Parvathi Nagasundaram, I have observed first hand, is someone for whom, very simply, life is service.  Her work has been in the field of English language teaching and her impact has been far reaching.   She retired from the state university system in 2006, and continued her work as a writer of text books, the first [...]


Mastering grammar, mastering a language


Parvathi Nagasundaram: Teaching English with a far reaching impact

Parvathi Nagasundaram, I have observed first hand, is someone for whom, very simply, life is service.  Her work has been in the field of English language teaching and her impact has been far reaching.   She retired from the state university system in 2006, and continued her work as a writer of text books, the first work, Essential Grammar, a reference book for teachers coming out in 2012 – the 7500 copies already sold speaking of its importance to the teaching community.

Here she talks of her second book, Grammar for Communication which came out in July this year.

  •     Tell me about your journey that made you end up as one of the most respected grammarians and English teachers of this country.

My journey in this world started in Burma, now Myanmar and when I was one, my family came back to Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. I had my primary education at Kandy Girls’ High school and my secondary at Jaffna College. I followed the English teacher training programme at Palaly Teachers’ College way back in 1963 and after completing my training, I taught in various government schools in the Central and Northern Provinces. After teaching for about 15 years I followed the degree programme at the University of Peradeniya first externally and then internally. In 1986 I joined the National College of Education, Pasdunrata from where I was sent on a scholarship by the British Council to follow a Masters Course in Applied Linguistics at the University of Reading, U.K. I worked in the College of Education for five years and then joined the National Institute of Maharagama as a Project Officer. Later I joined the University of Sri Jayewardenepura from where I retired in 2006.  During all these years of service my students came first to me; I loved all of them and respected them and treated them all alike irrespective of their ethnicity, religion or social status and they reciprocated it.

With regard to my being considered a grammarian, when I started teaching English in 1965 after my training at Palaly Teachers’ College, my knowledge of grammar was almost zero because I was not taught grammar in school nor at the training college. I learnt grammar on my own in order to teach my students. My Guru was “A Practical English Grammar” by A.J.Thomson and A.V. Martinet. At that time the Structural Approach was used to teach English Language and I had to have an in depth knowledge of grammar to give my best to my students.

  •      What exactly is the role of grammar in learning English as a second language?

I think grammar plays a vital role in learning English as a second language, particularly for students who do not have adequate exposure to English in their home background. I totally agree with Rod Ellis who says mastering the grammar and vocabulary of a language helps one to master that language.

But, regrettably, grammar teaching in Sri Lankan schools has not been very successful. That is because students gain only explicit knowledge of grammar which helps them to successfully complete grammar practice exercises given in class. The grammatical knowledge gained this way does not enable them to use it for communication. What teachers should do is, in addition to explaining the rules of grammar and getting students to apply those rules to do grammar exercises they should be provided opportunities to use the grammar points they have learnt in speaking, listening, reading and writing activities so that these grammar points   become internalized. That is what I have attempted to do in my latest book “Grammar for Communication”.

  •     What would you like to tell students who are struggling with learning basic English in this country?

Three factors that contribute toward language learning are exposure to the language through reading and listening, opportunities to use the language in speech and writing, and motivation to learn the language. I would advise them to read widely in English, watch English programmes on TV and listen to news both in Sinhala or Tamil and then in English in order to gain exposure to English. They should also talk to their friends in English. But unless they have intrinsic motivation to learn English nothing would help them. Students should be made to understand that learning English will be fruitful only if they use it for a variety of purposes in meaningful contexts. I know of so many who have become proficient in English entirely on their own efforts. Of course, learning English this way would be more successful if they had the guidance of a competent and committed teacher.

  •     You are now retired after years of service to the university system – and you are still writing and still teaching, why?

Well I am still teaching because I can still teach the same way I taught before I retired and also because I enjoy it. The moment I cannot teach this way I will stop teaching. I will never ever cheat my students for the sake of earning some money. Another reason why I still teach is my students who are heading English departments in various universities somehow persuade me to work in their progammes.

I have been involved in the English Language Teaching programme in this country for more than five decades, as a teacher, teacher trainer, trainer trainer and a university academic. I have always been concerned about the falling standards of English and have tried my best to remedy it by teaching on various teacher training programmes and conducting hundreds of workshops for thousands of teachers around the country but to no avail. I have also written a grammar book for teachers.

Since none of these helped to enhance the standard of English in the country, I have now started addressing the students directly. The book “Grammar for Communication” which I have written as a grammar guide for students should help them gain explicit as well as implicit knowledge of grammar. At the moment I am writing a book on improving vocabulary and God willing I hope to write two more books on improving reading and writing for students. This will be my last effort to improve the standard of English in the country.

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