"Developing Teaching and Learning Capacity of English" with
special reference to Iraq:
Searching for a Start
Ammar Y. Mahmood
Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research
Deputy Minister’s Office
When we discuss issues related to teaching and learning English, we should be clear from the beginning whether we are dealing with English as a second language or as a foreign language, whether the purpose of learning English is integrative or instrumental, and whether it is just learning English or studying it.
2- Which English should we teach?
If we search for effectiveness and practicality in the context of teaching and learning English, we should define the status of English to be developed in order to identify our aims and get the best of the students’ motivation to learn English.
We can talk here of learning English as a second language and learning English as a foreign language with certain social implications and differing factors and motivations.
Learning English as a second language takes place where English is used to perform some specific functions within a multilingual society or minority groups, and is learned after the mother tongue. As a second language, English is taught in conditions where there is some reinforcement from the child’s immediate environment and the language is used extensively in everyday life. The language usually functions as the lingua franca, i.e. the normal medium of instruction and communication used by people who use different first languages. It is also used as the official language of government institutions, of commercial and industrial organizations and of the mass media. This situation prevails in multilingual communities like Canada, South Africa, Nigeria, India, and Pakistan.
It is essential for the individual here to learn English in order to be equipped with an instrument of communication between members of different communities.
Learning English as a foreign language takes place where English has no internal function in the learner’s country. In this setting, as in the Arab world, English has no official status and its teaching and learning is confined to the classroom. Normally, there is little, if any, reinforcement outside the school. The language is taught and learnt like other subjects in the school curriculum for operational purposes. Unlike the first learning situation, motivation for learning the target language in this context is not high. This is especially the case in the early stages because young children are still unaware of their individual needs and interests. This is typical of the situation in Iraqi tertiary education.
Motivation here depends largely on the teacher, the method, the language activities, the textbooks and the classroom situation. This puts heavy burden on the class teacher who is required to compensate and be creative in his teaching method in order to build enough motivation for learning. He/she is faced with the difficulty of making full use of a limited number of hours to develop in every possible way the four skills of language: reading, listening, writing, and speaking.
3- Integrative or instrumental: What to teach?
Integrative motivation means learning the language to know more about another community’s culture with the aim of integrating with it. Instrumental motivation refers to the pragmatic or utilitarian value of learning another language.
Motivation to learn English as a second language is almost as strong as it is in the process of acquiring the first language, and it serves both the instrumental and the integrative purposes. That is, while the individual feels that the needs of his immediate linguistic environment are met through the medium of the mother tongue, he cannot communicate with natives outside his community without the second language.
I believe that teaching English academically is more of an instrumental than integrative. But there is a strong need to develop the means by which the teacher and the student will integrate in the process of instrumental learning.
4- English to be learned, or to be studied?
Having gone through the undergraduate and postgraduate studies to achieve my goal of getting an academic degree in translation, and having taught different subjects within the curriculum of departments of English and Translation for five years, I can talk of what we need to develop the level of performance of the departments of English in Iraq.
For a start, a lot of students who are admitted into a department of English are not qualified in the first place to study English as an academic subject and are very often not seriously willing to go for English as a specialization. Second, there is no mechanism to select those who are eligible among those who choose to, or sometimes forced to, study at an English department.
I can say that the majority of the students studying now in an English department would say that their goal is to learn English; to reach a level of English that is effective for a communicative purpose which is to “integrate” themselves with the people speaking English. I believe that the goal of going into an English department is to serve the “instrumental” purpose of acquiring English; i.e. to be effective in a utilitarian area of linguistics which depends on studying the language not learning it alone.
Learning English and using it effectively should come at a stage prior to going into an English department. It is a matter of course, we hope, that the integrative purpose is also served through the process of studying English. It comes as a by-product of serving the instrumental purpose. But the student should be “integratively” prepared to be “instrumentally” ready to study English and reach the level of academic specialization.
I believe that learning English should be clearly distinguished from studying it. Our discussions and suggestions should be clear about this: are we trying to develop ways to help students learn English or study English? We should all agree that if we want to develop studying English at university level, we should first help the student learn it well if we want to come up with a fruitful outcome.
How can we come up with a good physicist without providing him with due understanding of mathematics and mathematical equations? How can a genetic engineer understand the working of chromosomes and the basics of human biology without being well acquainted with cellular activities and having good understanding of heredity?
Being a good English user would equip the student with the essential means to achieve the goal underlying his/her study at an English department: to be academically specialized in English; or rather, to be a linguist.
Practically speaking, we are bringing the student into the linguistic workshop without providing him/her with the toolbox he needs.
5- What to do?
I believe that if we want to raise the level of teaching and studying English at its departments in Iraq, we should apply some effective selective measures to choose those eligible students to be admitted to an English department. Having a grade of 70 in English at the final exam in preparatory school does not necessarily mean, as it is often believed, that the student is eligible for the specialization. Almost all students who finish their preparatory school and join the university are not skilled efficiently enough to study English as an academic subject.
For this I suggest that students applying for an English department should undergo a general test in English as a preliminary selective measure for eligibility. I also strongly recommend a course of three months at least in integrative English to prepare the students to “study” this language.
This would provide these students with the means to communicate effectively with his/her teacher and classmates. This way the student will get the best he/she can out of the process of studying English as a foreign language.
We can add strong motivation here through providing the students with capacity-building opportunities. Visiting Britain and studying there will be motivating enough to do the best and compete with others, beside the benefit of improving linguistic skills.
6- Method and materials
At this preparatory stage, we need to focus on teaching and “learning” English in terms of language functions, rather than in terms of grammar and vocabulary alone. We should emphasize the conscious acquisition of English as a meaningful system and as a creative process.
The method to be used stresses communicative activities in the classroom right from the beginning of learning. Such activities include role-playing, problem-solving, situational dialogues, small group interaction, and language games. The aim is to acquire and practice aspects of linguistic competence that develop the student’s pragmatic, strategic and socio-cultural competence, which will together build up the student’s productive and receptive skills needed to raise the level of awareness and performance in the context of studying English.
Appropriate teaching materials are required to help students to communicate, interact and practise the language by means of communicative activities and drills. These teaching materials include: teacher’s book, student’s workbook, audio-visual aids, and language games.
Such materials should be natural, realistic and based on the concept of communicative methodology which views language learning as thinking process. Authentic materials are needed to give students real satisfaction by making some sense out of real-life language. Furthermore, the teaching materials should offer students an opportunity to practise the lesson skills and to develop the receptive and productive skills through language use, not through knowledge of linguistic rules.
Ammar Y. Mahmood