Sunday November 18, 2012
By ASSOC PROF DR TAN KOK ENG
To raise the levels of English proficiency amongst students, there is a need for teachers who can create a language learning environment that is supportive of a student’s needs.
HAVING said goodbye to her mother, a little girl was walking into her kindergarten when she was stopped in her track by these words, “Hey girl, you never say me good morning.”
The utterance, intended to be a greeting of sorts, came from a smiling young worker and fell within my earshot.
My first reaction was to take my daughter out of the kindergarten and go somewhere where proper English was used.
After some consideration, I decided to let her remain. My daughter has since grown up and is attending college today.
However, these words have never stopped ringing in my ears. Every now and then, I am reminded of the input that our young learners receive in formal schooling.
As many will agree, the episode I have related is not an isolated case.
We laughingly call it Malaysian English or Manglish, but it is no laughing matter from the education standpoint.
Some linguists would rise to the defence of Manglish by pointing out that Manglish is not grammatically wrong all the time but only peculiar to Malaysians.
In fact, there are journals such as World Englishes that are devoted to researching varieties of English and stimulating the debate on the myth of “proper English.”
Varieties are not limited to geographical locations but cut across electronic space, media and popular culture (especially for young people).
So, before I get misunderstood for being too stuffy, judgemental and prescriptive, allow me to say that my dream is one where we can all use the local variety to connect with our countrymen but yet be aware of grammatically sound English.
I am reminded of an article that I read many years ago, entitled “Singlish, cannot meh?”
Yes, to draw a parallel, “Manglish, cannot ah?”
My answer is “Why not Singlish, Manglish and the lot?” if we can use grammatical English at will, to our advantage, and when the occasion calls for its use. It is about appropriacy.
To reach this level of English proficiency, the question is what can be done and at which stage of formal learning?
Starting ‘em young
Let us begin with primary education.
In the area of English education, what needs to be transformed in primary schooling in our country?
As a nation that is eager to improve its education system, this question is constantly asked.
I would like to share the following thoughts that are related to classroom instruction and the school environment.
Let me bring you to a school in Melbourne where my two children spent three years of their primary education.
Somehow, I always learn precious lessons from watching my children grow up.
Located near the University of Melbourne, this small public primary school (with a student enrolment of around 300) was the place of learning for the children of a few foreign academics who were either working or studying at the university.
Other than this handful of foreign children, the rest were local children, some of whom were aborigines or children of immigrants from countries like Vietnam and China.
It was more multicultural than our Malaysian schools. The number of children per class was kept to below 25.
All school staff were native speakers of English (NS) while the student population had a number of non native speakers (NNS).
I was particularly struck by the ease in which English was used in the school.
A timid boy from China who could not speak (or understand) a word of English on day one could interact in English, in just a few weeks, with an accent to boot.
I observed the NS teacher talking to him. She slowed down her speech and articulated her words clearly.
She might simplify her words but the structure and grammar of the English Language were not compromised.
She also gently offered corrective feedback.
In all instances, there was no recourse to Mandarin as it did not exist in the teacher’s linguistic repertoire.
At the playground, the bombardment of English words from other children continued.
Thus, it was in such an environment that the little boy took his baby steps to try out his second language.
So I became convinced that input and interaction are crucial for a young learner in the language learning process.
The frequency and quality of comprehensible input combined with the opportunity for the learner to produce output in interaction seem to work favourably for the learner.
There should be sufficient second language (L2) input for learners to form and test out new forms of language.
If they are not exposed to good models of spoken English, their errors are expected to persist.
Furthermore, the errors committed should receive corrective feedback from the teacher at suitable moments.
How then can we apply this to the Malaysian classroom?
First, we need to provide a lot of good language input for our children, even if it is confined to the few English periods a week.
English teachers constitute our children’s major source of good input in formal learning.
This means that teacher education programmes in the country have to produce this critical number of English teachers who are near native-like models of English.
It will not be sufficient to send out a few proficient trainers to tell other teachers what to do.
We need English teachers to model the language for the children and interact with them in the language.
Furthermore, as the authority in deciding what is grammatically acceptable, they should consciously provide corrective feedback in a sensitive manner.
Linguists will tell us that if learners’ errors are not pointed out and corrected, they can become fossilised.
That is to say, the learner never achieves the target language but only reaches a level or version which is basically a deviant form of the target language.
This form unfortunately becomes permanent.
Harnessing the Internet
Next, to supplement the teacher’s role as input provider, online resources can be used.
We need to recognise that our English teachers are NNS and they are still learning the language.
During the times when they feel they are limited as a source of language input, they should turn to the Internet which is a source of authentic language, both written and spoken.
There are many websites that model good English.
You may ask, “Why not use interesting reading materials?”
Many will attest to the fact that their excellent command of English actually came from reading novels and storybooks.
It is undeniable that good reading materials remain a rich source of language input.
However, in the contemporary Internet culture, our children take to the Internet more readily than they do to the traditional textbook or printed materials.
Therefore, English teachers should connect the classroom to the Internet and let the online environment motivate the children to use English.
Speak the language
Third, classroom discourse should predominantly be in English.
It is best to keep the use of the students’ mother tongue to a minimal level.
Unlike the case of the school in Melbourne where a NS teacher is surrounded by both NS and NNS students, the normal practice in Malaysia is a NNS teacher teaching NNS students.
Most of the time, the NNS teacher has a good knowledge of, or even share, the students’ mother tongue.
There is a tendency for the teacher to resort to the students’ mother tongue to support teaching and learning.
From a sociocultural perspective, the local NNS teacher has an advantage over the NS teacher in that she/he has firsthand experience of learning a L2, may know or share the students’ mother tongue, and can better anticipate learner difficulties.
However, if the NNS teacher’s attention is not drawn towards such privileged linguistic knowledge for L2 teaching, classroom instruction might be dominated by translations.
Therefore, teacher preparation should not only aim at improving the proficiency level of NNS trainee teachers but also raise awareness of their linguistic knowledge to inform practice.
To sum up, it is my belief that learning a L2 for young learners (perhaps below Year Four) should be done as naturally as possible, and should ideally take place where good input is abundant.
When the learners are old enough to process linguistic forms, direct grammar instruction can be used to help build proficiency on their foundation.
The challenge is for Teaching of English as a Second Language or TESL education programmes to produce NNS teachers of English who can model the language and create a supportive language learning environment for our primary school children.
The writer is the programme chairperson of Bachelor of Education — Teaching English To Speakers Of Other Languages (TESOL) in the School of Educational Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia.