As an English teacher in a school I have been constantly aware of the charge that the inadequacy of students’ knowledge of English hinders their understanding of other subjects. I had always felt intuitively that it was a baseless charge, an example of the classical transference of blame. I personally know scores of students whose knowledge of English had little to do with their outstanding performance in subjects like mathematics and science.
I think that every academic subject has its own language and it is the teacher’s duty to make the students familiar with that language firs of all. For example, mathematics is a language by itself and it has little to do with English, Hindi or any such language used normally for speaking. The case is not much different when it comes to science and its branches too. In Arts and Humanities language does play a certain role. Interestingly, I haven’t heard teachers of those subjects levelling charges against the English teachers.
Think of a mathematics or statistics or economics teacher who complains about a student not understanding the term Mean Deviation because of the student’s inadequate knowledge of English. Assume that the student goes to his English teacher to understand the term. The English teacher is most likely to tell him the meaning of the term mean in the context of deviation [aberration] as ignoble, petty, malicious, spiteful… How would that help the student of statistics, maths or economics? And how would anyone blame the English teacher for his explanation?
Learning anything is a natural process for human beings, I believe. Well, almost anything. Martin Seligman, a psychologist, propounded a concept called preparedness according to which through evolution man (other animals as well) is biologically predisposed to learn some associations easily, especially those associations which are related to survival. Extending this concept, we can say that people learn those things which they perceive as important to them in some way. It implies that for a student to learn any subject, the student must first of all perceive that subject as important for him in some way. Hence lesson number one for a teacher: make his/her subject appear a matter of life and death to the student. [I’m trying to exercise my sense of humour. Sorry if it jars.]
Noam Chomsky argues that every human being has an innate language learning mechanism which he calls Language Acquisition Device [LAD]. LAD contains the general grammatical rules [Chomsky calls it ‘universal grammar’] common to all languages. As the child grows up hearing one or more languages, its LAD selects and codifies the rules pertinent for each language. The child does not learn the rules of those languages from any grammar book.
I believe children also possess some such Mathematics Acquisition Device [MAD], Science Acquisition Device [SAD], Computer knowledge Acquisition Device [CAD], Gadgets knowledge Acquisition Device [GAD] and so on. It’s just that the respective teachers should activate these devices by putting the student in repeated contact with the relevant concepts and objects – just as a child is in repeated contact with the language that he/she learns effortlessly. Lesson number two for a teacher: repeat, repeat and repeat until the student’s MAD or SAD or CAD is activated.
Let me conclude this apparent sermon with an imaginary incident from the Buddha (one of the greatest teachers). The Buddha asks a few of his disciples to go to, say, China to preach his philosophy. An intelligent disciple objects, “Master, but we don’t know Chinese…” What would be the Buddha’s answer? Would it be (with his palm resting on his heart): “Disciple, you needn’t go; you haven’t understood my philosophy.”