Literature, Language Teaching and 21st International Conference of NELTA: A Reflection
Dr. Binod Luitel*
My initial orientation to literature
When we were studying English at college level, I had understood literature in two different senses: (i) some informative description written in a language on any discipline, (ii) aesthetic or artistic creation (rather than ordinary communication) using language. In one way or the other, during my college days I was taught some tit-bits of literature in the second sense, while my exposure to literature in the first sense was quite a lot.
After entering into teaching profession later on, when I had to teach some short stories, I realized that literature with aesthetic value does have some importance from pedagogic perspective. In an interview, I was asked a question: ‘Literature is useful in language teaching; do you agree or disagree with this statement?’ My answer was: ‘Yes, I agree because literary form of expression has aesthetic characteristics, which can create motivation among learners towards reading the text; so the use of literature becomes instrumental in their language development ultimately.
I came to know, after the interview, that my opinion was much appreciated by the panel of experts. Then I was motivated to write an article (Luitel, 1998) – whereby I expressed my preliminary understanding regarding how short stories can be taught systematically to the students having insufficient level of command in English. As I realize now, this incidence was one of my initial concerns on language-literature interface, though in the article I did not explicitly articulate aesthetic matters related to short story; and the focus of writing was still pedagogic rather than literary. Within the dozen years thereafter, I attempted to do nothing tangible in the name of aesthetic literature or its teaching-learning (neither in terms of creation, nor in critique or even thinking of any constructive idea).
My enthusiasm towards fictitious creation
Almost after 13 years of publishing the article mentioned above, I was motivated to write a short story (Luitel, 2011), which depicts the life of a little schoolboy who lost his mother and is now living in the family as a stepchild – always scolded by the stepmother over trivial matters, and found weeping in classroom.
Another very recent production has been created within two hours, when I was not actually thinking of story but I had a list of 10 abstract words. The words were: apathy, circumstance, confiscate, emanate, implement, iridescent, proclaim, refutation, renounce, surveillance.
I did not have any specific task to do with these words but I had some free time and my mind was just ‘wandering’ aimlessly. Looking upon these words, I started thinking about how they could be taught more effectively. I had understood, right from the beginning of my pedagogic studies, that the idea of presenting words in context can be the best way of implanting the meaning of an unknown abstract word upon learners’ ‘mental lexicon’. Then I started reflecting: How can these words be best presented in context?
I started making sentences using the words. After producing sentences for the first 3 words, I thought whether all the words can be presented in the same coherent and unified text rather than in different short paragraphs unrelated to one another. Ultimately, I decided to present the words in fictitious context and tried to build an imaginary folk legend (not the one that I had heard) using the words. This attempt resulted in the product as follows.
|The King and the Prince
Once upon a time there was a king. His ancestors were cruel rulers of the kingdom. But the King did not want to rule cruelly. He proclaimed, “No one from the Royal family shall encourage the activities of suppressing anyone in the kingdom. This kingdom will remain most egalitarian where no one can feel suppression of any kind.”
The King became old, and could not walk far away. The servants in the palace were jealous about the King’s decision of being so generous to the people. They wanted to get benefit by exploiting the common people by using the power of the King. So they made a decision to create conflict between the people and the Royal family. “How can this decision be implemented?” They started mulling over days and nights. They created a rumour that the Prince wanted to be a cruel ruler like the ancestors in the past. Soon, everybody in villages began to say everywhere – “The news emanated from Royal Palace says that the Prince is willing to suppress us.”
The Prince was unknown to village life. So, the old King said, “I may die sooner or later. You’ll have to rule the kingdom. You should know the country very well. Visit the countryside sometimes.”
Prince planned to leave the palace one day. Before his departure, he sent a group of guardsmen to the place where he wanted to roam around. They were sent for surveillance. As per his plan, he set out on his horse and arrived at a village. It was a wonderful experience to see the new things and people dressed in different ways; and he enjoyed. He was surprised to see the wonderful places and things there around. He was astonished to see artistic wood carvings decorated in beautiful houses, and yellowish paddy field surrounding the houses. He found the village to be a unique place of civilization. But, instead of welcoming him, people showed apathy on his arrival.
People did not want to accommodate him – thinking that he could do some harm. It was contrary to what he had heard in the past. In this way, he was surprised to see the circumstance there around. Looking upon the horse-ridden Prince, herdsmen and peasants turned their faces to the other direction! Boys and girls closed their eyes with their palms!! Prince could not understand why they did this. In the evening, however, he managed to take shelter in an iridescent house in the middle of the village. Next day, as he was departing from the village, some old men came to him and said, “We know you are our Prince. We are happy with the way our kind ruler, the King, has treated us. But people say you are going to suppress us after becoming the King.”
The Prince was surprised and asked, “Who said this? I fully respect the ideals and ruling principles established by my respected father.”
“Everybody says this in the village. They came to know this from the Royal servants”, said one of the old men.
The Prince spent some time arguing in refutation of the rumour. Then he went back. Next morning, the King asked him to report the things and incidents occurred during his visit to the countryside. The Prince said, “My respected father, I’ll report the details in a meeting where you have to call all the Royal servants.”
The King called the meeting after some time. The Prince reported the rumour he heard. Soon the Royal servants were dismissed from duty, and their property was confiscated. New servants came to their position; and they cooperated with the King and Prince in everything. From that time on, the Prince began to visit the countryside secretly by disguising in different forms. There were meetings in the palace after his returning; and the common folks were also invited there. After some years, the King renounced his regime and handed his position to the Prince.
Considering the pedagogic purpose of aesthetic literature (which, I think, should be adopted in humanistic and creative language teaching business), the two creations (just mentioned) have different orientations: While the first one aims at sensitizing the readers about the psychological condition of classroom children created by the unfavourable home environment, the second one is an example of learning material with the focus on enhancement of word-meaning knowledge through context.
Reflection from the conference
We have heard ‘literature-language dispute’ for a long time in Nepalese university departments. In many cases, we observed that people representing the two ‘different streams’ rarely dared to sit together for interactive discussions. In this context, a forum was created in the 21st International Conference of NELTA to reflect on this broad issue. Holding a panel discussion bearing the theme “Nexus of Literature in ELT” was, I suppose, one of the attempts of addressing this perennial concern. In the discussion, the panelists were professors and renowned language pedagogues from Hungary, India and Nepal.
In my particular circumstance of literary orientation and enthusiasm towards its linkage in language pedagogy that I mentioned above, I had two contemplations prior to attending the panel discussion session in the conference. First, there would be full agreement regarding the usefulness of proper kind of aesthetic literature for the enhancement of learner’s language proficiency; and accordingly the panel and audience would establish the need for utilizing such literary texts with appropriate methodological procedure in language teaching-learning. Secondly, from the point of view of teacher professional development, I also had the expectation that the forum would urge the audience for some initiation towards the production of (and/or critique on) aesthetic literature that particularly aims at pedagogic sensitization of teaching professionals – so that those involved in the field of teaching would have the opportunity to be benefitted, in the long run, by understanding the agonies, pains and problems of learners (like in the Nepali drama Kohi Kina Barbad Hos by Vijay Malla; or the short story Tears from his Eyes – Luitel 2011 ; or similar literary products) in many ways.
To my impression, the discussion attempted to address the first concern just mentioned pretty well. It was emphasized that literature, linguistics, and language pedagogy can and should be integrated, so that language teaching methodologies will have a space in the curricula of English literature as well. However, deviated literature will not give justice to the learners; therefore it is important to make proper selection of texts for imparting literary knowledge to the students and to build up their language competence through literary materials. As the discussion emphasized, relevancy of materials to learners’ context must be assessed pretty well before selecting texts for teaching.
Raising a curiosity before the panel, I personally wanted to draw the attention towards the issue of literature for ‘pedagogic sensitization of teachers’ mentioned above; and one of the panelists admitted, “I understood your point”. However, discussion could not go further. Later, it was understood that two of the panelists did not even understand the essence of my concern. Maybe, I could not make my point well understood to them (though others appreciated the idea while talking with me personally).
On the whole, the most encouraging point to note is that NELTA has been a platform this time to openly accommodate one of the major concerns of English language teaching in Nepal as well as internationally. The importance of aesthetic literature and a couple of cautions to be taken while accommodating literary contents in teaching have well been discussed. It has been suggested that, at higher studies, the way literature used to be taught in the past (with the focus of teaching culture, ignoring the aspect of enhancement in the linguistic competence of learners) needs to be revisited. Let us hope that literature relevant to the learners’ context will also be well accommodated in our ELT courses in the future; and more concrete steps are taken to make this component highly instrumental in the linguistic advancement of learners.
Luitel, Binod. (1998). ‘Exploiting story for English language teaching’. Journal of NELTA vol. 3. Pp. 42-47.
Luitel, Binod. (2011). ‘Tears from his eyes’. (an unpublished short story).
(*Dr. Luitel is an Associate Professor of Tribhuvan University. )