Friday, February 25, 2011

Poor merchandise and easy money

Spoken English is on the market now.  Thanks to globalization, the IT revolution of the 1990s, people’s desire to emigrate to their dreamland, call centers, societal pressures and the need to ‘arrive’ in society, the demand for spoken English has greatly increased.  To cash in on this surge of demand, a large number of spoken English ‘shops’ have sprung up.  The traders have certainly prospered.  But do they provide good value for money?

 Once I guided a project on which some of the spoken English ‘shops’ in my own city were investigated.  Our sample was large and representative and so our findings (namely, that the ‘merchandise’, low in quality, is not good value for money) is generalizable.  The inadequacy of the spoken English courses is due to three unsound assumptions on which they are based.

The first unsound assumption is that learning is additive.  The courses attempt to simplify the language learning process by reducing the language into units – words, structures, sounds, etc.  They assume that if the learner masters these units, he will be able recombine them into verbal messages in real-life communication.  But this process doesn’t work: the learner is unable to communicate effectively, putting together the language bits and pieces he has learnt.  Research has disproved this discrete-elements approach; it shows, on the contrary, that learners perceive and acquire a language in complex chunks.

The second unsound assumption is that the sentence is the appropriate unit of planning and performance.  The students of the spoken English courses are given practice exercises in which the utterances exist in isolation; little importance is given to how a sentence takes on meaning in the context.  Even when dialogues are used, the emphasis is on interactional communication (which is meant for the maintenance of social relationships) rather than transactional communication (which is message-oriented).  An Indian learner requires English for transactional reasons.  He is frustrated when he is unable to perform transactional functions in real life, in spite of his having “learnt” spoken English.

Thirdly, the spoken English courses give undue importance to pronunciation.  There are two problems here.  One, the teachers themselves cannot pronounce words in English correctly, stress the right syllables and use the right intonation, and so their trying to teach pronunciation, that too with the Received Pronunciation as the model, is a futile exercise.  Two, in most cases, learners who benefit from the teaching of pronunciation are those who already have a reasonably good accent; those who need remediation seldom show much improvement. But, ignoring these two factors, our spoken English teachers readily accept Professor Higgins as their model.  Higgins is a wrong model because his student was a native English speaker.  She had her English already; all that was required on the professor’s part was to rub off the rough edges of her Cockney tongue.  But our own learners are totally different: they don’t have the language to support the niceties of pronunciation.

Whenever someone asks me to recommend a spoken English course offered in my town, my reply is this colloquial catchphrase: You pays your money and you takes your choice.

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