Instruction Communication: A ‘Soft Skills’ Approach to Understanding English Language Abilities among College Students in Kathmandu
This paper reports in emergent findings from PhD research on life skill education in Nepal. In South Asia, there is growing concern for the ‘skill gap’ among young people (Aring, 2012). Gautam (2016) clearly describes the mismatch between Kathmandu undergraduate students’ school-based learning and their actual preparedness for entering the work force.
My research engages with this issue through the lens of ‘life’ or ‘soft’ skills. Life skills may broadly refer to one’s ability to navigate and adapt to society, build relationships, and maintain a sense of self and well-being (Sharma, 2020; WHO, 1996). Discourse around ‘soft skills’ often refer to these same abilities as they relate to employment and higher education (Gautam, 2016; USAID, 2020); furthermore, an individual’s level of soft skill competence may be referred to as their level of ‘employability’ (Aring, 2012; Dash et al., 2020). As my research navigates educational, economic, and social domains, I choose to use the two phrases ‘life skills’ and ‘soft skills’ interchangeably.
Research into Nepal’s life skills education is both timely and necessary. The Ministry of Education introduced a new Social Studies and Life Skills curriculum for grades 11 and 12 at the start of the 2020/2021 school year (Budhathoki, 2021). This compulsory course emphasizes skills related to active citizenship, nation building, and respecting ethnic and religious diversity. It builds on existing curricular elements, such as the integration of peace education in previous social studies textbooks (Smith, 2015); moral education in grades 6 to 8 (Neupane, 2019; Shrestha & Parajuli, 2019); Health, Population, and Environment Education (HPEE) in grades 9 and 10 (Bajracharya et al., 2007), and the ‘unity in diversity’ and ‘celebrating diversity’ discourses popularized under the Ministry of Education since the late 20th century (Dhungana, 2021).
The aim of this field-based research is to understand how young people are learning, practicing, and applying soft skills as they approach the transition from school to work. Findings come from interviews with young people as key informants, as well as my observations and personal experiences leading interactive training sessions for college students in Kathmandu.
Young people identity communication as a necessary life skill. While English language has long been seen as a ticket for young Nepalese people, my research suggests changing and critical attitudes towards English as the language of instruction. Many participants in this research raise concerns over poor language teaching abilities and thus poor learning. This is a major concern for schools as students struggle to participate in English language classrooms; but even more so, as described in this paper, young people may be experiencing crises of identity as they attempt to navigate Nepal’s multi-lingual society with restricted abilities to communication. This paper will present young people’s ideas for improving life skills education and promoting better communication skills in and outside the classroom. Furthermore, it reports on the use of an evolving and participatory methodological approach that allows for a high degree of youth involvement and input.
Key words: communication, English language, language of instruction, young people, higher education, school-to-work transition, identity