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English language : Read, write and speak up 14 April 2010

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DR M.A. NAIR, Kuantan
letters@nst.com.my

THE approach to mastering a second language is to listen, speak, read and write. In the process, work on grammar, vocabulary and enunciation when speaking.

If we encourage students to do this early, it can help them acquire a second language with ease.

However, students must have the right attitude and be truly motivated when learning a second language. The majority of our students are still weak despite the efforts put in by teachers and the money spent on improving their standard of English.

The failure can be attributed to three main reasons: students are generally passive listeners — they can be good listeners but they do not use or shy away from using the language; students do not pick up the reading habit (in English) and many are generally passive readers — some may read a lot but they do not practise enough to write; and some teachers are not proficient in spoken or written English despite having the paper qualifications.

Students who are not able to speak English coherently are those who do not attempt to use the language. In other words, they lack practice. Only a minority of our students feel uninhibited enough to speak in English.

This is a socio-cultural problem and it cannot be resolved by employing native teachers of English from abroad to teach our students. There is a cultural barrier to the whole issue.

For instance, a native teacher cannot understand our students when he sees them giggling at or teasing a classmate who speaks bad English — a common scene in our classroom and social settings.

What’s more, passive learning is quite the norm in our culture. Seldom do our students speak up in class.

For this reason, local teachers are still the best option to handle students as they are more aware of the socio-cultural problems.

Nothing substitutes for the reading habit if a child wants to improve his English. No pedagogic theories prescribed in the English as a Second Language (ESL) lessons can supersede the habit of reading to improve one’s English. Reading extensively helps the writing process.

A lot of English structural nuances are hard to be taught pedagogically. There are many phrasal verbs and idioms that are best acquired through extensive reading, through a natural internalising process.

Journalists can tell how they are able to express themselves well in written English, even though some did not go through formal grammar lessons in school.

They have been avid readers right from their young days. Reading has to start early, hence the need to encourage every child in school to pick up the habit.

Some teachers themselves are not competent in the language and they have, in a way, failed to become a role model to students. Teachers who are not able to write well in English cannot teach students how to write effectively.

One cannot expect students to enunciate words and phrases the way native speakers of English do if teachers themselves are not able to do so.
Void of this advantage, teachers should use more visual and audio aids instead. The dictionaries and other electronic gadgets in British or American English, which are readily available in the market, could help teachers and students enunciate words correctly.

Most teachers are aware that Malaysian kids are more exposed to American English as they are influenced by television programmes, and less of British English and much less of Australian English.

This influence has also pervaded their writing corpus, where students are more comfortable using American spelling to write.

Furthermore, a great number of academic books used at the tertiary level are of American origin. This, however, would not impede students from becoming adept in the English language.

The simple recipe to becoming proficient in a second language is: to be a good speaker, practise speaking; and to practise writing.

Students may have grammar competence and good vocabulary but if they do not keep practising or using the language, they will remain inept.

Source: New Straits Times

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