Communicative English, one of the major objectives of which is to emphasise on speaking skill, was introduced in the national curriculum more than a decade ago in order to enhance our students' overall skills, specially speaking skill, that were neglected in our curriculum since independence. But have we achieved any level of success and are we on the right track to achieve our objectives? The answer is a big "no."
In this article I am going to point out some of the reasons for which our students in general are not able to achieve even a rudimentary level of speaking skill even after they have studied English as a compulsory subject from the primary level to the higher secondary level.
First of all I would say that communicative method of language learning is a global phenomenon, and proper implementation can produce positive result. Regrettably, in Bangladesh we have not been able to use this method properly till now and probably success will not come until we take necessary steps.
Although the introduction of communicative English in Bangladesh has not enhanced the quality of our students' English language skill, it has contributed a lot towards the increase in pass rate in SSC and HSC examinations. In fact, one of the major reasons for the very poor output from communicative English is the exam system.
In Bangladesh, researchers have found that students are highly exam oriented and have no interest in things that are not included/important in the exam (this is not the fault of the students because we traditionally judge a student's merit by the marks s/he gets in the exam).
The text books (English for today) up to higher secondary level provide materials to engage students in oral communication by group work, pair work, dialogues, role-play etc. But since these things are not included in the public exams, students do not feel interested in such oral practice and language teachers face a lot of trouble in the communicative language classes.
Experts, while designing communicative English language materials for the students and guidelines/instructions for the teachers, provided sample questions that later turned into so-called model questions and students got real interest here. Now, in most schools and colleges, communicative English has dwindled to the practice of model questions that exclude the oral practice of language. These models, which are almost the same items from class six through twelve, have made the bar of exams much easier to cross.
In the present system of examination, it is very difficult for a student to fail in English because if s/he answers even randomly without being sure of any correct answer, s/he is likely to get at least pass marks, and in case s/he gets below the pass marks, examiners these days are liberal enough to enhance the score to the pass mark. One of the reasons, perhaps, is the pressure from the education boards that always want to raise the pass rates higher.
We all know that pass rates in English matter much to the average pass rates because most of the students who fail to pass in the SSC and HSC exams fail in English. In the present situation the education board authorities may feel complacent because the pass rate in English is no less than 70%, and that the number of students getting A+ in English far outnumbers those getting A+ in Bangla.
Also, those who are not familiar with the exam system may have this delusion that our students are doing better in English than in Bangla, meaning that they are gaining better in English than in Bangla. But the reality is different, and this can be guessed from the general impression that a huge number of our educated youths who have gained certificates but not good jobs in the country or elsewhere due to their lack of English language skill.
That English language skill is one of the most vital tools of success in the job market is not a present day phenomenon. During the colonial period some Indians/Bangalees reached the peak of success by learning English. This, however, had a negative impact in some cases when these English educated people suffered from "Anglomania." One such glaring example, we know, was poet Madhu Sudan Dutta, who developed a hatred for Bangla and started to write in English, but realised his mistake later.
It is time we realised the importance of English language skill, more importantly the importance of speaking skill. Bangladesh is gradually turning from its agro-based economy to a service oriented economy and agricultural land is shrinking more rapidly than ever.
In a service oriented economy our country is bound to be more impoverished and vulnerable if we cannot educate our youths with speaking skill in English. Moreover, our agenda for building a digital Bangladesh through vision 2021 will be jeopardised because in the present global context English language will be a driving force for digital Bangladesh.
In the present context of necessity of English as a tool for development I would say that the prevailing communicative method of English language teaching needs to be reshaped along with the exam system. In the public exam at least 20% marks needs to be allotted for speaking skill (that will cover listening skill as well). Then, students will be encouraged to develop their speaking skill. Practice of speaking English should be enhanced at least in the educational institutions and English classes must be conducted in English.
I would suggest that a lot of materials for discussion in English could be chosen from Bangla literature, including the literary materials of Bangla syllabuses of the respective classes. This will not only hold students' interest but also increase their passion for Bangla language and literature, simultaneously developing speaking skill in English.
From personal experience I have found a very good output engaging my students to talk about some Bangla poets or writers or on Bangla short stories and poems. Teachers should be aware that not all Bangla words have English synonyms because "no two languages are similar." Besides we can use our culture bound relationship words such as abba, amma, bhabi, assalamu alaikum, namasker etc. while speaking in English.
It is true that a language contains its speakers' cultures but as English today has become a language of the world we have to make it a language of our own, conforming it to our own culture.
As English language is an important tool for development, can't we prepare ourselves well for gaining this advantage? Can't our English language teachers say "ask not what salary you get for your job, ask what you have done for the students," For a teacher there is nothing better than making a permanent space in your students' minds.
Dr. Md. Abu Zafor, Associate Professor, Department of English, Jagannath University.