Uses of language in different environments discussed

28 Oct 2019

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Hywel Coleman speaks at the event.
—Faysal Mujeeb / White Star
Hywel Coleman speaks at the event. —Faysal Mujeeb / White Star

KARACHI: “We must be careful not to treat English as if it is in a vacuum. It is important to look at English in relation to other languages,” said Hywel Coleman OBE, honorary senior research fellow, School of Education, University of Leeds, UK. He was delivering his keynote address on ‘Language in the environment: what does it tell us and how can we use it’ during the inaugural session of the two-day 35th Society of English Language Teachers (Spelt) International Conference-2019 being held at Iqra University here on Saturday.

“If we take the trouble to look around us we will soon find that the environment in which we live and work is a rich source of language. This is especially true in towns and cities. We can see advertisements, names of streets and buildings, official notices, graffiti and other ways in which languages are used. The digital environment, which includes official and commercial websites, blogs, emails and so on, is also an interesting resource,” he said before sharing several examples from various countries to see how English had been used there in official context.

Starting from Wales in the UK, he showed through pictures how their new language policy to give equal importance to English and the local language Welsh was implemented there. A signboard in Welsh also carried the same message in English. Throughout the country, every message was carried with its English version side-by-side.

Moving from there to Afghanistan, he said that although in Afghanistan they also had a language policy of giving equal importance to Pushto and Dari, he couldn’t find a signboard with both languages. If there was a Pushto message anywhere, there was no translation in Dari and if there was a Dari message, there was no translation in Pushto.

The scholar explained that he found out that it was because where they had Pushto messages there were mostly Pashtun people who weren’t in favour of using Dari and where there was a bigger population of Dari people, they didn’t want Pushto messages. “So despite there being a language policy, there is a lack of implementation,” said Coleman, while also showing some pictures with English notices. He said that the English language was used to show that they were educated and civil people. On some buses in Afghanistan there was also some Chinese lettering and he said that after his asking to some Chinese scholars what was written, he was informed that it was simply nothing, just gibberish painted to look like Chinese to impress. “Sometimes languages are used to communicate, but sometimes they are used to create an impression,” he pointed out.

Sharing further examples from other countries, he came to Pakistan where you had Urdu and English messages sometimes saying the same thing and sometimes not such as the messages painted in red outside a hospital operating theatre on which they only had the message of taking off one’s shoes before entering in Urdu, and not in English.

“That’s the status of the linguistic landscape, where languages are used in different ways in different situations. In particular, languages are used very differently in official, commercial and vernacular contexts,” he said.

“The languages which are used and the ways that they are used depend on the audience,” he said, adding that there is much that people can learn by studying language in the environment. “Language found in the environment can be used in many different ways as a teaching and learning resource.”

Other speakers at the conference on day one included Peter De Costa from the Department of Linguistic and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages at the Michigan State University, USA, whose workshop on ‘Classroom-based qualitative research’ looked at methodology, prospects and possibilities.

Dr Lucilla Lopriore from the Department of Foreign Languages, Literature and Cultures at the ROMA TRE University in Italy spoke about authenticity in English Language Teaching material development.

Other featured speakers from the field of education and the English language teaching fraternity who presented at the conference included Hemanthi Hidellaarachchi from University of Ruhuna in Sri Lanka, Dr Judith Ann Sharkey, associate professor at the Education Department of University of Hampshire, USA, Professor Dr Zakia Sarwar, Abbas Husain, Dr Umar Farooq, Dr Fatima Dar, Dr Nasreen Husain, Dr Sajida Zaki, Dr Aliya Sikandar, etc.

Earlier, in her welcome address Dr Fouzia Shamim spoke about Spelt and how it was founded in 1983/84 by a group of senior teachers headed by the ‘Mother of Spelt’ Professor Dr Zakia Sarwar for the training of English language teachers. Adding to that conference coordinator Sonia Kazim said that the Spelt Conference was started to provide an opportunity to professionals in English Language teaching to meet, network, exchange ideas and put forth proposals. To make the conference accessible to more and more teachers in Pakistan, the conference is now also a travelling conference held in several cities of Pakistan in October and November every year. This year’s conference examines the theme ‘Innovations in ELT: Future Directions’.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2019