An open Letter to the Minister for Higher Education

It was the recent visit by the minister to Govt College for Women, Nawakadal that actually prompted me to write this letter.
An open Letter to the Minister for Higher Education
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It was the recent visit by the minister to Govt College for Women, Nawakadal that actually prompted me to write this letter. It was the promise and vision in the minister's speech that strengthened my resolve to present the long pending problem of non-existence of language labs in our higher secondaries and colleges. And it was the encouragement from the principal of the college that made my resolve stronger.

 It may not sound hyperbolic if we say that Colleges without language labs are like having churches without organs or temples without devotees.  Descartes' philosophical dictum, 'I think therefore I am' gets complemented by the philological addition, 'I speak therefore thinking is known'. Though our syllabus and teaching techniques aim to inculcate speaking skills and unify accuracy with fluency in our student community, but how far do we succeed is a rhetorical question.  We all know the reality of heaven in this case as Ghalib says.  As a teacher of English I worked in rural and urban colleges.  Whatever the pass percentage in the annual exams, I found dismaying situation when it comes to language learning and usage among our students. 

 What is a language lab?  It as an audio-visual installation used as an aid in modern language teaching. Up to 12th standard we see that the English texts are replete with phonetic sound system. Learning or rote learning, these symbols is the usual procedure followed by students as they do it when they don't understand the basic and required connection between the written symbols and their sound equivalents.  The symbols are written on the board but their actualization goes missing in our richly huge and heterogeneous classes. Simply because the teachers cannot afford to dry their throats articulating the sounds till each and every student not only learns but uses it as it ought to be.  Here comes in the language lab for help. In a language lab students cannot only practice to articulate sounds correctly but also learn other language skills provided it is equipped with language teaching soft wares.  The purpose of having language lab is actually to involve students to actively participate in learning language, and thus act out more practice and activities than is possible in a traditional classroom setting. Moreover to improve speaking skill we have to ensure students get maximum speaking practice. In a traditional classroom they become all time good listeners but with a language lab, all students in the class can speak simultaneously without distracting each other regardless of the class size.    

 An English teacher in our colleges is supposed to teach basic sound systems, stress pattern, phonetic transcription and intonation etc., without any technical aid. And he is to teach all this to the students from all streams. In this way he is to teach technicalities and sophistication of a language to a class of non professionals and non-technicians and that too without any technical instrument. Passing oneself in these units, in the final written exam is altogether a different  thing, as it is the memorization power or mugging power that is checked by our much hyped annual exam system. It's an irony that for a chunk of science students we have labs, and must have, but for the whole roll of students in a college who are all to learn english  language in particular, and other languages in general, there is no equipment, not to mention a language lab, that can actually help them practice learning language skills.

The other tragedy that our student community go through is that the teachers, exceptions entertained, spend their precious time teaching theoretical portions of the texts such as poetry, essays and old stories.  Teaching such sections is not teaching language skills, and the syllabus designers need to revisit these sections. My suggestion is to reduce the number of such sections and in place add activity based language skills that will involve active student participation in the classroom and moreover awaken the students from the sweet slumber in which they generally dream that they can pass the particular sections by simply memorizing the questions at the end of these sections. The new added sections must ensure to awaken two new conceptions among the students of English language in particular and other languages in general. First, the realization that they can not merely rely on memorizing-passing exam strategy and second, only active participation and proper practice can help them understand and thus pass in the said sections. A bit of heuristic approach. And by now it is truistic that all this will be a grand success only if we have language labs. We can assume clearly that the presence of a well equipped language lab with latest language teaching softwares supported by a skill and activity based syllabi will not only attract our netizen students and facilitate learning of the skills that generally remain untouched in the classes but will also provide opportunities for students to work independently and thus acquire the modern wisdom of self sufficiency and self learning.  Moreover students will be more benefitted when these labs are connected to online sources which provide qualitatively rich and simplified ways for the learning of languages  

The great move by the minister of higher education of introducing vocational courses especially in languages and more specifically in spoken English, Arabic, Persian, and may be soon in Sanskrit  is yet another area that will prove a great success only with the language labs in the colleges. These courses have great market value at national and international level. But the basic challenge before us will be whether these courses would become mere exam passing exercises or they really are implemented and practiced out in such a way that our students unify accuracy and fluency.

Then we have another important subject, functional English. Except M A Road Women's College, there is no language lab in any other college of the  valley to my knowledge. What bars many colleges, including Govt College for Women, Nawakadal, from introducing functional English as a subject at UG level is simply the lack of a language lab. One fails to understand how some colleges run this course without a language lab.  

 The above observations speak loudly what is the state of language teaching  and learning in our educational institutes. Better late than never. Besides these labs can be used in multiple ways which language experts know better. A few are here below listed:

1. Monitoring and recording student speech
2. Setting up pairs or groups, randomly or manually
3. Broadcast video to all student screens
4. Monitoring student screens
5. Automatic collection of student files
6. Internet browsing, chatting and messaging, writing and spell-checking in different languages  

I hope that these observations are considered, so that our students receive quality language teaching from our institutes. Any form of wrong view in the article is regrettable

Dr Bilal Ahmad Dar is Asst professor English, Dept. of Higher Education
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