A startling revelation by The National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM)—a trade association of the Indian Information Technology (IT) and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry—about the poor levels of employability of Indian graduates in general and engineers in particular, had a cascading effect on several sectors, one sector being education. The NASSCOM survey found that only 25 per cent of graduates were employable in the IT sector and that one of the main reasons for this was their lack of communication skills, apart from poor technical skills.1 There was an urgent call to revamp engineering curriculum and to align it with the needs of the industry. Curriculum planners in general and those entrusted with English Language Teaching (ELT) in particular had their hands full bringing in changes that answered the needs of the employers. One of the changes brought in was the introduction of a laboratory component, in addition to the theory component. Thus state universities and engineering colleges affiliated to the universities in Telangana State saw the introduction of English Language Communication Skills Laboratory (ELCS) and Advanced English Language Communication Skills Laboratory (AELCS) for students of first year and third year engineering, respectively. The idea was to drill the learners in the nuances of spoken English and make them fluent users of this popular second language. Gupta (2004), observed:
The liberalization of the Indian economy has led to the entry of many international brands into the learners’ mind set. Call centres, shopping malls and trade fairs, all need young personnel fluent in English. There is a mushroom growth of institutes and academies offering courses to reach the whole range of proficiency in English, from clearing the IELTS to speaking English fluently (p. 268).
While Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) extolled the value of spoken language and had as its primary goal the acquisition of fluency in spoken language, the importance of spoken English was already beginning to be felt by the learners themselves who “ … are aware of the growing need for proficiency, both linguistic and communicative, in English.” (Gupta, 2004, p. 268). In fact, almost all MNCs use Group Discussions or Debates or introducing oneself—what in Indian parlance goes by the name of self-introduction—as part of the recruiting process and some MNCs have as many as 8 rounds to decide who is in and who is not! All of this is not lost on students who aspire for a plum job with well-known companies / industries.
As mentioned earlier, the ELCS lab was conceived with the idea of providing a platform for students to express themselves in English and hone their spoken English. Besides this, it also gives students inputs on how not to speak when participating in a GD / debate or an interview. In a language lab, the teacher tries his / her best to put students at ease and remove any feelings of inadequacy they may experience at being unable to communicate fluently in a language that is spoken by the educated elite in India.
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of teachers to encourage students to speak and get rid of language anxiety, “classroom silence, particularly among Asian EFL learners, continues to attract discussion…” (Harumi, 2011, p. 260) and remains an unresolved issue. It was in this context that the idea of carrying out an investigation into the reasons for learner reticence in the language classroom was born.
Our study involved 120 students of engineering from three engineering colleges, one of which was National Institute of Technology, Warangal. Out of the 120 students, around 80 students were from Warangal district and its environs, while 40 were from different parts of India. It was therefore a heterogeneous group of learners. All three colleges had ELCS labs, where students gathered once a week for two to three hours to undergo training in phonetics and spoken English. They also had activities such as GDs, debates and Just-A-Minute (JAM) to enhance the oral communication skills of the students. Based on the region they came from and their medium of instruction at school, the students were divided into the following categories:
Students who were from :
a. Rural areas and English medium schools
b. Urban areas and English medium schools
c. Rural areas and regional medium schools
d. Urban areas and regional medium schools
e. Semi-urban areas and regional medium schools
f. Semi-urban areas and English medium schools
It must be said that the number of students from categories (a) and (d) was very low, for very obvious reasons—the number of schools offering English medium education in rural areas are few, since only private schools set up English medium schools and there is no incentive for them to look at rural areas as their catchment area for students. Government schools still rule the roost in villages and small towns. In urban areas, the craze for English medium education is increasing by the day and it is common to find people from the economically weaker section also trying hard to enrol their children in English medium schools.
Our study was spread across 6 months, during which we compiled data from questionnaires, teacher interviews, student interviews, classroom observations and informal chats with students. In these informal chats we asked students about their motivation to learn English, their socio-economic background, their efforts to learn English, the inputs received in college and their opinion about the quantity of the input, and their initiatives to speak and attain fluency in English, etc.
As part of the data collection, students were shown a series of pictures of eminent persons, such as scientists, technologists, cricketers, actors and social workers and asked to speak for as long as they wanted to about the chosen individual / event / idea. For example, a student could speak on the erstwhile President of India, late APJ Kalam for as much time as (s)he wanted and the speech was recorded for analysis. Alternatively, to make things easy for them, the students were given the option of speaking on a topic of their choice so as to reduce their anxiety levels. Their speech was recorded on a tape recorder brought for the purpose.
Despite the friendly ambience and the promise that the recorded speech would not be used for any purpose other than research, there was extreme reluctance by the participants to speak; it may be seen from the recordings that 46 participants spoke for one minute or under one minute, while 59 spoke for 2 minutes and only 4 speakers spoke for longer than 4 minutes.
After the recordings had been done and when the researcher felt it was time to engage students in a chat about language lab activities and the importance of English in their studies and career, the students opened up and explained why they were eager to learn English but very reluctant to use it so freely or “openly”, as one student put it. Their reasons were collated and put under the following six categories.
Culture: As with most Asian cultures, Indian culture too believes in, nurtures and sustains several cultural values in education and other spheres, one of which is the belief that the teacher is the sole authority in the classroom, and must be listened to with deference. While the Confucian ideology which prizes obedience to authority is seen as the reason for the silence of Chinese learners, in the Indian context, it is the age-old concept of obedience to the Guru—the dispeller of darkness—that is the reason. In a typical Indian classroom, learners are brought to believe that silence typifies an obedient and modest student, while someone who asks questions or demands participation through interaction is seen as a disruptive influence and a challenge to authority.
Proficiency Levels: Though many students (approximately 67 per cent of the participants) claimed to have studied in English medium schools and were therefore expected to have command over English, data revealed that their proficiency levels were rather low. They were unable to maintain the flow of speech because of poor grammar and inadequate grasp of the language. In fact, the students confessed that right through school, they had studied English as a subject and not as a language. They were given notes to commit to memory and taught English for the purpose of testing. There was little by way of meaningful activities to help them improve their skills, particularly in spoken English..
Student Personality: A much neglected but highly relevant factor in considering learner unwillingness or reticence is the personality traits of the learners. More than 50 per cent of the students confessed to being shy and diffident, because of which their participation was minimal and forced. Many of them felt that public speaking or speaking activity of any kind was not their cup of tea. Several participants were introverts, who needed to be cajoled into opening up in a language they believed was reserved for writing assignments, taking exams and listening to lectures.
School Experience: It was apparent that there was no speaking component in the school curriculum that could have given the students even cursory training in speaking in English. Although 80 students (67 per cent) reported having studied in English medium schools, their response to the speaking activity left a lot to be desired and belied any evidence of their being a product of English medium education. Debating or elocution competitions organized in some elite schools were for a limited number of bright students, whose socio-economic background enabled them to put in the required effort and also gave them the inclination to participate, but which exercised no impact on the general population, it emerged. School experience for most students translated to rote learning, with little incentive to acquire the language. Students also admitted that their preferred language of communication outside and often within the class also was their mother tongue / Hindi, and that obviated the necessity to master English.
Fear of Losing Face: For almost all learners, the fear of being criticized, mocked or made fun of by the teacher or classmates was a real and terrible fear that inhibited all attempts to speak or engage in any speaking activity. Out of the 120 students, 100 revealed that this was their inmost fear and that it precluded any meaningful attempts to speak a language they knew was important for them. They were greatly anxious about post-speaking, feedback which they believed would be harsh, and that pushed them off the speaking curve. It was evident that the students’ “lack of confidence” stemmed from “the presence of other students or the classroom atmosphere” (Harumi, 2011, p. 264). This dampened their capacity for free flowing use of English—a language that was paradoxically both necessary for them yet beyond their reach.
Limited Vocabulary and Grammar: Though several students expressed their intent to participate, it was apparent to the researcher that poor grammar, weak vocabulary and uncertainty about usage put students off from speaking. The idioms, verbs, phrasal verbs and tenses requisite for holding a conversation or taking part in any speaking assignment were missing and that showed in the way they struggled to reach across to the audience. The recordings of the students, for example, revealed a lot of repetition, incoherent sentence constructions and badly framed phrases, testifying to their weak grasp of English.
The students’ reading habits were also very poor, there being no enthusiasm or intellectual curiosity on their part to read newspapers or novels outside college hours and the meagre collection of books on in the library did nothing to ameliorate the situation for those who may have wanted to improve their command of English through reading but were unable to do so.
The above-mentioned factors are only some among the numerous unexplored or as yet unexplained causes that led to reluctant, limited or unwilling participation of students in speaking activities.
Given the numerous situational and circumstantial constraints that students and teachers operate under and negotiate with, one of the ways out of the learner reticence impasse is to create a non-threatening atmosphere in the language lab that lowers anxiety levels among learners and invites their voluntary participation in oral communication activities.
Gupta, D. (2004). CLT in India: Context and methodology come together. ELT Journal 58(3), 266-269.
Harumi, S.(2011). Classroom silence: Voices from Japanese EFL learners. ELT Journal 65(3), 260-269.
Choudhari, A. & Shishir Arya. (2011, April 20). Only 25 % IT graduates readily employable. The Times of India. Retrieved from http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-04-07/news/29392668_1_...
Lee, Winnie. & Ng, Sarah. (2010). Reducing student reticence through teacher interaction strategy. ELT Journal, 64(3), 302-313.