"India and Pakistan have a lot in common, we even have the same issues with regards to children, women's rights, education and so many other things," comments T. K. Arunachalam, the Indian educationist who was in Karachi recently for a teacher training conference.
"We need to build on common grounds. I think increased people-to-people contact between the two countries will go a long way towards dispelling misunderstandings," adds the soft spoken, down-to-earth, straightforward head of a South Asian programme to promote English language teaching (ELT).
He is the Regional Manager of the University of Cambridge English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Examinations, a department of the University of Cambridge and world leader in English language assessments.
We caught up with him in Karachi on the fringes of the 27th Annual International Conference of the Society of Pakistan English Language Teachers (SPELT). Hailing from Chennai (previously Madras), T.K. Arunachalm oversees University of Cambridge's operations in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
His forte - and passion - is promoting English language initiatives for educational institutions, while reaching out to adults who have had little or no opportunity to learn English. He is keenly interested in teacher training projects, and aims to initiate many projects in this regard supported by University of Cambridge in Pakistan. He hopes to garner government support for this purpose. One of Pakistan's most reputed teacher training institutes, established in 1983, SPELT conducts teacher training workshops, publishes a quarterly journal and holds regular academic sessions for English language teachers (they have recently introduced an Urdu teacher training strand).
"The amazing thing about SPELT office bearers is that they all are volunteers!" remarks T. K. Arunachalam. "Most of them are professionals working full time, but they dedicate their free time to SPELT projects in order to help out English language teachers. I wanted to see how SPELT operates, so last year I came to Pakistan to attend their annual conference. I was impressed with their passion for English language. I have not witnessed its like elsewhere," he adds.
This year because of the delay in applying for visa it seemed that he might not be able to attend the SPELT conference. However, a message for assistance from Aman ki Asha to the Pakistan High Commission worked wonders.
"I am very grateful to Aman ki Asha for helping with my visa. I was absolutely delighted to receive a call from the Pakistan High Commissioner Shahid Malik himself. He invited me to the High Commission and my visa was processed while I had coffee with him. This was absolutely fabulous."
"I think Aman ki Asha is a fantastic initiative to promote peace between India and Pakistan," he adds. "But we need a catalyst to take the momentum forward. Education can pave the way for better relations between our countries. I would like to hold a South Asian Competition along the lines of a Spelling Bee Inter-School Competition that is so popular here, but something more interactive, where students from the competing countries can be grouped in teams."
He visualises "a team of Pakistani and Indian students versus a team of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh... This would enable them to exchange ideas and form their own opinions about each other. As I see it, school children do not carry the baggage that older generations are encumbered with. I would like to see if we can do something under the umbrella of Aman ki Asha," says T. K. Arunachalam with a smile.
He believes English is not just a subject - it's a skill. And it is now an international language, no longer British or American English. It's Indian English, it's Pakistani English and so on.
"What is language?" he asks and goes on to answer his own question. "It is a medium of communication. As long as one can get his meaning across, it's fine. Increasingly, English is becoming a life skill, just like computer skill or technical skills. Purists in India and Pakistan believe in speaking English correctly, and scoff at grammatical errors made by those who are less proficient. Purists have problems with people's accents, as they believe in the purity of form, but the main purpose of language is communication. Purity is required for the development of language," he reflects.
T. K. Arunachalam laughs when asked why Indians speak English so effortlessly. "It's just a myth that all Indians are good at speaking English. Sure, people in big cities like Calcutta, Mumbai, Delhi, speak English like their mother tongue, but outside metros it is different. Just like in Pakistan where city people speak English, but people from the rural areas generally do not. It's just that India has a greater population and hence this misconception."
The University of Cambridge is doing a lot to promote English in villages across the region. "In India, in government schools after 3 pm, English language classes are held for housewives and members of scheduled castes. Likewise, government schools in Pakistan can do a lot. I say, teach women English, so they can help their children with their education," says T. K. Arunachalam passionately.
He pledges University of Cambridge's support to teacher training programmes in Pakistan. "We support teacher training. We support SPELT. We would like to support teacher-training programmes. We don't normally charge for training teachers. We would like to work with government schools," he adds. "You see, previously English was the language of the elite, but today some level of proficiency in English is required for truck drivers, chefs, household servants and others... Then there is Business English, which is a requisite for those who wish to work in this sector."
"The University of Cambridge provides internationally recognised certificates for appropriate levels. It offers a range of certificate courses for gaining entry into academic institutions, acquiring work experience abroad and for immigration purposes. Certification examinations equivalent to these one-time tests are conducted by the University of Cambridge, which also conducts the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), one of the most popular tests to assess English language proficiency. Students who wish to study abroad can now also take the more recently introduced Certificate of Advanced English (CAE) instead of IELTS. "The University of Cambridge will shortly also open its offices to facilitate Pakistani students," says T. K. Arunachalam.
This is indeed good news for Pakistani students, given that the CAE is a lot cheaper than the IELTS exam.
T. K. Arunachalam regrets that he was unable to savour the culinary delights of Lahore's famous Food Street, as his visa was valid only for Karachi. In fact, his stay was so short that he was unable to do much sightseeing except for a big mall - "I can't recall its name, but it was just like the big Indian malls, so I didn't do any shopping. Next time when I return, I hope to spend more time. I really like the Pakistani people and would love to return soon."
His liking for Pakistanis appears to be fully reciprocated. During our brief chat, he kept getting calls from Pakistani friends, wanting to further their acquaintance with him. Here's hoping for easier visa regimes down the road. Milne Do!
The writer is a staff member.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
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We probably didn't need to do this Special Report. Newspaper stories don't matter when it comes to Indians in Pakistani jails and vice versa. In fact, 'vice versa' sums it up. We do to them what they do to us.
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