English has become a global language and is widely used for communication purposes across the world. Mark Warshchauer rightly says that in this globalized world many varieties of English have developed. He adds that this will lead to a change in the way teacher educators think about what is correct and what is not. So, one will need a completely different outlook towards syntax, grammar and phonetics. The kind of grammar, accent and structures used by the native English speakers are not necessarily the ‘correct’ versions, as each culture has come up with its own variety and version of the English Language (Warshchauer, 2000)
However, almost all of my (vivid) memories from English lessons in school remind me of grammar lessons and textbook stories or poetry sessions. The grammar sessions were quite boring as they were spent practising unrelated examples to master a ‘certain concept’. Textbook stories or poetry sessions usually started with reading the text in the class and answering the questions given at the end of the lesson. The text in these sessions never depicted or related to the realities of our lives. We often read and wrote about plants that we had never seen, festivals that we rarely celebrated and food that was not eaten by most of us except on some special occasions. During all these classes, English language learning was never contextualised for us, i.e. Indian students, but rather seemed to be a result of an over-emphasis on studying and mastering grammatical skills mechanically. In this article I would like to talk about the importance of context and culture in an English language classroom with a brief description of a recent initiative in this direction.
While there have been substantial changes in the State textbooks with respect to the context specific content, the current scenario of English teaching in Indian classrooms is still associated with grammatical competence. The teachers and students often engage in mastering the grammatical rules and skills of the language with a lot of focus on avoiding grammatical ‘errors’. It is not dealt in a way so as to help students’ gain communicative competence. Since the language material, text and curriculum is often based on the culture, value and beliefs of the native English speaker; students often feel alienated from the practices and beliefs depicted in the text or material. There is an unconscious emphasis on speaking and using the language like the native English speaker. The local culture and context which the student is a part of is thereby marginalised and becomes unimportant overtime. Hence, this stops the students from using the language for a meaningful communicative purpose. English language teaching and learning then boils down to mastering some grammatical skills and translations within the boundaries of the textbook and classroom. Students gradually lose interest in using English Language for interpersonal and social exchanges. The use of and engagement with language remains limited to the English classroom.
This globalized world demands English language competence which can be utilized for meaningful communication by the non-native speaker. Context, thereby plays a critical role in the development of this communicative competence amongst students. Knowledge construction does not take place in a vacuum and the same holds true for learning language. Theorists have often advocated that the starting point for learning reading and writing of any language should include community and local experiences of the children. The most pressing necessity therefore, for the teachers and educators is to give due importance to the culture and context of the students’ learning English as their second language.
The Connected Learning Initiative (CLIx), a project between Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Mumbai, Tata Trusts and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) USA, recently launched the DASTAAN fellowship, in this context. CLIx addresses both curricular content and pedagogical approaches, to work with students and teachers, and to deliver quality solutions at scale in mathematics, science and communicative English. The CLIx English course aims to improve the conversational skills and communicative abilities of students. The course follows a Blended Mode of learning wherein the course offers computer based activities as well as face to face interactions. For this purpose, the course being prepared by the team has adopted an approach which is task based and learner centric. The activities/tasks that the students engage in are rooted in authentic and student relevant context. The English team at CLIx also anchored the DAASTAN Fellowship which stands for ‘Develop bonds with locals, Ask questions, Study local societies, Trace relations between Socio-Economic strata and cultural practices/beliefs, Analyse and Archive, Note and present’. The fellowship has been conducted in the states of Mizoram, Telangana and Rajasthan. It aims at collecting and disseminating cultural data, linguistic backgrounds, folk tales and trends among teenagers, and captures their likes, dislikes and popular practices utilizing the affordances offered by contemporary technology and social media. For this purpose, one fellow has been sent to each of these states to collect data for the same. For instance, the data collected from Rajasthan depicts the kind of animals found in the area, work people are engaged in, places and temples they visit and the folk stories related to temples and practices in the area. This endeavour has been taken up in order to make the learning module and curricular content culturally sensitive and contextually enriching.
As the DASTAAN fellowship re-affirms, India is a multilingual country and students entering the classroom possess diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Language facilitators must ensure that students engage with language in a meaningful manner. One must move away from formal grammar focused classrooms only. Tasks being designed for language learning should make students interested in using English language for social interactions and not just within the bounds of the classroom. Students could engage in weaving stories, listening to audio stories, engaging in model conversations and using dialogues, picture descriptions and role plays. Care should be taken that themes and topics chosen for conducting such activities must be inspired by the everyday lives of the students. For example teachers can give themes and topics to students based on which they could prepare role plays in groups on topics related to their lives. Students can then, prepare their own dialogues and enact their play in front of the entire class. In yet another meaningful activity, teachers could make students hear conversations which are related to known themes and topics. The students could then be presented with more themes or topics about which they can talk in pairs and come up with their own model conversations. In these activities, students are using English language through a task which is relevant and inspired by the daily life context of the learner. It is an authentic context which will enable the Language learners to see the usefulness of language outside the classroom.
The onus of maintaining the right link between language, context and culture lies both with the teachers and educators. The benefits of accepting and respecting the local realities of the student in the curricular content and pedagogy can be immense and surely promises an increased interest in the language learning process.
- Cook, V. (1999). Going Beyond the native speaker in Language Teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 185-209.
- Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford University Press.
- TISS. (2016, May 25). Connected Learning Initiative. Retrieved from Tata Institute of Social Sciences: https://clix.tiss.edu/
- Warschauer, M. (2000). The Changing Global Economy and the Future of English Teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 511-535.
The author is an M. Phil Scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.