A Conversation with Prof. Govinda Raj Bhattarai

Professor   Govinda Raj Bhattarai (1953) who earned his PhD from the University of Hyderabad does not need any introduction in Nepalese academia and literary field. Associated with the Department of English Education, Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur, Prof. Bhattarai has penned a number of literary books – fictions, non fictions and poetry. To his credit there are about two dozen creative works including translated and edited ones. A prolific bilingual creative writer, Dr Bhattarai has travelled widely and presented papers in a number of seminars. In Nepal he is known popularly as a postmodern   critic/thinker as well. Besides, he has contributed immensely to the growth of ELT by preparing materials for more than three decades.   Moreover, he has also been instrumental in the preparation   of textbooks suitable for the Nepali contexts ranging from schools to university level courses.

Prof. Bhattarai was the President of NELTA for two terms between 2005 to 2009. Based on our recent conversation, here is a short excerpt of his view about the situation of English language teaching in Nepal.

Laxmi: How do you evaluate the present situation of English language teaching in Nepal?

Prof. Bhattarai: This question does not have a single and unanimous answer because there are various schooling systems and accordingly the textbooks, teaching traditions, teachers’ perception and the parents’ outlooks also vary and these different points, as a whole,  decide the type of teaching situation in Nepal or wherever may it be. But then,  the major trend of mainstream  teaching tradition has taken a great turn today. This can be recorded as a paradigm shift and is supported and accelerated by the application of advanced technology and the application of cyber culture. We can call this globalization process.

Presently, teachers are well-informed and possess more power and authenticity as a teacher. Besides, the parents are also more informed than before. And above all, present day learners are facilitated with the help of the cyber culture. They know the global spirit of the education system; and the global culture as such has also supported our education system to steer in a particular direction. Above all, modern day teachers and students both can seek and find the direct application of English language learning. Therefore, the teaching is also shaped accordingly. I feel the teaching and learning of English language has grown tremendously mainly because of the media and online technology. But at the same time I saw in countries third world countries like Korea, Thailand and China,   as well as Nepa that over spread of western popular culture has threatened their own cultures and nationality. This is a great danger and deplorable situation for their future. But globalization has left us (including academia) quite helpless. Personally I am skeptical about the over use of English at the cost of our own languages and native cultures. Who will repair our loss? How can we narrow down the widening cleavage?

Laxmi: What do you think are the major obstacles in delivering quality English language teaching programmes in our context?

Prof. Bhattarai: I don’t know what you have in your mind as you use the word ‘quality’. It is absolutely a comparative term because it is the syllabus of a particular situation that provides frames of reference or set goals of English language or any other (language or subject)  to be taught. If you have English language results or achievements in your mind, this is tolerably good and is comparable with other subjects but this too is very highly influenced by the medium of instruction we have employed. Naturally, the English language medium schools have done far better and Nepali language medium schools have suffered a lot. On the other hand, if your frame of reference is the English in SAARC region, Asian English or other third world country English, there is no research carried out to ascertain the picture. But it is quite deplorable to say that we have allowed two mediums and have forced a single examination system. We must stop and see what harm it has done to us. Needless to say, it has in fact ravaged our national spirit by producing two competing classes of students (and parents) – the rival groups. One is affluent, the other deprived and humiliated. Those who work for the first type is exploiting innocent citizens mercilessly; the latter one feels ignored and insulted. Equity is a far cry. Long back, more than three decades ago, I had raised voice for the rectification of this injustice. It was new then.  It was when I wrote a book titled Methods of Teaching English for B Ed level. If you have two mediums or two schooling systems then the examination boards should also be separate. Now, some people have started realizing this mistake and begun to give a thought into it. Actually, we have hampered and impaired the education system of those students who go for Nepali medium of teaching and learning. It is a great injustice to compare the students of two divergent sources by using one scale of measurement. If we make it two (examination boards) the injustice will be greater and discrimination shocking. Only solution is a single syllabus for all.

Private schools have dominated the government enterprise and have instilled in their students a feeling that Nepali medium schools are inferior and have poorer quality education and it is a system meant for the poor and downtrodden. This has left a very deep cleft between the psychological perceptions of the parents as well. We can see today how thousands of national schools are being shut down for ever or being merged forever. So it is difficult to evaluate our achievement system by one standard. Moreover, we have not made any measuring rod as to what will be the best line of achievement regarding our English language teaching consequences. Is it meant for use only in teaching or do we expect this to be used in oral communication as well ( in the society) , or just reading and perceiving  information and knowledge or do we expect this to be used in creative and critical writings beyond media  where you can hear the voice of the nation ? Teaching and learning of English so far has been an a lucrative game in which we participate vaguely because one’s attachment to this game earns him or her a prestige value though  their journey leads them to bleaker future. Nowhere have I seen a nation that grows stronger just by ignoring their own language and by welcoming an alien one.

Laxmi: What are the major achievements that Nepal has made so far in English teaching?

Prof. Bhattarai: Despite various hindrances and pessimistic tones, or a bleak undefined future for English for the mass, we hear everywhere, there are some praiseworthy points that help us appreciate the achievements in this regard. Firstly, with the help of English medium instruction many young batches of learners have gained wider access into the world of English language and literature. Many years of exposure to our graduates have encouraged them or enabled them to develop an atmosphere of preparing materials suitable to our climate. Today almost all the school textbooks are prepared by Nepali writers and scholars though they may be lacking in very high standards and accuracy. This is a great achievement as local colour has been honored and English language medium has been easily applied. We cannot hire writers of Science, Sociology, Moral Education and so forth from other countries as we used to do in the past. Likewise, a large number of native (Nepali) publishers and promoters are working in this system for the nation.

In the same way, a large number of teacher trainers, language experts and facilitators are working for the nation and our connectivity with the world outside has increased immensely. Moreover, many foreign agencies — especially British and American – have been making regular contribution to the betterment of English language situation in Nepal. The British Council and American Centre are supportive in this act of mentoring. Likewise, many organizations like NELTA have played a major role in connecting our experts or teachers with those of other parts of the world though we are blindly appreciating English in this climate without evaluating the degree of imminent danger that it is most likely to cause on  our total ecology by which I mean  rampant Englicization at the cost of our native traditions without defining its goals. We are paying attention to mechanics of structures only, there is no goal set beyond this. We should have given a thought if we ever had any content worth teaching.

Our efforts are not limited to teaching learning activities or materials production only. The measuring rod of English language is its production in areas other than teaching. Over the years, we can see growing number of books created in English. These are in different genres like poetry, prose that is to say fiction and non-fiction writings. In the same way, translation is proliferating in Nepal. It is not only a university subject today; it is one of the widely popular areas of teaching and practice that has sought employment for large number of our graduates every year. . This is language-literature interface activity. We should be proud to say that altogether about one hundred books including authored, created and translated ones are being produced in Nepal every year. Likewise a growing use of English will certainly please many NGOs and foreigners based in Nepal.

At this juncture, Nepal Academy having established a department of translation will serve a great cause towards connecting the English speaking world with Nepal and introducing our literature to the world. English language in this way is being employed gradually to promote the glory of the nation. Of late, peoples’ perception towards languages and cultures has been revised. All languages and cultures are equal but most of them (minority) in Nepal are suffering danger of extinction. It is by using common language across the nation   (English) that their legacy can be protected in the form of dictionary, grammar and other research works

Laxmi: How do you see the role of NELTA in shaping the course of English teaching in this country?

Prof. Bhattarai: NELTA is entrusted to take a single course of facilitating our teachers with knowledge and practice on the teaching and learning of English. It will enhance their practice and broaden experience; but it cannot design its own syllabus or course as you talk of government activities. Therefore, we should not be over ambitious in this connection.

But I have experienced that we cannot imagine sharpening our English language teachers without an organization like NELTA. It is shouldering a great task of making our young teachers aware of world English language situation and it is enabling them to be better, more precise, s and, more practical in their profession. No government effort of any scale can replace the functions of NELTA. Therefore, it has crossed national boundaries and has been a truly internationally acclaimed organization on par with Asia’s similar institutions with similar goals. It is matter of pride. But NELTA cannot go beyond that and redirect the route of English more judiciously and proportionately. I think this calls for higher level nation designers not simply mediocre planners.

Laxmi: What do you suggest to English teachers across the nation to achieve excellence in their professional life?

Prof. Bhattarai: I am very much serious about our perception of ELT. We ignore one (important) component of language teaching and learning – that is literature. We need to incorporate literature which consists of true and natural writings, best and elegant writings, great writings of the world. Our present day efforts are limited to language components, we teach them in fragments. We have over stressed on the use of vocabulary, sentence structure, pronunciations, correctness and all such fragments of totality. Unless we give students ( and mostly their teachers)  the total picture of English language, the highest form of any language  created  by experts and dedicated writers, we will be doing a partial (and trivial)    activity, which I call only a farce. . We need to encourage more reading – reading of varied authentic writings, classics and prize winning books. The teachers should divert their mind from language focused exercises towards the works of eternal importance that is literary works. English language trainers, teachers and even students should see, feel and experience the real world of creation. We teach lifeless structures and that really dampens their knowledge. We mimic by creating situations too, which can be called a greater farce.  They should experience in reading and should practice in writing as well; otherwise mere language training will produce nothing. I suggest all the English language teachers to develop a habit of reading good literature and encourage the same to their students so that they learn the language as a whole. It is only through reading, one can develop linguistic skills to the highest level. It is through reading that one can practice real writing.

Laxmi: Any final words to the teachers of English working around the country?

Prof. Bhattarai: One should have high regard and respect for their profession. One should have sense of incompleteness in life. Teaching is more important than learning and the basis of teaching is learning only. As I have put before, we are more lopsided – we need to work towards the all round development of English in Nepal and the English language teachers as well. I would like to emphasize extensively unlimited reading of teachers and of students because limited structures and rules will lead them to nowhere. Is it merely the creation of batches of teachers for which the nation is investing a huge amount of wealth? We need to stop and think.  They should gain and learn through reading and practice real English through writing. We may not be British or American writers, nor is this our goal. We need to be Nepali readers and Nepali writers who can compare our world with those of others and who can write inevitably in a Nepali way. We need not make our English as those of others by all standards. Think of the African writing, the Indian writing, the Japanese writing; they are cultivating their own variety. Moreover, to learn English does not necessarily mean to adopt their culture and obliterate our own. We need to help our own culture grow.

Laxmi: Thank you very much sir for your invaluable time and inspirational ideas.

Prof. Bhattarai: Thank you very much Laxmi for the patience you have exercised in this cold November evening at a destitute hermitage of an ageing English teacher. 

(Prof. Bhattarai can be reached at tu.govinda@gmail.com)

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