Language comes before grammar. One learns the language by speaking and listening to others in the primary language environment before one learns the grammar of the language. But that doesn’t give one the edge to claim that one is proficient in the language in all the four skills – listening, reading, speaking and writing. Reading and writing in the language requires serious study for one to be proficient even in the primary language. It’s a different ballgame altogether from listening and speaking the language.
The English language differs from other languages in that it is composed of sentence structures which are centred around the verb. As it is unique, it can be taught using those structures that are prevalent in its spoken and written forms. This can and will only happen when the beginner embarking on English learning has a good grasp of English grammar. It is simple but not easy for the learner. Any worthwhile effort requires serious study and application of resources geared towards making it a success. The teaching and the learning of English are no exceptions.
The Structural Approach worked very well in Malaysia prior to 1970. A foreign learner and teacher of the English language are more sensitive as to its structure as they definitely don’t want to appear as bungling fools to others when speaking or writing the language. Look at the latest PR fiasco of the disappearance of MH370.
Only a foreign learner and teacher will take the extra effort to learn how the structures are composed and used. By mastering those various structures via the prior knowledge of grammar builds confidence in one to express oneself clearly and correctly. Clarity and accuracy are the mainstay of any language. One can learn English using many approaches but if those approaches don’t empower one to express oneself confidently and intelligently, they are a sheer waste of time, effort and resources. And this is very apparent in the Malaysian context.
A mother-tongue speaker of the English language can never see that the English language is made up of structures that can be learnt and taught to foreigners. “Where there is no knowledge of structure, a structural syllabus may appear meaningless to the casual eye.” It was the Dane, Otto Jespersen, who highlighted that English is made up of structures indiscernible to native speakers of the language. By his efforts in “structuring the English language”, the learning and teaching of it became easier for foreigners. I know of some people in Europe who still rely on the Structural Approach to teach their students the English language even though they use the “communicative syllabus”. With the Structural Approach, which emphasises the use of sentence structures and substitution tables, they get BETTER results. It is time, effort and resources that are suitably used.
After the introduction of the “Communicative Approach” in Malaysia in 1970, all hell broke loose on the English language learning and teaching fronts. There are other external factors too contributing to Malaysia’s decline in English proficiency. In order to help its citizens “communicate” well in English, the learning of grammar, syntax and sentence structures was thrown out the door by the Malaysian educational authorities. Do Malaysians talk about English proficiency these days? No. All one hears is the decline of English.
This hotch-potch of events in the English learning and teaching fronts is also attributable to the “communicative syllabus” and the native speakers of the language who have made it a point to destroy it further with their various antics. Nowadays, even a back-packer armed with a 100- or 120-hour of English learning can become an English teacher in Asia. Eventually, the result is CHAOS IN EXPLORATION at the expense of the foreign learner who is really serious in mastering English. I haven’t seen anything tangible and good delivered by some of these native speakers of the language for the past decades in Asia!