Sunday, February 17, 2008

English Communication and Soft Skills

Dr S P Dhanavel
Anna University, Chennai-600 025

English teachers of India have all along been entrusted with the task of teaching English language to the Indian students from primary to tertiary level for the purpose of internal as well as international communication. For English has been perceived as a window to the world as also a link among the various states in the country. Gradually the focus of English language teaching shifted to the communication skills involved in using English for communication purposes. With the onset of globalization, the focus has again changed to the soft skills which include communication skills and English language. In this context, it is imperative to bring about changes in the English curriculum, particularly selection of materials, which go into the English text books. Only then the teachers will be able to perform their tasks in the classroom meaningfully. Otherwise, the English teachers may be considered an anachronism in the era of soft skills. One such text that has wonderful potential to be exploited in the classroom for teaching English communication skills and soft skills is Ruskin Bond’s short story “The Boy Who Broke the Bank”. This paper discusses how this story can be used profitably in the classroom for the teacher and the students and society at large.
Soft Skills
Essentially, soft skills are a set of personality traits, which are partly inherited and partly acquired, depending upon the individual’s familial, social and educational environments. According to Dr Goeran Nieragden of Cologne, there are about twenty important soft skills. He lists them in a table under four different categories:
Attitude awareness
Compensation strategies
Conflict handling
Decision making
Learning willingness
Diversity tolerance
Interlocutor orientation
Teamwork willingness
Stress resistance
Delegating skills
Problem solving
Listening skills
Systems thinking
Presentation skills

He discusses these skills in his article “The Soft Skills of Business English”, which obviously refers to ‘work-related language coaching’. A similar list, though one skill less is given by Sabitha Rao in her interview to Chitra Deepa: To quote Ms.Rao: “A soft skill encompasses a cluster of personality traits. A person’s ability to communicate, social grace, personal habits, friendliness, attitude, negotiating ability, leadership qualities, initiative, conflict management, innovation, creativity, lateral thinking, decision making, interpersonal skills, self-control or emotional maturity, time management, assertiveness, team spirit, capacity to work under pressure and stress – all these comprise soft sills”. She also recommends Stephen R Covey’s popular book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to understand all about soft skills.
Most of these ideas are strange to teachers who are fed by literatures of various countries and bits of ELT concepts, albeit imitations rather than originals in many cases. Because they are strange, we cannot ignore them. If we want to survive by our soft skills, and not by our hard skills, we need to pay attention to these new ideas and enable ourselves to rise to the occasion. I for one believe that we can use our knowledge of literature, though not exactly classics or prescribed texts in our literature syllabuses, to train our students in these soft skills. I just happened to read Ruskin Bond’s short story “The Boy Who Broke the Bank” long back, may be about a decade ago. Ever since my reading this story I have been telling my students to read it and benefit from it. Unfortunately this is not a most often prescribed text in our general English syllabus. I am not sure how it is taught at Gujarat University colleges, where it is on the syllabus. A look at the question paper indicated that this is dealt with more as a story than as a text with potential for teaching soft skills.
Ruskin Bond
Ruskin Bond is a well known author in India and abroad but not so popular among the teachers of English. He has written novels, novellas, essays, poems, and more than 500 short stories, all devoured by the general public. He has also been recognized by the Sahitya Akademi with an award in 1993 and by the Government of India with a Padma Shri in 1999, besides recognition from other countries. When I had to include some stories in the M. A. English syllabus of Tripura University, I had difficult times in convincing the members of the Board of Studies in English that the stories of Bond are worth reading by the students of M. A. English, who generally become teachers of English. Finally ten stories, including “The Boy Who Broke the Bank” were approved. Thereafter both the students and the teacher had wonderful times with these stories. That is a different story. In the southern universities Ruskin Bond has no place, as far as I know. It is high time we gave importance to well received popular writers like Bond and his company in General English and English Literature programmes.
“The Boy Who Broke the Bank”
Nathtu is a sweeper boy of the Pipalnagar Bank, owned by Seth Govind Ram. He feels bad that the bank manager has not paid his wages for the month, though twenty days of the next month had passed by. Sitaram, the washer man boy, happens to listen to the grievances of Nathu and prepares to get the sweeper a new job. From here starts the distortion of message to reach the climax of the bank crash. Nathu, the boy, does not mean to break the bank but becomes an instrument for the collapse of the bank. The simple reason is the bank manager did not care to pay the wages due to Nathu on time.
Soft Skills from the Story
This is a delightful story to read and enjoy. But then it has wonderful potential to teach the soft skills to our students. In addition to looking at the language aspects of the story, we can draw the attention of the students to the flow of communication from the boy to the public, resulting in the bank crash. We can understand how a rumour is generated, though unwittingly. The supposed collapse is unwarranted but happens. Almost all the twenty soft skills can be located in the story. For focus, we may restrict ourselves to one of the most neglected skills – listening. Had the manager decided to give the salary to the sweeper on time, if not on the first of the month at least on the fifth or sixth, it would have been fine. But he did not do his job. At least he could have listened to the pleas of the boy, but the manager did not. As a result, a conflict arises between the worker and the intermediate worker. Ultimately it is the owner who is responsible for this mess. He ought to have visited the bank frequently to check whether things are going smoothly. But he did not. The public are worried about the money mainly because the owner is not in town and unfortunately he could not be contacted even over phone. There are many such gaps in communication. Consequently people fill in the gaps with their own imagination, leading to the collapse of the bank. The bank collapsed finally because communication collapsed mainly between the sweeper boy and the manager.
To teach this story interestingly in the class, it would be good for the teacher to have some idea about how communication flows in an organization or in society in general. For this the teacher can refer to some books on management communication. Any book on this subject will be of some use to the teacher of English. All these soft skills, after all, derive from the management or business context. A popular textbook that is available to teachers of English is Developing Communication Skills by Krishna Mohan and Meera Banerji from Macmillan and it can be used profitably for teaching communication skills to the students.

To sum up, soft skills have gained currency today in the market place. If our students have to perform well in their interviews and their work places, we teachers of English have to re-orient ourselves to learn and teach the soft skills to our students. It may be difficult for us to continue with our same old communicative syllabus, for communication is only a portion of soft skills. In essence, we have to provide a holistic personality development education to our students. Of course we can use our knowledge of literature and language, with new additions like Ruskin Bond and his short story “The Boy Who Broke the Bank”. All that we have to do is to understand soft skills and help our students learn soft skills with the help of these stories, or any other material for that matter. For the main matter today is soft skills.

Bond, Ruskin. 1998. “The Boy Who Broke the Bank”. In The Train Stops at Deoli and Other Stories. New Delhi: Penguin.
Chitra Deepa, A. 2005. “For that edge in the job market”. The Hindu Educational Plus. 2005111400630200.htm
Mohan, Krishna., and Meera Banerji. 2005 [1990]. Developing Communication Skills. New Delhi: Macmillan.
Nieragden, Goeran. 2000. “The Soft Skills of Business English.”