Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Teaching and learning.

I sometimes wonder whether the rules of teaching and learning have changed. For instance children seem to be fast losing interest in self study. We have students in undergrad classes who ask for a book to help them draw diagrams whereas our teachers would insist on observing the specimen and draw diagram freehand. I was myself the most unsuited candidate to take up Botany as my main subject. Till my 11th boards I’d leave blank spaces for diagrams that would seldom get filled up. Those were days when one had to opt between Biology and Mathematics and I chose the former ‘cos I wanted to try for a seat in a medical college. At the end of my Pre-university course I was so disillusioned and disappointed with Biology that I refused to even apply for a course in medicine much to my grandfather’s disappointment. Again I made a wrong choice and opted to study Botany as my Major. In the first year each practical class was a nightmare with teachers rejecting every diagram I drew and finding fault with every slide preparation. We would spend at least 2 hours each evening ‘neat lining’ our diagrams and stop once by the chapel and then turn towards the Rock fort temple to seek divine intervention before leaving for college for our record work to be signed by our teachers without much ado. The effort paid off and today my B. Sc. Record is good enough to be shown to any one for reference. I try the same with my students and with the exception of a few most wish to be given prepared notes and diagrams and if I insist, manage to remain seated in the class till the bell rang and turn in their record with neatly copied diagrams from the book which at times are very different to those actually observed. I need to be grateful to them for not boycotting my class or walking out in the midst of one.

‘Now these are students’, I tell myself. ‘They will have to learn when their turn to teach comes’. But I was surprised when a teacher had a different take in the matter.

The Ranchi University Youth Festival was nearing its conclusion and the President of the student’s union was asked to address the gathering. The young man had earlier spoken on 3 occasions in 2 days. I felt that he was a good orator and whatever he said made sense. I felt that the students’ choice had been good and here was a young man who would perhaps take genuine interest in problems facing the student community and perhaps aim at solving them. On each of these occasions he spoke in chaste Hindi and to the point. But not so this time. He opted to speak in English, perhaps goaded by friends, and it was evident that he was not in command of the language. In his enthusiasm he ended up saying the exact opposite of what he wanted to say at times. For instance instead of saying “Students lack basic facilities in some colleges” he said “students lack basic problems in some colleges”. I lamented that he could have stuck to Hindi instead of switching over to a language that he was not familiar with. A teacher from another college who was seated by my side was quick to defend him.

“Why don’t you appreciate that he is at least trying?” she said. “How will he learn if he did not try?”

“This is the concluding session of the youth festival” I said “and he is addressing the students as their president. Can he afford to be misunderstood?”

“Please remember that English is not his mother tongue and it is natural to make mistakes when one tries something new.”

I did not pursue the conversation but I was certainly confused. Students who ought to try to understand their subject and prepare their own notes resort to guess papers and student’s guides and they choose to learn a new language not by participating in debates and discussions at their college level but by addressing a gathering at the University level at the expense of being misunderstood. I was genuinely concerned over his lack of fluency and my colleague was openly appreciative of his efforts. Which of us were right?


Anonymous said...

Well, today children go for tutions for all subjects, be it Maths, Science, languauge, anything! I wonder, if they spent reading, wouldn't they get hangof it? Reading has taken a back-seat totally. I have always believed that you can only gain knowledge by reading about the subject in hand.
Today kids and their parents are tenacious to get good grades, and nothing else matters.

And to talk about the leader guy; He is in a aegis position and can't afford to be misunderstood at any level.He is making an effort, true; but this is not the place.

B/w I have never loved Bio myself. I had an epiphany back in tenth that if I opt for Bio, I will never complete my studies :)
Bio is just so abstruse,
I respect people in medical profession :)

Cee Kay said...

The fluency issues could have been forgiven and efforts appreciated more (sincerely) if he atleast had a grasp of the meaning of words he was using. One can practice public-speaking skills on such occasions but making mistakes like using the wrong words is completely inexcusable. With you on this completely.

I agree with Veens too - in their narrow vision of getting good marks, parents and students forget to "learn". They just memorize which is as far from learning as black is from white.

rajk said...

This reminds of a filmi awards function I saw on TV some time back. There was this guy who won the "Best Character Actor" award for Omkara. When he accepted the award he spoke in Hindi, very simply and briefly expressing his excitement and relief(!) at winning the award.
On the other hand, this other girl won the "Best Newcomer "award and went on to speak in English while it was very clear that she was not very fluent or comfortable in it. She's a very good actress and I love her acting but really, what she said up on stage there made absolutely no sense!! Maybe if she'd spoken Hindi she'd have been able to express better what she wanted to convey.

The Kid said...

To put it bluntly:

A bad orator is a bad orator. He seems to be a bad orator, and too insecure to talk in hindi too :(

Priya Ramachandran said...

Not to come down on you hard but I really can't see any correlation between the two examples you cited - students wanting to be spoonfed and the young man's desire to speak English, tenuous as his grasp may be. You're really saying on one hand that students don't want to make an effort, and on the other, you're taking issue with the effort someone is putting in.

I think we in India put too much emphasis on English. It probably had to do with our colonial past, once you mastered decent English, you could find a place in babudom somewhere.

It has taken me 7 years of living here to realize that there are plenty of people who mangle the language. So be it. I don't see any reason for people to be embarrassed on the young guy's behalf that he was going to be misunderstood in. I'm with your colleague who said at least he's making an effort.

And honestly, how many people really really listen to all those long bhashans? He and his friends probably got a kick out of it, some of Anglophiles might've got riled up, and yet others would've laughed at his mistakes. Big deal.

Priya Ramachandran said...

Also, how do you know he's not participating in debates or oratricals in his college, and just using the convention's closing address as the guinea pig? Maybe he's doing both.

Hip Grandma said...

Veens:I too felt that while the boy's effort is praiseworthy he need not have used the youth festival platform to try it out.

GTN:I feel that the boy had either got carried away or was goaded into speaking in English by others.He spoke pretty well in Hindi and what he said made sense.Not many would have the confidence to address a gathering in a language that one was not familiar with so perhaps my colleague was right in her own way.I was concerned about his being misunderstood.

rajk:Yes this is what I wished to pointout.

the kid:No, you've got me wrong.The boy spoke well in the inaugural session when he spoke in Hindi.He was a good orator and was very clear about what he wanted to say.He was not fluent in English and perhaps ended up saying just the opposite of what he wanted to say at times.

pixelchick:It is strange that you of all people got me wrong.I mean to say that students lack confidence to draw simple scientific diagrams from preserved specimen.They don't trust their ability to be able to prepare notes thro' self study.Yet they have the confidence to address hundreds of people in a language that they are not familiar with.

You say "I think we in India put too much emphasis on English."

exactly!This young man was doing fine when he spoke in Hindi.Then why this sudden obsession to talk in english when at least 75% of the audience is more comfortable with Hindi.

I said that I was confused about whether I was wrong in criticizing him.i would never have laughed at his mistakes.I was only concerned.

Unknown said...

Grandma, as rightly said by you, a public stage is a public stage. It can never be termed as practice stage.

Using Hindi or any other regional language is perfectly fine as long as the audience can understand it.

I have even come across interviews of top MNC's held in hindi. Fluency in english is a must but not at the cost of the the subject matter.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Grandma. I'd say that if the Union President was "trying", he was obviously not trying too hard to learn English if he did not know the meaning of "problem".

Students tend to look up to "leaders" or achievers. As a Student union President, he has some influence on others. When they hear someone go on stage and speak bad English, the message they will get is that it's okay to be mediocre or make mistakes..

Jaya said...

HHG, If you ask my opinion, I don't like students guides and such. I like to read from books directly. After all, if you have to be a master, you need to learn from the master.

Regarding that president, he should have spoken in Hindi only. He can ofcourse improve his english and maybe next time give a speech in that. But all these unions have so much politics, I don't know how much a student is chosen as a president because of his calibre.

RockFort temple ? Are you from Trichi? My dad is from the same place.

Usha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Usha said...

Padma I agree with you. In Tamil we have a proverb, that the one eyed man is the leader among blind people. No offense meant to visually challenged people but to say that when everyone is handicapped the one who has less of it feels important. By and large today's students do not strive for perfection but are contented as long as they can score marks - the system also encourages this. And when these people graduate and go to teach the same level of mediocrity is perpetuated.
We seem to have a very ambivalent attitude toward English. We feel important if we can use English in our interactions, especially formal; but we do not make an effort to learn it well and say, 'oh it is only a foreign language'.
The point is not about the superiority of speaking in this language or other but to be able to communicate effectively. It is these very people who think that it is not worth making the effort to learn English properly who feel superior speaking in Public meetings in English. What a contradiction! Perhaps he was trying to impress the girls in the crowd? or perhaps he knew he would be worshipped by other students who anyway would not have understood what he said.
'he was trying' is a valid excuse if the audience comprised of non-hindi speaking people or English-speaking people. ( Like the french I am forced to speak at the Alliance Francaise) But where was the need to resort to bad English if he could speak well in Hindi and everyone understood it?
Priya if there was a colonial hangover I do not see in HHGmom but in the guys who are desperate to speak it even when they can't and when they don't have to, just to feel important.

Itchingtowrite said...

he should have spoken in Hindi since it was an imporant speech- kind of where hes hudn't hav taken risk as the function had to end in style
However if he was so interested in doing it in English, he shud hav written it out and practised harder, and done a mock in front of his teacher/ friends and then done it with a written speech inf ront of him to support if he stumbled

Priya Ramachandran said...

Mom, Usha, I agree that maybe the boy exemplifies the desperation to learn English. When I was in Chennai, and we had to do social work for our SUPW classes, I taught a servant girl to learn Tamil (yeah right!) and maths. One afternoon her mother tells me, don't waste your time teaching her Tamil, teach her English, it's more valuable.

I see these people as responding to the mindless English craze. Left to themselves if they thought Sanskrit or Farsi would get them into white-collar jobs and a better life, they would go ahead and learn it. Would they not?

I think as middle class, we created this demand for English medium education, and for those of us already there, the efforts of those still getting there riles. Where I also see a colonial hangover is the way we feel embarrassed when someone is speaking wrong English or we nitpick on grammar. I used to be guilty of it myself, 12 years of convent education makes a mini Shakespearewalli out of you. If a foreigner tried to master Hindi or Tamil and mangled a speech, we would be lauding his attempts to learn our languages. Why the double standards?

Mom, I didn't assume that you were laughing at the young man, I know you were concerned. You were already included in the Anglophile part of it :D

Priya Ramachandran said...

And what, no one is willing to cut him slack for being a 20 yr old, maybe wanting some bragging rights, and yeah, making some giggling chicks in the audience swoon over his "mastery" of English? Been there and done that as recently as ten years ago (yes, I am getting old) :D

kurrodu said...

He should have made his speech in the language that he and his audience were most comfortable with. All that matters is his delivery of message to the audience. It may be true that he was attempting to build his oratorical skills in english.
His mistake was that he chose the wrong occasion for it.

Vinesh said...

good intention, incorrect platform!

starry said...


Preethi said...

very interesting post hhg.. I have a lot of friends who came from tamil medium and din't know a word of english when they came to college, and sometimes even as they went to work.. Some of these people have amazed me with their determination to master the language and we all know that attaining fluency in speaking a language through self study is not easy.
Yet others still stumble along with a poor communication and a heavily accented and incorrect English even when they live amongst and work with Americans. Do they just not realize that their English is wrong? DO they never attempt to correct themselves? I wonder!!

Đžidhi S said...

came to your blog through Veena

well first of all i would say you started with a different note and ended in a totally different one

for you i would say - some times we tend to make wrong choices and sometime those wrong choices lead us to our destiny..!! so may be this was what you were made for...

for that gu yand your colleague - i would say in this world of competition students stand a tough life - its wa sgood that he was at least trying but was bad beacuse at the expense of being misunderstood. because that could lead to worse circumstances so its always better to prepare prior to the D'day..

Nice blog! :)

Unknown said...

Madamji - I am with you . If one is not comfortable with a language it is sheer idiocy to plunge in there . Should at least have written down his speech in English .Ever hear of fools treading in where angels fear to tread ?
I think schools too encourage tutor fostered pills to original answers.It's called dealing with competition :P

Hip Grandma said...

Hi all,
I am just back after a hectic trip to Shiridi and Mumbai.Just read all your comments.Thanks for your inputs.yes while a person's effort shud be lauded mediocrity shud not be accepted.The same applies to other subjects as well.

Nidhi:welcome here.You are right about drifting from the initial topic but go through some of my other posts and you will find i tend to do it quite often.I write whatever comes to my mind and sometimes it tends to drift away.thanks for pointing out.I'll remember.