Teaching of English to Performing Arts students

When designing benchmarks for the expected English proficiency levels for university students the authorities often neglect to consider the students' areas of specialization whether it be Medicine, Art, Management, Engineering etc. As far as I am aware, there has not been up to date, a detailed study of the different expectations and reasons for undergraduates wanting to learn English.

Obviously, there is no denying the fact that there are many common reasons as to why they want to become competent in the language as it is an instrumental requirement for them to be proficient in English, and also due to the fact that it is the international language of communication, trade and research. Nevertheless, studies on effective methods of teaching English have tended to leave out the specific differences in undergraduate expectations and needs for acquiring the language.

Keeping the above complexities in mind, let us now focus on the problems and issues in relation to the teaching of English for Performing Arts students. Having had the opportunity to teach the undergraduates of the Faculty of Dance & Drama, at the University of Visual & Performing Arts, (UVPA) I have often heard students say that they are not only interested in learning English for academic purposes but would rather learn it in such a way that it would act as an incentive for them when entering into the Performing Arts industry. Keep in mind that the UVPA is the only university in Sri Lanka for the study of visual and performing arts which is distinguished from other state universities due to the extremely practically oriented nature of the subjects on offer.

According to the feedback received, a vast majority of the undergraduates of UVPA does not wish to pursue their higher studies. Thus, learning to write a thesis in English or engaging in academic pursuits does not play a key role in their future ambitions. Even those who intend to engage in further study use Sinhala as in the case of the Faculty of Dance & Drama where students specialize in subject areas such as Kandyan Dance, Sabaragamu Dance, Low country Dance and Oriental Ballet. In such a context, English becomes instrumental for them especially when it comes to entering the international job market. Unfortunately, though there is a big demand for Sri Lankan dancers in the tourist industry their lack of fluency in English has often stood in the way of their success.

The faculty of Dance & Drama focuses primarily on preparing its undergraduates for a career as professional dancers, dramatists, and choreographers. This is not all; students also have the opportunity of obtaining many other jobs related to the Performing Arts industry such as directing, script writing, and becoming managers or members of aesthetic institutions/ dancing groups. All these occupations require, to different extents presentation and communication skills.

Performing Arts is all about happenings, doings, sensing, and becoming. One cannot simply afford to teach Grammar in a prescriptive manner as it has to be taught in a manner that regular language patterns are explained in such a way as to make the use of English more functional in its context. This is where a functional approach to teaching English could be an effective method of teaching English to Performing Arts students.

Using certain concepts of Systemic Functional Grammar, a theory propagated by Australian Linguist M. A. K Halliday, can help us alter traditional teaching methods so as to make learners aware of not only class categories but also the functions of a particular grammar item or structure. This can help students better understand the arbitrariness of English clauses by relating them to specific meanings and functions.

Therefore, the current tendency to test these students on grammatical and lexical aspects in writing (which might be considered the most important language skills in conventional universities because student grades are largely dependent on their performances in written assignments and examinations) are unlikely to meet the needs of Performing Arts students. Due to these reasons, recommendation for a new course could include common core course material alongside material and activities suited for specific subject areas- in this case in the Performing Arts stream. By subject specific I mean:

1. Language features and structures that are used in the discourse of Performing Arts
2. Specific vocabulary items used and their correct pronunciation
3. Language skills needed to function effectively in their personal, academic as well as professional environments

As I have argued here, the course should facilitate students to learn English "in context" thereby enabling them to use English as a tool for social interaction and career advancement apart from using it to obtain their academic goals. Ultimately, by identifying both the professional and academic requirements for learning English it is possible to develop a more effective and functional syllabi for Performing Arts students in Sri Lanka.

R M S N Embogama
Assistant Lecturer in English Language
University of the Visual & Performing Arts

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