OF FACTS AND INFERENCES IN TEACHING AND LEARNING ENGLISH

As an English trainer, I am expected to deliver practical results by those organisations which engage me. As such, I don’t have the luxury to “experiment” with the participants as to what approach works best as doing that will naturally annihilate my ability to earn an income. In the beginning of my training career, I did use the CLT approach in my English programmes with no success as the participants were already trained in that approach in the schools, colleges and universities here. Also, as foreigners, they found “communicative” activities dull and boring as they didn’t even know how to string a sentence correctly.

My training is mostly grammar-based with a view to strengthen the learner’s ability to form correct sentence-patterns which will enable him to construct sentences confidently. Contrary to what many “experienced educators” here have about the efficacy of the Structural Approach, it did and does deliver the goods in a foreign learner’s context. A learner is led to recognise sentence-patterns and phrase-patterns via the study of grammar. In addition, the learner will understand the importance of word-order, structural words and inflexions.

How would one explain the difference among boys, boy’s and boys’ to a foreign learner of English? Isn’t it through grammar study covering singular and plural (number) as well as possession? These are things taken for granted by native speakers of English. But to a foreigner they present innumerable headaches as to their proper usage. After receiving the proper knowledge via grammar study explaining the difference among boys, boy’s and boys’, the foreign learner is able to understand and apply them better in a work or social environment.

The understanding of number and possession is further reinforced through drills using Substitution Tables. Foreigners don’t have the privilege to use them in real-life situations outside the training room. Hence, they are given ample practice to use them via the drills within the confines of the training room. They are encouraged to use the substitution tables in their own free time as further practice. The prevention of errors is also minimised as the prior study of grammar has sown in them a proper understanding of their usage. Grammar study forms the backbone of the Structural Approach for a foreign learner as it will lead him to recognise sentence-patterns in his spoken and written forms. In addition, the listening and reading skills are enhanced.

If the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach really encourages one to “use and practise” the language since it is a “social thing” as well as “activities that include expressive or affective elements are more natural vehicles for language”, why didn’t it deliver the practical results of English proficiency and usage among Malaysians for the last 46 years? Is this difficult to fathom?

In late October or early November 2013, the Malaysian Bar Council bemoaned the lack of English proficiency and usage among law graduates in Malaysia. As a result, the senior lawyers cannot delegate their work to these young lawyers. Perhaps the “skilled” CLT practitioners can explain to these senior lawyers the real cause of some young Malaysian lawyers’ incompetence in English. Cuilibet in sua arte perito est credendum.

I’ll give you another real example of two ladies, native English speakers, who were graduates from universities in their countries, trying to make their mark in Asia. This experience was related by a Malaysian employer to one of the local English newspapers here a few years ago. These native English-speaking ladies walked into the Malaysian firm for an interview on available posts as advertised. One of the chief tasks in the post involves constant communication via written English. In other words, one needs to be very proficient in written English to land this job. They were whisked into the conference room and given written tasks related to the jobs they were applying for. Both of them FLUNKED. They spent about thirty minutes and couldn’t even string simple sentences in written English, and yet they are graduates. When asked by the Malaysian interviewer as to why they couldn’t even write in English, they couldn’t say anything. They were told to leave. This Malaysian employer warned other Malaysians to test even the native English speakers in their written English to avoid any headaches later on. Test them in written English before employing them.

As native English speakers brought up in an environment where English is used in all its four skills, why didn’t the “social thing” and “activities that include expressive or affective elements are more natural vehicles for language” help those two native English-speaking ladies write English well?

Just like any other discipline of study, language must be taught and acquired through dint of effort. Acquiring a language through a “social thing” and “activities that include expressive or affective elements are more natural vehicles for language” alone aren’t enough. Learners must also be taught the power of expressing their thoughts and feelings through the written form of a language.

What English-speaking environment is there for a foreigner learning the English language in his home country to rely on? Wouldn’t it be reasonable for a foreigner and a few like-minded individuals as him to rely on substitution tables to practise the language independently or in groups? These activities can be construed as a “social thing” for the foreigner.

What one calls “parroting”, I call “practising” the language through the drills using substitution tables. Coupled with reading, comprehension, vocabulary-building and a host of other activities fortifying language use, the foreigner is well on the way of gaining a workable facility in the English language. Thus, the approach needs to be adapted to his current level of English, ability to grasp, understand and apply the language. Cultural aspects which aid or hamper his progress in language acquisition should be taken into account too.

Having a vast knowledge of Euclidean geometry will avail to nothing if it doesn’t teach a learner the practical aspects of constructing a triangle in three ways.

Having a vast knowledge of language theory and application by “experienced educators” will avail to nothing if it doesn’t deliver the practical results of English proficiency and usage among a group of learners for decades.

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