Thursday, February 24, 2011

Language lab: can it really help?

I wonder if the language laboratory is a current fad in the teaching of English in our country.  At a weekend workshop I ran for teachers of English, a school teacher proudly announced that her school had set up a language lab.  “Things are looking up now”, she added.  She was looked up to by her fellow-participants from other schools who seemed so down-hearted at not having a language lab in their own schools.

On several occasions in the recent past I have heard both school and college teachers complain that they have not been able to make much headway in the teaching of English because they have not been equipped with a language lab.  Interestingly, most of them don’t know what a language lab is and what it can be used for.  If they get one, I’m sure they will be disillusioned.

In Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion (or in its film version, My Fair Lady), Professor Higgins taught a Cockney flower girl the finer graces of English speech.  If you have a similar aim, you can think of a language lab as a means of achieving it.  But there is one problem.  Professor Higgins’s student, Eliza Doolittle, had her English already; the professor’s job, therefore, was not to teach her the language but to rub off the rough edges of her Cockney tongue.  You can’t say the same thing about your own learners.  Most of them don’t have the language to support the niceties of pronunciation you want to teach in your language lab.  This apart, learners who benefit from the teaching of pronunciation are those who already have a reasonably good accent.  Those who need remediation seldom show an appreciable degree of improvement.

Producers of language lab materials are sure to protest.  They will claim that they have interactive packages for developing different language skills.  I have examined the packages produced by some of them.  They can at best be used for developing proficiency in interactional communication rather than transactional communication.  For the latter, the classroom is the best place.

A machine can seldom sustain people’s initial enthusiasm for it; the novelty soon wears off.  A few years ago, when my wife asked me to buy her a static cycle, I was reluctant.  It was because the static cycle had a history of not being touched after a couple of months’ use.  But, as it always happens, my better half’s wish eventually got the better of my better judgement.  The object of her wish, the static cycle, which cost me Rs 4000, lies almost untouched now in a corner of our bedroom.  I hope it doesn’t happen to a language lab.  Even a very small one will cost twenty-five times as much as the static cycle cost me.  If it is left to gather dust, it will certainly pain you, even if you have money to burn.

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