What’s stopping us from improving our English skills? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 16, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 16, 2019

What’s stopping us from improving our English skills?

AG Stock was a visiting scholar at the Department of English at Dhaka University from 1947 to 1951. In her recollection of her time in Dhaka, she reminisced about befriending future luminaries such as poet Jasimuddin and professor Munier Choudhury. She also recalled the student agitations that would become the foundation of the Language Movement and foresaw much of the early rumblings that would lead to the Liberation War. However, her most incisive analysis of the time was about the inflexible education system of Dhaka University in the late 40s, which could be a lesson for our national education today.

Professor Stock served as the head examiner overseeing the Honours English exams for students in Dhaka and Kolkata. In her role at the university, she encountered a complex system of structural rigidity that churned out graduates with not much in the way of English skills but rather a defined set of skills to pass the final examinations. This process was enabled by an influential “help-book” (guidebook) publishing industry and examiners, some of whom participated in the help-book industry themselves, who relied on an anticipated array of questions. She discusses the obstacles that prevented improvements in education, let alone allow for any meaningful restructuring.

In the exams, creativity and originality were discouraged because it was simply safer to memorise and regurgitate answers learned from the guidebooks, answers which were expected by examiners as well. Common references such as “the way is not weary, the ploughman is weary” and uninspired analysis of reference texts appeared verbatim on exam papers from different students across the exam centres, illustrating the ubiquity of the problem. Just as the students did not have the means or feel the need to be creative and genuine with answers, the examiners also, for lack of alternatives, graded students for their ability to best remember prepared answers. Professor Stock writes that, left to themselves, “hardly one candidate in a hundred could make sense of an average page of modern English or construct a simple sentence.”

The cumulative effect of this process was that thousands of promising students were essentially asked to write not what they thought but what someone else, someone they believed more powerful, wished them to say. Great pains were taken to memorise answers of little analytic worth and diversity so that examiners could then struggle to find any criterion of worth from something that is by design worthless. The irony of the matter is that the survivors of the exams would be rewarded for this process and go on to repeat this performance many times, all the way up to the civil service examinations.

This problem, I would argue, persists today. English is taught mostly by teachers who cannot translate the magic of the language through interesting text, analysis, comparative literature, and relatable content. Rather, it is imposed as a difficult chore to be slogged through, a maze of grammatical exercises and meaningless structures. The teachers are not to blame since, as I have tried to explain, ineffective teaching practices are deeply rooted in our culture of education and have been difficult to reform from the start. The problem does not end with English either. On the other side of the aisle, in English-medium schools, the same problems arise with learning Bangla. Language, whether it is English or Bangla, is not strictly a communicative medium. It is also a medium for reasoning and critical thinking, and a gateway to accessing resources for further learning.

However, ironically, proficiency in spoken English is often mistaken for intelligence in our country. Nevertheless, in examinations of nearly any subject—all the way up to the vital civil service examinations—we essentially are tested on our memory and not a deeper knowledge or understanding of the subject matter. The emergent professionals and administrators, who will occupy the highest posts in the country, are chosen for their ability to repeat formula and not necessarily for their reasoning or inventive capacities.

Radical reform is difficult in our education system because it is not only a question of changing hard-wired tradition but of equality. The students have been trained to pass exams, and not understand their lessons comprehensively. Since the focus is so much on examination results, the focus of the students is also passing those exams regardless of personal development. This compulsion to succeed at any cost keeps the wheels of rote learning turning. By the time the students have graduated from high school, it is already too late to build in them the foundation of a comprehensive and meaningful education.

Bangladesh’s biggest success in its education sector has been vastly improving basic literacy across the country (literacy has risen by 26.1 percent since 2007, according to one account) and making education accessible to poorer students. To the government’s credit, it has undertaken important steps in delivering free textbooks, nationalising primary schools in the villages, and investing heavily in early education. However, along with improving basic literacy, we must also invest in enhancing language capacity (English for instance) at a higher level. Otherwise, it would be an enormous waste of time for students as they will have 12 or more years of English learning and will still not be proficient enough in the language. Free and mandatory primary education has been a radical solution to our historically high illiteracy, and primary school is exactly where the first step for reform should be introduced.

Early education has been shown to provide better results in learning, when language acquisition is generally easier, than at the high school or university level. The curriculum must be radically modernised to involve digital tools and relevant content. However, even the best curriculum may fail to deliver if it is not made accessible by capable teachers. The teaching profession must be made into an attractive one, however difficult that process might be. Like Professor Stock has shown, reforms at a later stage, without preparing the students beforehand, will result in justified discontent. And to prepare the students for later examinations and curriculum reforms, the process must begin at the earliest stages.


Rasim Alam is a graduate of Tufts University in Massachusetts, USA, where he studied economics and international relations.


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