In India, English is not just a language, it is the aspiration of the society; gaining English language skills is a mode for upward social mobility. English language is a defining parameter for quality education ensuring wider scope for participation at the national as well as international level.
There has been a continuing controversy about grammar and its use in English . There are two approaches to language; on one hand there is prescriptive grammar which propels how a language ought to be used (the structure of sentences and rules of grammar are prescribed) and on the other hand is descriptive grammar, which focuses on describing the language as it is used in day-to-day interactions (language adopts the nuances of the dialect of the user).
It is often assumed that old school English is ‘pure’ or ‘correct’ as compared to today’s English . Hence, although descriptive grammar is dominant amongst theorists, schools majorly focus on prescriptive grammar. School education therefore enforces these rules of “correct” English language usag e. How fair is it to be so rigid? The amount of time teachers spend in drilling students on not to end a sentence with a linking verb or not to use dangling participles with little or no explanation causes a debilitating effect on a student’s capacity to learn and rejoice in the beauty of the language . A sense of anxiety gets associated with learning English, which acts as a mental block to cognitive processes.
Further, our outmoded classroom procedures treat English as Mathematics. The way a student of Mathematics progresses from learning numbers to addition then subtraction, and so on, students learning English start from letters of the alphabet to simple words to simple sentences, a process which violates the balanced approach of acquiring a new language. While not undermining the relevance of the structure and rules that guide the English language, it is important that there is room for flexibility that enables glocalisation. We need to tread carefully and draw a line for when to stop pushing students to speaking and writing ‘correctly’ and rather encourage them to communicate in the new language i.e. we need to promote sensible prescriptivism, thereby not limiting them to basic decoding of words and/or grammar but encouraging meaningful integration of knowledge and a creative take on their world view.
A language changes with changing times, it evolves and adapts to the need of its users. Language has to keep pace with the latest innovations and technology to facilitate communication relevant for the 21st century. We live in a dynamic world, where the language for communication is equally dynamic, hence more than the English language being ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ it should be recognised as ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’. It is the context that defines if the ‘language’ used is relevant or not. Every year Oxford Dictionary adds new words from different languages – in 2019 it added 1400 words. The Hindi word ‘jugaad’ is one such word added in 2017. In the 1400’s it would have been next to impossible to imagine using the word ‘whatevs’ instead of’whatever; but today not only is ‘whatevs’ a commonly used word, it is also one of the new words added to the Oxford Dictionary.
Whilst the language itself undergoes scrutiny and becomes era-appropriate, it would be unbefitting to apply redundant language acquisition practices to it. Adaptation of new-age language learning practices becomes all the more pertinent in the Indian classroom as English is not the primary language, which means the concept of structural rules of English are not innate to the students. Besides, there is a limited linguistic environment supportive of English acquisition and often the teacher’s English language proficiency is also inadequate. Therefore technological linguistic assistance becomes important as it offers a multi-sensory experience that includes read aloud sessions, guided reading, shared reading and individual reading. Use of technology in language teaching-learning also allows tracking of the literacy curve of students enabling better guidance toward the development of language skills.
The NCERT Position Paper on Teaching of English states, ‘The “burden of languages” (as of all education) is the burden of incomprehension. This happens when language is taught for its own sake as a set of forms or rules, and not introduced as the carrier of coherent textual meaning; it then becomes another “subject” to be passed: It is important that English language teachers keep this in mind, and enable students to learn and joyfully explore a new language without being a Grammar rakshak.
In the words of Jonathan Culver, “The English language is a work in progress. Have fun with it:’