In most colleges, the understanding of communication skills seems deeply flawed

It is not often you come across a group of youngsters dressed in formals, discussing ‘bugs’ and ‘deadlines’ at a restaurant.

The celebratory mood implied it was no grim business lunch either. It turned out the group was a team from an IT firm that was partying after their project went ‘live’ a day ago. However, the mood quickly soured and tempers flared when two of the team got into a fiery argument. It seemed they were unhappy with each other’s contribution to the project. One had developed a wrong bit of ‘code’, and the other, the team’s technical lead, I understood, had made him rework it, delaying the project.

“If you ask us to develop such codes, the project will only end up in the dustbin,” said the coder, while the technical lead assured him, “Even a class V child would know why it was faulty.” After considerable efforts by the other team members to pacify the two, the team quickly completed their lunch and left.

Final-year students pursuing professional courses are often told that their chances of getting a job depend considerably on their communication skills. But the incident at the restaurant was yet another reminder of the fact that while today’s youngsters may speak English, they are not always effective at communication. Executives in IT firms too, attest to the lacunae in communication skills. A project manager tells me he has only one bit advice for new recruits, “Don’t bring your college here. Be courteous, communication will follow.” In many reputed companies, one of the sessions during the first week of induction is an extensive one on writing basic e-mails. “Often employees display poor grammar skills and so to avoid embarrassing situations with clients, we have fixed templates for certain kinds of mails,” says an HR manager.

But why can’t these concepts be taught in college? It turns out the understanding of communication skills is deeply flawed in most colleges. Private institutions organise six-hour sessions on Saturdays to train students to express opinions during group discussions. “I had just learnt to frame three sentences. But then, the trainer gave me a bunch of vocabulary cards. I memorise a word every night but I do not know how to use them in regular conversations,” says a student. Many final-year students will also confidently list out the most likely topics to come up for group discussions and even tell you in advance what arguments they will make if asked to participate in one. The truth is there is hardly any attempt by colleges to engage with the different needs of students.

A final- year student tells me that for the past two years, he has been writing on various topics in Tamil and then translating it to English, every single day. “It is very difficult because I know only a few words.” Other students are comfortable writing but are not sure how certain words are pronounced. “Some students speak confidently, but they lack the poise and mannerism. Classrooms have students from every background, so while some speak with utmost fluency, many others choose to remain silent, focussing on their aptitude abilities and academic credentials,” a trainer tells me.

This trend prevails even outside engineering. Last year, the University of Madras signed an MoU with a company to train students of affiliated colleges in soft skills. However, when circulars were sent to colleges seeking lists of students, only about 20 colleges out of the more than 100, replied.

When I asked the principal of a college in Royapettah about the steps they take to improve language skills of the students, he said, “We use our own trainers to give them a 2-week crash course in English-speaking to build leadership skills. The course improves their diction, delivery and diplomacy in discussions.” I wonder how much of that makes sense to students.

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012