Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Teaching English in Libya


M.T Thomas, a former professor of English at Bharat Mata College, Kochi, has been teaching Libyan students the intricacies of the global language

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day Prof. M. T. Thomas, a former professor of English at Bharat Mata College, Kochi, went into a shop in Kekele, 196 kms from Tripoli, the capital of Libya. The owner said, “How are you?” After a while, the owner’s eight-year-old daughter told her father in Arabic, “This is ‘how are you’. He wants to buy something. Please give it to ‘how are you?’” Thomas smiles and says, “She thought that ‘how are you’ is my name.”

Thomas was astonished at the complete ignorance of English in Libya. He went there to teach the subject at a university two years ago. “I did not know Arabic and the students did not know English,” he says. “When I could not understand something, I would say, 'What?’” and they would reply with ‘Shini’. It was later I realised that ‘Shini’ meant ‘what’ in Arabic.”

The students also found it difficult to pronounce particular letters. For example, they cannot say the letter ‘p’. Instead, they use ‘b’. “So for the word, ‘problem’, they would pronounce it as broblem,” he says. “For past, it is bast. For person, they will say berson. This could be the influence of the Arabian language.”

The reason for this poor knowledge of English is historical. In 1986, believing that Libya was behind several terrorist attacks, the USA bombed the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi. Libyan leader Muammar-al-Gadhaffi was furious. He did not want anything to do with the West, and banned the English language.

“So, there is one generation which has no idea of English,” says Thomas. “I am teaching the children of that generation.” But now there is a rising desire on the part of the young to learn English.

Surprisingly, 95 per cent of the students are girls. “The boys are not interested in academics,” says Thomas. “They will buy a car and drive it as a taxi. The girls are the ones who like to go for higher education.”

For the students, the government provides free board and lodging. When a girl goes abroad to study, she is allowed to take her husband and children along. “The government will pay the fees, as well as the living expenses for the family,” says Thomas. “Gadhaffi realises that the country is backward, when it comes to education, and needs to improve.”

Thomas says that Indians are much respected because those who work in Libya are white-collar workers like teachers, doctors, computer experts, or engineers. “The salary is very good,” he says. Thomas earns more than Rs 2 lakh a month, and gets free to-and-fro airline tickets every year. “The tax is only 3 per cent,” he says. Libya wants Indian teachers, but their knowledge of the country is gained only by watching Hindi movies.

“They love the films of Amitabh Bachchan,” he says. “They admire the beauty of actor Aishwarya Rai. They think that all the Indian women are as gorgeous as Aishwarya. They say that the Libyan women are not as pretty as the Indians. But, in reality, their women are beautiful also.” Incidentally, Hindi films are aired by the Zee TV network on the Zee-Aflam channel.

Of course, Libya is under the firm control of Gaddhafi who has been ruling the country with an iron fist for over 40 years. His photo adorns every building and road in the country. “There is a widespread assumption that Libya is a rogue country,” says Thomas. “But there are no crime or law and order problems. It is very peaceful and quiet.”

It is quiet because there is very little chance of showing dissent. And there are few avenues for entertainment. “The people spend their time interacting with their extended families,” says Thomas.

At the university, once a year, patriotic songs are sung by the girls.
“The women wear a black gown, along with the hijab (headgear), but their faces are uncovered,” says Thomas. There is segregation of the sexes, but it is not as strict as in other Islamic countries.

Other aspects of Libya: it has a population of only 6.2 million. It is a Sunni Muslim country. The diet is heavily meat-oriented. Sheep, camel, and cow, except pork, are eaten with all meals. There is no public transport. People travel either in their own cars or take a ‘shared taxi’. The average speed on the highways is 120 km/hour.

Asked to identify the major difference between Libya and Kerala, Thomas says, “In Libya, the people suffer because of limited freedom. In Kerala we suffer because we have excessive freedom. Nobody can control anybody. So, it is a difficult choice. Democracy or dictatorship: which is the best for a society?”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

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