8 October 2014.
My work demands me to deal with the English ‘subject’. I write the word in quotation marks because I want it to capture your attention. For at least one of you to shift your glance back up to the sentence and say, “Hey wait a minute! Shouldn’t the word you’re looking for, be ‘language’?”
For years together, I realise I have been the victim of this weird insistence of our educational system. It turns the romance of a language into the monotony of a subject. It breaks a sentence into Subject and Predicate but fails to teach the objective of this segregation.
From the minute I had mastered the pincer grip, my family has literally fed me books. During my naïve toddler years, I had assumed this was a regular way of life. Where birthday gifts were books in various languages. Where family time meant each family member facing another but lost in a book. Where reading was an innate drive, and not a habit to be cultivated. As school entered my life, these rose – rimmed glasses leapt off my eyes. The English textbook was devoured by me even before the new academic year started. And yet, through it all…a restlessness gnawed at me.
For years, I didn’t know what to make of it. I loved English, then why this lingering dissatisfaction within me…? As I stepped into college, I found myself taking on a new role, that of a teacher. I came face – to – face with my young student ; a girl aged 11, who “hated the English subject”. Her honest introduction was the start of a quest…the quest to quieten this restlessness within. She told me she feared the subject, scored less in this subject’s exams, had lost the confidence and the interest to study for this subject. Note to self : Not once did she spare a mention to the English language. All her hatred was directed towards the ‘subject’. As luck would have it, for the next 5 years, almost all the students I taught started off with the same complaint. A hatred, a fear of English as a subject. It was a concept almost novel for me, because that was the only ‘subject’ in which my scores were sky-high. This difference in perspective forced me to adopt a new teaching system : to replace the word ‘subject’ with ‘language’. And almost immediately, the changes began to occur…
The library books were issued with curiosity, the storylines discussed. The movies were being watched and word lists were generated. We didn’t ditch the textbook but neither did we embrace it. We learnt to fall in love with the language and the subject roped in the grades.
Today when I have moved out from the role of a teacher and am dabbling with generating content, I realise what a chaos this simple transition can cause. The textbooks leave me confused and helpless even after 2 degrees in the English language. It makes me wonder how children just entering the primary level of education deal with this inconsistency. Each page is a challenge in itself. Each lesson a puzzle in itself. Std 1 has a textbook that expects them to read out dialogues and small stories. But Std 3 is when they learn letter sounds! How would you read /apple/ if you can’t associate the /a/ sound to the A? The answer is almost obvious : That’s what a teacher is there for! And if even they fall short, there’s a tiny box on almost each page that gives you the transliterated versions. Now they can read….Can’t they?
Here’s where a new problem begins. This is a language taking help of another language. There are sounds that don’t exist in one language, words that have no literal translation in the other language. Some concepts are alien, some much too imbibed. It takes me a minute to think of a Marathi word for ‘toothpaste’ and it takes me a whole of 10 minutes to create a definition in Marathi for the word ‘pie’. There’s nothing like it. It’s lost in translation…
Today I think back to the difference in learning English and learning German. Both equally foreign languages to an Indian like me. But I ‘lived’ English and I ‘studied for’ German. As Frost clarifies, “I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.”
Today I can still read German, but otherwise it’s almost as foreign as it once felt. English however turned into the language of expression for me. Because I was taught to absorb the language. To read and listen and speak and write it without caring about mistakes. Because those are the stepping stones to success. My mistakes were corrected with explanations and never with threats of low grades. My ease of handling the language was developed by throwing me into deep waters and teaching me to swim for survival. The language wasn’t simplified, it was just made more real. The foreign words in the weird accent slowly began to make sense until eventually I made my way into its land of origin so I could gain some mastery over it.
A love affair that began with the language at the age of 3 continues with undiluted passion, 20 years later. The current designation of a ‘subject’ relegated to English brings tears to my eyes, especially when sometimes I end up contributing to its longevity.
The restlessness that was once quietened has surfaced again. And until I find a far more lasting solution, the teaching of the English language in our education system will remain a ‘subject’ for discussion…
P.S : This is entirely a personal opinion, based on my life experiences. Comments / critique welcome. Contradicting experiences, more than welcome 😉