Tuesday, 19 July 2016

English classes: beginning & problematic

By Vio

When I first came to India and to Khajuraho in August 2005 I felt in love with Indian children. On my flight back to Europe I knew I wanted to come back to India for a "long" time to work with them, one day...

Back in Khajuraho in 2008, with Vijay's help, I tried to gather some children to open an English class. However, I was too much of a beginner in Hindi then and felt it wouldn't work this time round, because I wanted to communicate well with my little pupils... Later, during the spring of 2009, I gave some private English classes to a few children during their summer holidays, then I flew back to Europe and that was it for a while...

If interested you may read a few of my old blog entries about my English teaching, written in 2008-2009:

  • A taster of teaching English to Indian children? - 1 Feb. 2008
  • Visiting the first school - 5 Feb. 2008
  • School! - 11 Feb. 2008
  • Visiting the second school - 20 Feb. 2008
  • The heat is still bearable; teaching is fun - 21 Apr. 2009
  • Teaching English to Indian children - 1 Jun. 2009

  • Still, English teaching always remained at the back of my mind. It was just that the right situation hadn't come up to me, and I was also too busy with my violin and Hindi studies in Varanasi.

    Indian mistakes & teaching methods

    The more I started to understand the Hindi language, the more I began to understand why so many Indians have so much difficulty with English spelling and grammar. Hindi has a phonetic script, unlike English, so many Indians spell English phonetically, e.g 'mobail' instead of 'mobile'. In addition, some words in Hindi may be spelt in more than one ways when their pronunciation is questionnable (e.g. 'bahan' or 'bahin' for 'sister'), which explains that generally, they don't give as much systematic importance as Europeans do to spelling. So if Indians can't hear the difference in pronunciation well, they will make spelling mistakes and not think they are so important (e.g. they confuse 'then' and 'than' which sound similar and which they have difficulty distinguishing). And all the (sometimes funny) grammar mistakes they make come from direct interference/transliteration from Hindi.

    Ravi was still at school then, and he also sometimes asked me to help him with his English homework. I was amazed that his school books themselves had many mistakes. The grammar "lessons" were oddly organised, too, with no real explanations anyway, in ways that were not very logical to me. Once Ravi came back from an English exam, showed me its syllabus, and I saw that the questions themselves had mistakes in them or were really confusing. How could the pupils make sense of the language themselves, if their books had plenty of mistakes and their teachers didn't have a good command of English grammar?

    I also found out that a lot of the teaching was based on learning by heart rather than understanding. For example, in a text-comprehension-type exercise, the students were simply asked to remember the model answers word for word, rather than taught how to understand the text, build their own sentences, and answer the questions in their own words. One of my recent students also told me that when she has a composition to write, whenever students make some mistakes, the teacher will not point them and explain them, rather s/he will cross out the entire text! It is sad but understandable when teachers themselves don't know enough English to give good explanations to their students... Besides, many students here are beaten when they don't give the "right" answer, so they are so scared of making mistakes that they never try to make their own sentences (which the teacher wouldn't necessarily correct anyway) and prefer to learn the model answers by heart... The result is that, unless students have a predisposition to language, they have a lot of vocabulary but they are so confused about grammar that they don't know how to make proper sentences. They don't learn grammar systematically so they build sentences quite randomly, and after many years their minds are ingrained with some vague, unsystematic notions of grammar that they don't know how to use, but that are very difficult to unlearn!

    Gathering material

    Back in Europe in May 2010, I finally took the Cambridge-accreditated CELTA English-teaching course while in the UK, which I had wanted to take for years... Two years later, I also decided to bring back some good-quality English teaching books from the UK to India, because if I was going to teach English in India one day, there was no way I could use local books...

    Regular English classes to Indian teenagers

    The opportunity to teach English to young Indians finally came back to me thanks to my cousin, who is currently planning on shooting a documentary about youngsters in Khajuraho. For this he has selected ten teenage girls and boys, a few of whom need to improve their English in time for the documentary. This is how I have been teaching English three times a week to five teenagers since September 2015.

    I was really happy to finally use my books, and the classes are running well. Still, it is quite a challenge to try and "reorganise the grammar in my students' minds". It will surely take time, but this has rekindled my motivation to teach English in Khajuraho...

    About the teacher

    Language education

  • PgDip in Developmental Linguistics, the University of Edinburgh (UK, 2005).
  • CELTA English teaching certificate accredited by the University of Cambridge (UK, 2010).
  • Undergraduate Diploma in Hindi, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi (India, 2009-11).

  • Language/English experience

  • Mother-tongue: French.
  • Lived in an English-speaking environment for 10 years between 1996 and 2007 (1 year in Canada, 9 years in the UK).
  • 4 years of formal higher education in anglophone universities: McGill University (Montreal, Canada, 1996-97), Leeds University (UK, 1998-99) & the University of Edinburgh (UK, 2003-2005).
  • Blog-writing in English since 2000 (see blog here).
  • Teaches English & Hindi as foreign languages since 2009/2011.
  • Regular translation work for small NGOs since 2010: French-English, English-French, Hindi-English/French.
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