Teaching English: Context is Everything

Teaching English: Context is Everything

By Kevin Wilson, Palms staff member and returned Program Participant

During my time in Bougainville (2009-10), my host community at Tunaniya -and myself- would usually combine no less than three languages in a conversation, often in a single sentence. These were the Tok Ples, or local mother-toungue, which in our case was Nasioi, Tok Pisin, and (naturally?) English. While each language seemed to have equal usage, there were contexts where each tok gained prominence.

Pure Nasioi would be used among families and intimates, and for telling of tales. Tok Pisin, once misleadingly referred to as Pidjin English, is of course the Lingua Franca of PNG and neighbouring islands. Its speech found favour in wider gatherings, where people from all over Bougainville (with 23 language groups) would share news.

Then there’s English, already weighted in Bougainville by its colonial legacy as the language of instruction and authority. This language was notably appended to Tok Pisin speeches and homilies when the speaker drove the emphatic point home. English has concise and sharper phrasing compared to the other two, so it would be employed by the community to tell each-other off bluntly. During drinking sessions, as confidence and egos grew, I would hear the people’s English gain perfection, until they conversed in nothing else.

Community use aside, English proficiency is valued as a means of engaging the world. Formal education in Bougainville (and PNG) tends to view English (and language generally) as the basis of all other learning.

I should declare here that I am not a qualified English teacher, but know many Palms participants would attest to the times a host community will call on their ex-pat to provide some language mentoring. One day a Tunaniya student, Bennet, who was studying remotely under the FODE and IELTS systems, questioned me about these things called prepositions. Now, Tok Pisin uses only one preposition – long, and depending on context, long can mean all these: to, from, about, for, by, at, pertaining to, of, whereby, etc. My exchange with Bennet highlighted how words are conceptualised in a culture. In this way ‘to’ for a Pisin speaker carries the same idea as ‘from’. The meaning changes only by the prefixed words, e.g., ‘go’ or ‘kam’ (come).

Also, in Tunaniya, I became friends with Robert Ereva, a local Ex-Combatant Rep. and social activist. As part of the services provided by our centre, I would occasionally type up Robert’s written speeches and letters. Robert would ask me to correct his English as needed, which I did with caution and care. Was Robert addressing a Western or Melanesian audience? English phrasing will differ even between related cultures like Australia, New Zealand, the UK and US. How much more is the language culturally slanted in Bougainville? Robert’s passionate and eloquent words would lose so much force had I ”improved” them too much. I trust his audience agreed.

During my earlier corporate life, our support staff in Bangalore were tasked with producing a service manual for their own use. The document duly produced included the staff’s idiosyncratic phrases like “Please do the needful”, and the HQ in New York rejected it, insisting on a rewrite that was “not in broken English!” People using English within their community generally do know the best way to use it. In Bennet’s remote courses, the English lessons not only took an even older-school form than I knew, they also assumed students’ understanding of frightfully British institutions and culture, such as the Monarchy, the Westminster system, and the relation of Church and State! Albeit Bougainvilleans do have an interest in their wider world, and while Bennet is now content with developing his plantation for his growing family, he probably appreciated these insights.

When discussing the teaching of English in societies where it is at best a third language we should ask, how will it be used? And for Palms’ mission, what community goals does it support? This will help determine the context and culturally appropriate version of English we apply.  Perhaps the approach should be the adage applied when we ourselves struggle with a new language in field: Context is everything.

I humbly leave the rest to those qualified.