My name is Jeremy and I am a conference addict.
Phew, I’ve said it. Now I can set about my recovery perhaps.
But not yet.
I have just come back from the BELTA (Bangladesh English Language Teachers’ Association) conference in Dhaka. It was jointly organised by English in Action who, together with The Open University, and the BBC are involved in a massive nine-year project to improve the English of 25 million Bangladeshi students.
The conference was beautifully organised and enthusiastically attended by a few hundred teachers from universities, teacher training institutions, and secondary and primary schools, both government and private, both rural and urban. The presidents of the teachers’ associations from Afghanistan, India, Nepal and Pakistan were also present, together with visitors from those and other countries. But it was (unsurprisingly and overwhelmingly) a Bangladeshi conference.
The distribution of plenaries (often a source of contention) seemed about right to me. Four female speakers and four males. There were two British speakers (myself and Huw Jarvis), one American (Christine Coombe current TESOL president), Amol Padwad from India, two speakers (Sabiha Mansoor and Zakia Sarwar) from Pakistan, Arifa Rahman from Bangladesh and Malachi Edwin Vethamani from Malaysia. The whole thing kicked off with David Graddol’s keynote updating us about his work on the status of English around the world.
Rather than describing the sessions in detail it seemed worth setting out the questions and themes (big questions and themes) that ran through the three days and which made this conference significantly different from many that I go to.
What is the correct approach and methodology when facing classes of 150 (and sometimes more) in unattractive physical conditions?
Why has CLT (communicative language teaching) apparently failed in Bangladesh? Is it because no one quite knows what they mean by it (that’s not special to Bangladesh by the way)? Or perhaps it’s inappropriate anyway?
What’s the point of talking methodological change anyway when governments produce tests which militate against such change? But what’s the point of complaining about the situation unless you are prepared to try and do something about it?
How important IS English really? Is it the killer language of the linguistic imperialist commentators nightmare? In Pakistan, for example, the issue seems to be far more centred on the way that Urdu predominates to the apparent detriment of home languages such as Gujerati, Punjabi, Sindi etc even though they may actually have more speakers.
Because, gosh, language is a political issue always (think the Soweto riots for one). It was the Bengali Language movement of 1952 (fighting against the imposition of Urdu) that led inexorably to conflict and finally to the foundation of Bangladesh in 1971. Bengali ‘became’ Bangla and it is the official language. But does everyone speak it? Intense informal conversation over three days centred around whether what people speak at home in the regions (such as Syhlet) were dialects or languages. More of a political question than an applied linguistic one perhaps.
And what about English? Will it really lead to socio-economic progress? How well do you have to speak it to take advantage of any perceived benefit? C!? C2? Is teaching English, in a country like Bangladesh, a contributor to an even greater urban-rural divide (because some have good learning opportunities and others less so)? Does Teaching English privilege elites? Or perhaps, to put it another way, what, in reality, will some areas of rural Bangladesh actually gain from learning English?
And that leads on to the last big question. How do you help improve teaching standards on such a big scale? What is the best way to spend a lot (a lot) of aid money? Perhaps it resides in materials creation? Or perhaps the money would be better spent teaching English to teachers? Or perhaps in setting up local, locally run teacher development initiatives? (How do you keep people in Continual professional development (CPD) mode anyway? What’s the carrot? Where’s the stick?) The methodology matters here because huge-finance initiatives can fail big time when they are inappropriately administered.
There was a lot of other stuff too, of course. The British Council talked about using cheap non-smartphone technology, setting up rural IT centres for example, but these are, to me, less important than some of the big questions I’ve talked about above.
I had a great time. Visit Bangladesh is all I can say (but beware the Dhaka traffic!)
I’d love to hear your comments. Of course I would.