I felt a unique challenge when I received an invitation from the Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association, now famously known as NELTA both in Nepal and abroad, to address a session at its international conference in Kathmandu held September 10-12 this year. I could guess the nature of the challenge as it came from NELTA president Motikala Subba Dewan, who is untiringly working even during a pandemic to create a connection among teachers of different generations and levels during the lockdown.
During this challenging time, I had already participated in at least two webinars and published one article in this newspaper, titled ‘Guru karma in virtual times’. In that presentation, I alluded to the psychology of virtual teaching and the cultural shock that an abrupt shift from the direct classroom teaching with ‘chalk and duster’ presents.
Here, I want to make some confessions, some assessments and some suggestions about English pedagogy in the time of Covid-19. At this international conference, attended by scholars and experts from over 10 countries across the globe, an exchange of views about teaching during the pandemic is given the greatest priority. Never before in the history of English pedagogy had such global responses to the methods and mode of English teaching been brought together. This is a truly historical conference of such nature.
The problem that NELTA has envisaged for this difficult time has three aspects. I draw them from the invitation that I received from NELTA. The first one is ‘challenges [one faces] during Covid-19 in teaching and learning’. The second one is even more challenging: ‘What kind of strategies and opportunities would you like to recommend to cope with the educational situation in post-Covid-19 in Nepal’? The third aspect links the challenge of English pedagogy to the broader context, which is finding ways of exploring opportunities and thinking about ways of coping with them by linking that to the broader situation of education in the post-Covid-19 times. My only option would be to limit my presentation first to my experience, and then to my perceptions about the possible use of the available accoutrements necessary for that.
As an educator, teaching for nearly half a century, my challenges are psychological and ideational more than technological. I say psychological because the shifting praxis involved some tensions; it was somehow ideational because the interactions and seminars with students did have a direct relationship with the ideas. The other part is supervising students’ paper and thesis writings, which can be managed online. My experience during this time has another side, too.
English language teaching in our educational institutions of different levels is in our system. But talking about this karma performed for a long time, I suddenly feel as though I am entering uncharted territory. Sometimes I feel strange and even on guard. The main reason is that the overall disruption has put the application of the familiar methodologies under serious test. As we all know, the nature of the test is made by the wider sphere of English language teaching because it has always been taught as a compulsory subject at all levels of education. The second test is that not all schools and colleges have access to the means of remote learning and virtual teaching-learning facilities. This situation has made us review the available and utilised methods of instruction.
Philosophically speaking, the ontology of English teaching at this stage has opened up the redefinition of both the time and space, and also of the givers and receivers of English language education. This ontology has opened another subject, which is the justification and validity of the methodologies and schools such as those espoused by the ELT or TESOL that are so familiar to us. Time has become a flexible factor; we can reach out to the students or the audience more easily than before, and the spaces have become multiple. The schools and colleges have moved to households. In my virtual classes, I see students rising up to put domestic things in order and persuade children to go out to play while the class is going on.
As a writer and a teacher, I currently find a constant readjustment of life with space and one’s milieu while teaching. Learning has to be part of the entire effort. Learning of language in our case has become a negotiation—a skillful management of time and space. Academic sessions have been disrupted. Children from remote regions have lost contact with their teachers. To reestablish this contact has become the first requirement. The debate is focused on how we should achieve this. Some schools and higher-level institutions have been using these means since before the Covid-19. But they, too, have not been able to use those means and facilities; they have suddenly realised how much they are linked to the overall system of education in the country.
The government uses a familiar terminology called alternative education programme. This is, as said by the government’s related departments, mainly developed for school-level education. The challenge they have to address is making the means available to all schools all over the country. I was reading about the options they have for such remote learning. They have said they will experiment with all kinds of available technologies from the most accessible—radios—and in some or perhaps many places now the television. But making even these means available to students learning English in remote regions is not an easy task.
The South Asian countries that carry the legacy of English language teaching as a compulsory subject at all levels of the curricula had never faced the challenge of making the means and methods of English language teaching available in all regions and conditions. Teaching English in the post-Covid-19 era is reminiscent of the culture and condition of postality in the world today. It evokes terms like post-politics, post-democracy and most alarmingly post-truth, which is becoming viral in the system of power practices that involve language, all around the world. The oxymoronic use of terms today perhaps signals the onset of a culture of doing nothing and breaking the tradition of hallowed values.
Saying post-politics, for example, is saying not doing politics and post-truth means banishing truth altogether. But as teachers of English, we do not have any politics to do; we do not discontinue the practice of teaching English in the post-Covid-19 times. On the contrary, we teach by utilising various methods and technological resources. More methods will develop in time, and sharing will be even larger. This is rational optimism.
In most of South Asia, we have commonly given an important space for the English language in our educational system. A tacit consensus was reached among the people of this region regarding the use of English as an important means of education; we agreed that English could open important avenues of education in the fields of science, management, and humanities and social sciences. With each crisis, each political upheaval, each regional tension and with each achievement made by the media of all forms, the English language has continued to play an important role.
But the standard of English itself has changed over the decades in this region. Not one but several forms of the language have come into use in the world today. We, too, use various forms in this region. But an important feature of the English language is that they all have continued to share the most important characters of use. The most important reason for that is this language is kept united and recognisable to different users through grammar. English is a grammar-savvy language. All the methods that we apply under different nomenclatures to teach the English language—in different ways, with different pronunciations and different experiences (as we could see in this very NELTA conference)—have root in that grammar-savvy tradition of English language pedagogy.
We have to deal with English teaching directly, and we should return to the texts or textbooks with good exercises on all aspects of the language and introduce them in all countries (even in the English-speaking countries). I would see the continuity and validity of grammar working not as an orthodox praxis but as a base that has always been productive and, very importantly, practical or pragmatic in character. Using books of grammar and direct exercises is not feasible.
But that will certainly constitute the bulk of the English teaching books. The practice of using interesting and communicative texts and developing exercises on them is the best way of doing it, and we should acknowledge that such a system is still a dominant and feasible practice.
(Subedi is a poet, playwright and a columnist)
– The Kathmandu Post