea of a change in curriculum for schools.
Meena.

Jiby said...

nikhil, got ehat you were trying to say man, hope taking those innovative ideas backwards will help :)...and thanks for letting me know of the DP link.

jackson, thanks for the article link...with men like baby at the helm the sslc looks a lost cause. my mom just showed me this article where he asked why nobody questions the 90% pass percentage for cbse.

jofu, you are right...i don't think most people can write at their best in exams!

karthik, will look forward to the articles!

jina, of course metro cities will have better english speakers, but will they have better writers? i doubt whether schools in these cities have creative writing classes?

usha, i hope some school teachers read all your comments and can tell us what is practicable amongst all our ideas and what is not!

meena, m'am i see from your blog that you are a teacher and share these thoughts. i think flow of such ideas happens from the schools to the education boards....so people like you can play a crucial role in getting this change effected.

Vimal Gasper said...

Jofu - my creativity was at its peak when I used to write my Engg exams...

silverine said...

hmmm I would not advice any school to start creative writing classes unless and until they have competent teachers to appreciate and evaluate the same! There is so much demand for writers in the IT industry today and so few applicants!!

And to spot and hire teachers with Creative Writing talents and then get courses running is going to be an enormous challenge as a teachers salary is hardly enough to buy an envelope to write home about!

Anonymous said...

loyola had its share of short story/ essay writing competitions. i had the privilege to study under some wonderful english teacher's there - Mr PA Mathews aka PAMS who taught us Caaser and when i moved on to St Thomas it was his wife who taught us Macbeth.

Coming back to the point, I felt that ICSE syllabus laid too much stress on English and had quite a few textbooks. I used to envy my SSLC mates who had very little english to study. But studying ICSE has helped in some ways!!

Hari

Sandeep said...

you RSS feed not working..

The Layman said...

A thank you..:-)
http://laymansrevelations.blogspot.com/2008/10/how-i-started.html

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