Academics speak on new approaches that can yield the desired results.

An academic year in a college mostly starts with a bridge course in English. The duration varies from just a few days to a fortnight. It is obviously meant to bridge the divides caused by the mediums of learning in schools, the rural-urban divide et al, when school students step into portals of higher learning. And in Tamil Nadu, students of State Board usually learn English just like other subjects, not as a language. Therefore, the question is whether colleges are able to create the desired impact through the bridge course. Has it been helpful in transforming students belonging to rural parts, especially first-generation undergraduate students, from diffidence to confidence? Teachers are unable to provide a categorical answer.

Are bridge courses being conducted in a ritualistic way? What approach needs to be adopted? Where exactly does the solution lie? How must the initiative begin?

Customising the learning of communicative English as per the requirements is of foremost importance, explains G. Balakrishnan, former vice-principal, St. Joseph's College. For instance, the five traditional components in the order of spoken English, comprehension, grammar, study methods and group work are outdated. Spoken English that involves learning of articulation, intonation and stress means nothing to a student from a rural background. Learning intonation and stress can wait. The effort has to begin with students speaking out sentences coined by themselves, even if they commit errors, says Prof. Balakrishnan. Students have to be encouraged to speak what occurs in their mind with spontaneity. They are likely to find to their pleasant surprise that speaking in English becomes easier with simpler yet quite effective approaches like making self-introduction, role playing, spinning a yarn, describing pictures and so on. It only means that a much higher duration is required for meaningful learning of communicative English.

Hence, bridge course is a beginning and not an end in itself. Unfortunately, colleges are not prepared to accept the reality. The reason is partly because teachers, in general, believe it is not worthwhile to spend more than ten days for a bridge course.

A bridge course needs to be followed up throughout the year. For a discerning learner with a Tamil medium background, the approach to the bridge course could be tweaked by confining grammar to the learning of tenses, comprehension to listening and reading, and attaching high importance to group activities.

Unfortunately, teachers are not prepared. Or rather the rigidity in the educational system with time constraints does not permit the approach, acknowledge A.M. Mohamed Ibrahim, Head, Department of English, Jamal Mohamed College, and M. Rema, vice-principal and Head, Department of English, Shrimati Indira Gandhi College. In co-educational institutions, boys get timid. They usually do not take the risk of committing mistakes in front of girls in classroom situations, points out Dr. Ibrahim. Much also depends on the teacher. Students listen in classes only when the lectures are made interesting. There is a need for enormous preparation on the part of teachers, says Dr. Rema.

Ultimately a realisation needs to set in among teachers that any amount of learning by students without the capacity to express their mind means nothing. If teachers are not prepared to spend more than a fortnight for conduct of a ‘bridge course' it must be because of the nomenclature. Why not name it as ‘continuous career development programme'?

It is about employability. After all, the very purpose behind pursuing higher education is to land good jobs, they point out.