Teaching Language through Literature: Some Probabilities

Saswata Kusari & Mahua Bhattacharjee, Sarada Ma Girls’ College, West Bengal

Literature, as many commentators would argue, is dissemination of culture through the study of literary texts. One may argue that literature holds a mirror to the society. However, all these grand old principles of literature seem to be redundant in the English literature classroom where we teach. Paradoxical though it may seem; the primary problem of this failure is the students’ lack of linguistic abilities. It is due to their lack of linguistic competence, interpreting the texts on their own becomes a massive task for them. Most of the students, especially those coming from the vernacular medium schools, find it difficult to analyse the given text on their own. Most of them, as we understand, are taught English using the Grammar-Translation method[i]; and hence; their growth as a language student is stunted at secondary and higher secondary level. While talking of language we are, of course, aware of all the four principles of acquiring the second language- Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing. In this paper, we are going to examine the root of this problem itself; and while doing so, we are hoping to suggest some palpable ways through which a literature classroom can be turned into an effective medium of teaching language as well.

Teaching in a semi-rural college situated in West Bengal, we realise, from our day-to-day experience, that the scenario of an English classroom is not very promising. Students barely speak in English and request teachers to analyse the text in Bengali, if possible. Though they are apparently good in grammar, they lack the ability to write on their own, let alone their ability to communicate verbally. Being students of vernacular medium schools, they have a very scanty vocabulary as English does not come instinctively to them. Moreover, they have this strange idea that they would be able to improve their linguistic abilities while pursuing the course in English literature. In such a negative situation it is very easy to wash your hands off as a teacher blaming the students’ inability to be the cause of their failure. As teachers, the responsibility falls upon us to call for a change. If students and teachers work in corroboration, a better and prosperous classroom can surely be achieved. Let us talk about some of the things that can be done to make the situation more positive with some measures. However, in order to do so students must put in some extra yard, beyond their normal study hours, to hone their linguistic skills.

From the very beginning of the academic session/ semester students of English literature must be made aware of the challenges that might come their way. Most students of Vernacular medium schools do not get the chance of reading the texts of the same pedigree that they suddenly do when they come to an English Honours classroom. Moreover, they come to read English Honours with a very faulty perception of the subject. They believe that learning English will surely provide them with good jobs. It is not surprising that they harbour such sentiments, especially if we keep in mind the socio-economic condition[ii] they come from. It is obvious that they do not understand the nuances of reading English literature. Though, as teachers, sometimes it is very difficult to find out time to help students learn language, especially due to the dearth of time. However, it would be a good starting point for students if the classroom is decentred and the students are asked to participate in the discussion sharing their ideas and beliefs about the text. Though the students will surely make mistakes, they should never be discouraged. Errors, as today’s behavioural psychologist reveal, are considered as steps of learning. If the teacher is the sole speaker and the students sit quietly listening to the interpretation of such grand texts they are bound to feel over awed. In order to realise their dream of speaking in English; so that they can survive in this globally savvy world where having skills of verbal communication is absolutely pre-eminent, students often enrol themselves in ‘spoken’ English courses; ignorant of the fact that reading literature can often be the best medium of learning language. Along with embarking upon a literary analysis of the texts; the teacher should also play the role of an initiator by identifying the stimulus for the students. It is obvious that a student of 1st year, reading Paradise Lost, would struggle with the meaning of several words and the grand style of Miltonic verse. However difficult the poem might seem, students, for the start, must be motivated to read the text on their own. If they fail to make out the meaning, they must take help from Dictionary or Thesaurus. That will inevitably enhance their stock of words and create a better aesthetic of language. They have to cling on to the text as long as they can; and as they start enhancing their skill in language, they will surely find reading literary masterpieces easier. In fact, this method can be used not only by the students of English Honours but also by students of all courses. Those who cannot access literary texts can take recourse to reading newspapers, magazines and journals by using this same method.

We are also of the opinion that it is important to decolonise the minds of the students as well. They must be made to feel that though learning English is important; it can never be the sole requisite of surviving in this world. If such an attitude prevails, the fear of not being able to master the language would automatically start gripping them. To start enjoying the reading of literature, students can start reading texts written by non-native speakers of English. It is very difficult to fully grasp a literary text without having an idea of the culture from where it emerged. If the students start reading texts which use Kolkata or Delhi as its locale; they will feel a stronger association with them. This will, hopefully, serve two purposes: first, it will surely enhance the vocabulary of the target language; second, it will give confidence to them to read on their own. If they can develop the skill, and learn the politics[iii] of close reading they will inevitably start to expand the horizon of their imaginative thinking. With such an expansion in knowledge system, canonical texts, will no more pose a threat.

However, to make the situation more dynamic, we may fall back upon some popular methods that are used in training the students of business communication. This would undoubtedly require effort and commitment from the teachers as well as students; as we have to make sure that the time taken for completing the Literature syllabus is not affected because of such. The primary way of teaching literature is to read the text as a cultural product. It is a traditional approach used in undergraduate and postgraduate literary courses of any university. Through this method the background of the text is read in great detail. Though this model is tried and tested when it comes to the interpretation of literary texts; it often does not serve the need of the students of the third world, especially those who are suffering from the lack of linguistic competence. As mentioned earlier, students often come to pursue literary courses with the expectation of honing their language skills. In order to satisfy their need we must take recourse to make their association with the distinctive features of literary language. (Some universities teach Phonetics and Linguistics at the Undergraduate level itself, which is, needless to say, a good beginning for the students trying to improve their Language skills). In this respect, a literary text must be perceived as linguistic product rather than a cultural product. Students should always be in look out for new words and expressions so that they can improve their stock of words. That, for the start, will give them confidence in using language more productively. However, creating a decent stock of words does not mean that a student will suddenly be able to communicate better. That will only come along with the language being used in a real-life context more effusively. Bogged down by the enormity of the syllabus students often feel inhibited to speak out loud in English as they start to mug up notes to pass the examination failing to understand that this would neither improve their their language skill nor will it develop the imaginative faculty. Hence, along with creating a solid base of vocabulary students must be encouraged to read a literary text with more care so that they can understand the unique nuances of English language. Students must learn that the essence of any stylised utterance lies in ‘defamiliarization’[iv] of language. All such practices will undoubtedly contribute in forming a better aesthetics of language.

At this juncture, one might feel that we are taking a formalist[v] stance to teaching literature. However, that would be an erroneous judgement of our real endeavour. We are, in fact, of the opinion that the cultural model of teaching and reading literature must be synthesised with the linguistic model. If we solely stress upon the cultural model of interpreting, those students, who come from the weaker background, would find it immensely difficult in deciphering a literary text. We are of the opinion that learning language properly is merely the base for reading literary text; standing on which they should try to use language more judiciously in real life circumstances. Hence, along with getting to know about the socio-cultural importance of a literary text, the students must also spend some time in harness reading about various literary devices that contribute to its ‘literariness’[vi] as it will probably be a good exercise in harnessing their linguistic as well as rhetorical sensibility, the predominant factor of using language more efficiently.

But learning about the advanced use of language through literary texts (and newspapers) would only provide the students with a kind of a Grammatical Competence which is the first step of achieving Linguistic Competence. According to Yasukata Yano:

“Chomsky (1965) made a distinction between ‘grammatical competence’ and ‘performance.’ The former is the linguistic knowledge of the idealized native speaker, an innate biological function of the mind that allows individuals to generate the infinite set of grammatical sentences that constitutes their language, and the latter is the actual use of language in concrete situations.” (75)

Keeping in mind this view, we might argue that isolated readings of literary texts in order to find out linguistic devices will not provide students with an inkling of how to become sociologically competent in pulling off a verbal communication. To speak more simply, students must learn to use language in proper context. So a holistic Linguistic Competence can only be achieved if the students use the target language in real life situation. However, that might be asking too much from the students whom we teach. In the culture where they grow up, finding out a perfect situation where they would be able to test their competence would be impossible. This is when the role of the teacher becomes immensely important. The teacher, while teaching literature, should be mindful of creating an atmosphere that can corroborate the learners’ competence and ask for better performance. In sociological theories of language, achieving Communicative Competence is intricately linked with the learners’ use of the language (performance). What we often find out that some students have the competence (skill) but due to their lack of confidence they lack the ability of performance.

How will students achieve this sociological competence? They might form small groups among themselves. Together in the group they can first try to improve their grammatical competence. Then, they can start communicating amongst each other. The basic problem for native learners of English is that their fear of opening up. In front of their pals they can undoubtedly throw off their inhibition. Students should also be confident enough in underpinning each others’ flaws. As they practice more and more, they will inevitably become better in using language in real-life situation and this will surely take them far in gaining the much needed confidence. Then the students must start conversing with the more linguistically competent people, i.e., their teachers. Some intra-departmental seminars and workshops can also be organised to give them a realistic set-up for using language. Along with using such methods, the students must also spend a lot of their time in watching (and listening to) programmes in English, such as movies and news shows, so that they become more aware of the sociological use of language. Modern Hermeneutics treats everything as text; and, we believe, students should be treating movies and such programmes as text- the knowledge gained from which must be used efficiently in real-life situation.

Though it is very difficult to pinpoint a particular model of language learning, we have suggested some methods based on our experience. However, all these methods can only be fruitful if students start working beyond their stipulated hours of study in order to enhance their skills as a language user. Moreover, learning a language merely for the sake of achievement will make the task much harder for the students. We hope that the above mentioned methods will create a sense of passion amongst the students, which would, inadvertently, be the best means of mastering the language.


[i] Grammar-Translation Method (GTM) is perhaps the oldest model of teaching language. It is a classical model used in the teaching of Greek and Latin. In this method greater emphasis is given on reading and writing. Verbal communication is almost never taken into consideration. Mother tongue is often used inside the classroom to explain key ideas. Grammar is taught in inductive manner and then translating sentences from native to target language is aimed. In the wake of the Direct Method, Communicative Method and Audio-Lingual Method, GTM has lost its popularity; however, teachers continue to use it in the countries of South-Asia as an effective model of teaching language, especially for first generation learners.

[ii] Most of the students, coming from inferior economic background, do not cherish dreams of making it big; a simple Government job will do their job.

 [iii] The word has been used here keeping in mind Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author.” Once the author is ‘dead’ the reader can interpret the text in innumerable ways corroborating their individual perception.

 [iv] Defamiliarization refers to the ways through the literary language is made different from ordinary speech. The term was coined by Victor Shlovsky in the year 1917. What he tried to suggest that poetic language is different from the language of ordinary life. By suggesting this possibility of difference the Russian formalists tried to formulate a scientific approach towars the study of literature

[v] The Formalists tried to read literature as science by emphasising upon the use of language.

[vi] Literariness refers to the formal properties of poetic language such as rhetorical device, rhyme, pattern and so on.

 Works Cited:

 Hornstein, Norbert. “Noam Chomsky”. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward Craig. London: Routledge , 1998.

 Morson, Gary Soul. “The Russian Debate on Narrative”. Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Patricia Waugh. New Delhi: OUP, 2010. 212-222.

 Yano, Yasukata. “Communicative Competence and English as an International Language”. Intercultural Communication Studies XII.3 (2003): 75-83.

Saswata Kusari is a faculty member of the Department of English, Sarada Ma Girls’s College, affiliated to West Bengal State University. He is currently working as a Ph.D student at the Department of English of Kalyani University under the Supervision of Dr. Niladri R. Chatterjee. His areas of interest include New Literatures in English, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies and Postcolonial Studies.

 Mahua Bhattacharjee is currently working at the Department of English, Sarada Ma Girls’ College, affiliated to West Bengal State University. She is also the Teacher-in-Charge of the same college. Her areas of interest are American Literature, Theories of Language learning and Romantic Literature.

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