Learning the Language

English Language Fellow Robin Cathey works with students from underprivileged backgrounds at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.

Robin Cathey is an American English Language Fellow, who began her English Language Teaching Fellowship at Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU) in September, 2018. She works with minority students from underprivileged backgrounds and, in association with the U.S. Consulate General Hyderabad, she will also work with the English Access Microscholarship program, a State Department-sponsored project that provides two years of English training to disadvantaged high school students.

Excerpts from an interview.

Could you tell us about the experience of launching a course in communication skills in English, as part of your English Language Teaching Fellowship at Maulana Azad National Urdu University?

We had an overwhelming response to the call for applications for the course. Over 300 students applied! I accepted students based upon what year they were in (final-year students received priority), gender (female students), educational background (madrasa-educated students), goals (students who aimed to reach out to other students or give back to society) and to some extent, location (students from Kashmir are well-represented).

What type of students attend this university?

Students hail from all corners of India, but the vast majority are from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two highly-populated and notably poor states. All students speak Urdu as a first, second or third language, which is a requirement for acceptance. Few students are actually from Telangana, where MANUU is situated, since the regional language is Telugu instead, which is used in schools and the government. 

Some students intend to work abroad after graduation, others want to pursue graduate degrees in English-speaking countries. English is the lingua franca of a country with over 22 scheduled languages and many other languages. I read somewhere that a census in the 1960’s noted over 1,000. It is the language of international business, the IT and computer science sectors, and tourism. I am told that students who graduate university but do not speak English often find themselves unemployable.

Are there any particular success stories of students that come to mind?

This project is very new. However, the other day, a Kashmiri student approached me in the street to tell me how happy he was to be included in the class. In India, each student is required to ask for permission to enter the classroom, one after the other. He said that he and the other students were shocked when I told them that they didn’t need to ask for permission to enter the classroom; that it was their classroom and they should enter when it is their time to enter. He said that my attitude toward them was different from any other teacher he had had and described traditional teaching approaches in India. I think, this is a great example of how a democratic classroom can empower students and motivate them to strive for their goals and work together as a team.

What role does the U.S. Consulate General Hyderabad play in supporting your work?

The U.S. Consulate General Hyderabad has provided me with incredible support with absolutely everything. The team connects me to American Corner programs, English Access Microscholarship Program students, and helps me navigate the cultural differences I encounter. This connection ensures that the initiatives I undertake are hedged correctly and negotiated beforehand to ensure appropriateness, safety, etc. In such a new context, this has been instrumental in the program’s success.

What do you think are some of the most important attributes a English language teacher can offer to her students?

I don’t think that there is an across-the-board answer to this question. I believe that English language classrooms do and should operate in different ways depending on the context and students’ needs. In this class, I love how the students learn tools and, then, use the tools to fit their context; they make the resources work for them. I think that this is a particular skill that these students already possessed and that they were quick to apply to the classroom. This makes for attentive students who are able to take what is modelled and become creative in their own usage. It also makes for a democratic classroom, in which students are keen to participate. They tell me when they need something explained again or in a different way; they vote on whether to watch a video a second time for further comprehension; I try to ensure they understand the “why” of activities, rather than just demanding that they do them. I believe that there is a mutual respect which holds our relationships together.


Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.