Number one for English language teachers

Diary from Bhutan: Blackmail and busy times

Type: Article

In her ninth diary entry, Stephanie Earnshaw talks of the problems she is having getting students to use the new Learning Resource Centre. If posters of the Grammar Lady don't do the trick, she might have to try luring them in with tea and biscuits.


pink blossoms

Spring is in the air in Thimphu and there are beautiful pink blossoms on the trees. It’s hot in the sun (24°C) but still chilly in the shade and at night temperatures can go down to 2°C due to the thin atmosphere at this altitude.

I’ve been back teaching at Royal Thimphu College for a month, now. The college campus is a beautiful, peaceful and happy place, nestled snugly in the Bhutanese mountainside. This term I’ve been asked to set up and run the college Learning Resource Centre (LRC). This is like a language lab where students can come and get help on anything to do with English; from spelling to citation.

All of the students need help as English is no one’s first language, though it is widely spoken and is the language of instruction in all Bhutanese schools and colleges. Everyone must submit their assignments in English except for those studying for a BA in Dzongkha, the national language. And everyone, without exception, has difficulty in doing so. Even those studying for a BA in English have trouble using correct grammar and vocabulary.

poster at the LRC

This being the case, you would think the students would be falling over themselves to come to the LRC but, unfortunately, they’re not. Despite numerous poster campaigns, announcements in assembly, threatening letters from the dean, incentive schemes from the politics professor, pleading from the economics professor and blackmail from the English professor, less than one quarter of the students has been to use the LRC. Those who do come tend to keep coming back voluntarily, as they realize that checking their assignments with me tends to get them higher grades – in fact, it’s often the difference between passing and failing. 

But many just don’t seem to be able to find the energy for extra grammar classes. This might be to do with the fact that students in Bhutan have a much fuller timetable than the average European or American university student. They have three to five hours of classes every weekday and up to three hours on Saturday. This doesn’t leave them much time, or energy, for socializing and even less for extra English classes!

poster at LRC

The timetable is full partly because Bhutanese parents are quite strict. They don’t want to give their children any time for ‘roaming’, which means anything from hanging around in groups and having romantic relationships, to drinking and taking drugs. And all of the students desperately want to do at least one of those things! In the residence halls there’s no mixing of sexes and all students must be in their rooms, with the lights out, by 11pm. Compared to the freedom enjoyed by western students, this seems claustrophobic and I can understand that they don’t want to do any extra classes, even if it does mean the difference between passing and failing their degree.

LRC students

In the LRC I’ve put up posters and arranged to have a laptop available to make the atmosphere inviting. I’m thinking of organizing tea, coffee and biscuits to tempt people in, too. Students can come and use the internet to do research, find resources, use online dictionaries and check their assignments. Of course, I have my stash of ready-to-use onestopenglish grammar and vocabulary sheets and lessons to do with those who need emergency grammar treatment!

Last week I took a friend to visit the monks at Nalanda monastery. They’re going from strength to strength and Lebeh (the principal monk and head teacher) is currently trying to decide which of the applicants he will accept for the new English teaching post that he has been given government funding for. A new guest house is being built next to his quarters and although many lessons are held in the prayer rooms (an amazing setting for a lesson) there are two new, purpose-built teaching rooms, complete with an ever-growing library of books and resources. Everyone is very excited about the prospect of a full-time English teacher – except, maybe, me, as they won’t need me anymore!

monks at Nalanda monastery

The monks were very polite and welcoming as usual, although now I think they are getting used to me and I catch them chatting at the back of the class rather than sitting perfectly cross-legged and meditative, smiling throughout the lesson, as they used to do. The littlest monk (who arrived in December) has grown a few centimetres over the holidays (which are in January and February) and is already catching up with the others in English. He is still too small to wear robes, though, and looks a bit out of place with the other, bigger boys in the class. He, my friend and I were definitely the odd ones out, being the only ones in the building to wear trousers!

At school I’m still teaching English to the special education group once a week. The group comprises six students with various difficulties ranging from Down’s syndrome to stutters to autism. They are all different levels and have varying attention spans, which makes it quite tricky to keep them all engaged at once. They’re sent together as the school doesn’t have enough resources to deal with them individually and in normal lessons they struggle to learn because they need extra help, which the teachers can’t provide as they have anything from 35 to 47 students in a class. This week we covered the simple past and talked about what we did in the holidays. Some of them got it. Some of them can’t really write but they seemed to understand and were able to say short sentences. I’m not sure how much the children learn in their English classes, or even if English is a priority for them, but they seem to enjoy being able to get away from their normal class, work in a small group and get the teacher’s undivided attention for a while. I certainly enjoy being able to teach them – not the usual remit of an English language teacher!

Like the special education group, most Bhutanese children have a good passive understanding of English because they are surrounded by English at school. Producing spoken and written language is another matter, however, especially when teachers aren’t too sure about English themselves and at home, people speak Dzongkha, Hindi or Nepali. For the rural children it’s even harder. Errors become ingrained and everyone is so used to having to speak English occasionally, but never really being able to express themselves properly, that they just get used to it and stop trying to improve.

Steph and Lebeh

I have a couple of students at college who are from rural areas and are studying for a BA in English and Dzongkha. Although they are familiar with English, they really struggle to understand lessons and express themselves clearly. At first I was surprised that they got onto the course with such poor English but then I realized they must just make up for it with Dzongkha. In any case, it’s going to be a tough year for them. Looking at the way children use English in school I worry that every generation will have the same problems. Apart from my students, that is!

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