THE FATE OF MALAYSIA SEALED

Incessant bickerings and unending dialogues on the standard of education in Malaysia are leading nowhere. Parents who are concerned about their children’s future are facing an uphill task to make their grievances known to the policy makers in charge of education. All their pleas and proposals are falling on deaf ears.

Where does that leave us and Malaysia? Some people can’t see it coming. They are so entrenched in their comfort zones that they refuse to accept reality. The reality is that Malaysia is gradually but surely losing its competitive edge with other countries in the economic sphere. What propels a nation? It is its human resources. Period. In order for a nation to compete globally, its human resources need to be trained via a sound and wholesome education. An education system that equips its young population to become thinkers who can solve any problems relating to any sphere with confidence.

It is this type of education system which is sorely lacking in Malaysia today. Educational standards are compromised for the sake of political expediency. Politics takes precedence over education. The rot has been there for decades. It is not something new that just appeared out of the blue recently. This rot will continue in the coming decades as long as the powers that be maintain a stranglehold over the educational policies of Malaysia.

Malaysians, who are serious about their children’s education (via the English language), need to realise that they are fighting a losing war. A losing war on the psychological front. Three different races with their mental make-ups and idiosyncrasies are not easily swayed to switch to an education system which entrusts their young to take on the world confidently. This group of people will fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo – an education system delivered in their mother tongues. It is this group that is perpetuating the rot in the Malaysian education system through politicians who practice race based politics.

How does one change the status quo? Isn’t it obvious that those who are clamouring for an English medium education in Malaysia are literally draining their energy out. It is such a big hoo-ha just to teach Science and Maths in English. What about having English medium schools? Can we have English medium schools in the coming decade? Not decades. Do you honestly think that is possible in 10 years? Don’t even entertain that idea.

Where does that leave Malaysia? In the doldrums. Malaysians will only realise when the concrete slab falls on their heads. A concrete slab in the form of economic chaos or economic disaster. At present, the world is undergoing lingering economic pressures with little or no end in sight. But one thing is certain. Some countries are trying their level best to raise their education systems to empower their population in every aspect. Is Malaysia serious enough to do the same?

THE ‘HOW TO’ IN LEARNING ENGLISH.

Most people know what to do but do they know how to go about it? This statement is simple but has far reaching consequences in our lives and in the lives of those around us. The world market has been saturated with various types of English programmes/training. Do they really have the desired effect on the people who attend these programmes? Education/training means different things to different peoples. Does the training in question equip the individual to proceed on his/her own after the training proper? When the individuals have the confidence to apply what they have learned in the training to their every day situations, the training can be deemed a success. Also, the method adopted in the training makes a lot of difference in the acquisition of the English language. The Structural Approach that I employ in my English training does achieve the desired target of the participant. The participant has a control over the language to convey his thoughts and feelings to others effortlessly and confidently.

METHODS OF LANGUAGE TEACHING

As an English trainer/teacher in Malaysia, I am constantly asked as to what is the best method to learn English effectively. This harmless question poses a myriad of challenges as the trainer/teacher struggles to explain in layman’s terms to the prospective student/learner as to how best he/she can learn English.

Instead of wasting valuable time explaining as to the method/methods employed in my training , I shall proceed to demonstrate by having the students sit for an English competency test. After completing the test, I will go through each question with the student and explain to him where his weaknesses really are.

Two objectives are achieved in this manner. Firstly, the student will understand better the method that I propose to use by explaining to him how the grammar of the English language works. Secondly, the student will find that he can have a good control over the language as the parts of speech (in their simple forms) are explained to him. This will lead to a renewed confidence in the student to learn English.

Of course, the trainer/teacher must possess the requisite skills (English language proficiency and teaching methods most appropriate) to awaken the interest and desire in the student to learn English. I shall now attempt to explain two methods (and their merits) that I employ successfully in my English language training for adults who require a basic knowledge of the language. These two methods are blended in my training to achieve the desired goals – fluency and accuracy in English as the foundation for future study.

THE FIRST METHOD: TRADITIONAL GRAMMAR LEARNING

I will choose the topic of What are nouns? for beginners in the English language. The student will have with him a set of notes detailing noun study as follows:

NOUNS

A noun is the name of a person, place, animal or thing.

PERSON  : Boy, girl, teacher, pupil, Ali, John.

PLACE     : School, building, supermarket, Kuala Lumpur, India.

ANIMAL  : Dog, cat, cow, ape, buffalo.

THING     : Pencil, ruler, computer, book, radio.

NOTE: The student is then asked to give his examples of nouns to further strengthen his knowledge of nouns. To reinforce what the student has learned, he is given a set of exercises on nouns.

Underline the nouns in these sentences.

1.                  My uncle lives here.

2.                  The postman is coming.

3.                  Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia.

4.                  The boys are running in the field.

5.                  The dog bit the man.

6.                  Mary has a pen.

7.                  The building caught fire.

8.                  This mango is sweet.

Make sentences by putting nouns in the spaces.

1.                  Show me a ______.

2.                  Where is my ______?

3.                  I live in a ______.

4.                  The _____ is teaching ______.

5.                  Point to the ______ on the ______.

6.                  The ______ are jumping over the ______.

Thus far, I have used the inductive method of teaching by detailing particular examples of nouns. To recap what I have taught them, I use the deductive method of teaching whereby one goes from a general rule to a particular example, e.g.,

All naming words are called Nouns.

Deduction in teaching should follow Induction. Hence, I have used induction and deduction in this lesson to facilitate a better understanding of the topic, What are nouns? By the use of induction and deduction in my lessons on English grammar learning, the student is taught to think clearly and logically. This method is effective in awakening interest and instilling confidence in my training students to learn English grammar. Most of all, it prevents the students from getting bored and sleeping in my training sessions.

The student is now asked to compose sentences orally containing nouns.

Oral Exercise.

1.                  Compose three sentences containing the name of a person.

2.                  Compose three sentences containing the name of an animal.

3.                  Compose three sentences containing the name of a place.

4.                  Compose three sentences containing the name of a thing.

5.                  Compose a sentence in your everyday speech containing nouns.

The oral exercise is incorporated as a practical exercise in spoken English.

THE SECOND METHOD: SUBSTITUTION TABLES

In order to enhance the spoken English ability of my students, I use substitution tables. Since we speak and write in sentence patterns, it is only appropriate to introduce these patterns into my English training via substitution tables. The student is able to gain a facility of using English by practising these tables habitually. While practising these tables, the sentence patterns are subconsciously adopted by the student who in turn will demonstrate by speaking correct English in everyday situations. They may not be transformed into Winston Churchills overnight but the foundation necessary for the attainment of good English speech will be laid. A typical substitution table will look like this:

1 2 3 4
I

You

We

The boys

They

have three

ten

some

a few

a lot of

 

eggs.

pens.

ice-creams.

nails.

pins.

cows.

pair of shoes.

 

John

He

Mary

She

has

The above table is used to teach the use of has/have (column 2) and plurals ending in s (column 4). After much practice, students are then required to make new sentences after the manner described above.

FG French had this to say on substitution tables, “The device is based quite simply on the principle that ability to read and write a language, and to comprehend it when heard or read, is not a matter of grammatical knowledge nor even, primarily, of a very large vocabulary, but of habit: the habit of using oneself, automatically, correct constructions. Habit comes from practice and repetition, and only from these. There is no alternative. This device gives students a confident mastery of English constructions, free of error, without involved explanations.”

The above two methods best sum up how I conduct an English training successfully.

LANGUAGE IS COMMUNICATION

Before one proceeds to discuss that language is communication, one needs to differentiate as to what constitutes language and communication.

What is communication? Communication involves the transfer of an idea, a thought or feelings to others and receiving them from others. In the communication process, two parties are involved – the sender and the receiver. During communication, both the sender and the receiver are using their five senses to perceive everything either by direct observation or by messages that they receive from others. An explanation of sensation and perception will be helpful at this stage.

There is a very close connection between the body and the mind. The body has five senses – it can SEE, HEAR, TOUCH, TASTE and SMELL. These are the gateways into the mind through the body. Everything we experience comes to us originally through one or more of these five senses. We have either seen it, heard it, felt it, tasted it or smelt it.

Experience comes to us by two or more of the senses at once, e.g., if we look at a moving car we both see it and hear it, or if we have to take some nasty medicine we see it, smell it and taste it. Things that we experience through two or more of the senses stick in the mind much more clearly than things experienced through one sense only.

When a person uses one of the senses to get to know something, a message is passed from the body to the mind. Any message coming in from the body is called a SENSATION.

When that sensation is experienced and the message is in the mind, the mind tries to make sense out of it. The action of the mind in giving meaning to a sensation is called PERCEPTION.

Now we move to a consideration of what constitutes language. All languages are alike in one important way. They all share the same set of characteristics. They all use sounds, they all use symbols, they all have structure, and they all convey meaning.

The English language for example, has a structure unique in its own right. The most commonly used structure is that of SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT (S-V-O). The two examples of S-V-O below will show the difference in meaning much clearly.

a)                The man rode the horse.

b)               The horse rode the man.

Sentence a) makes complete sense. Sentence b) does not make any sense at all even though it is structurally a correct sentence of the S-V-O type. Hence, in English a change in the position of words often changes the meaning of a sentence. Position, or word order, in English is of basic importance to understanding the functions of words and the meanings of sentences.

That the English language is made up of structures was pointed out by the Dane, Otto Jespersen. He has written several books on the English language. There are 20 or more commonly used structures in the English language. It is not enough for a language to have structures. These structures must convey a logical meaning. As stated earlier, sentence b) does not convey a logical meaning despite being structurally sound.

The ingredients of the English language are of three kinds:-

a)                  Word order.

b)                  Structural words.

c)                  A few inflexions.

In English, the order of the words is very important. Notice the difference between Column A and Column B.

COLUMN A COLUMN B
1. Jim Saw Harry. Harry saw Jim.
2. Fish eat. Eat fish!
3. a foot long a long foot.

After word order, the next important thing in English is structural words. These are pronouns (I, me, he, her), prepositions (in, on, under, at, from), the auxiliary verbs (be, have, do, shall, will, may), adjectives (a, the, this, that, all, each) and adverbs (ago, again, also, even, ever, no, not).

The third principle in English is the use of a small number of inflexions. In grammar, inflexion is a variation in the form of a word to mark a variation in its use. For example:-

a)      verbs (I go, You go, He goes, She goes, It goes)

b)      nouns (one boy, two boys, a boy’s book)

c)      adjectives and adverbs (quick, quicker, quickest).

As word order in English is fixed, the models for the different kinds of English sentences are fixed also. Thus, the S-V-O type is a fixed sentence pattern.

The English language is made up of many sentence patterns. The question arises, what is the purpose of a sentence in a language? Its purpose is to communicate. The sentence is the basic unit of communication. Words, phrases and clauses – the structural elements of communication – derive their meaning/gist from sentence context.

Therefore, the transfer of an idea, a thought or feelings to others and vice versa takes the form of sentences in a language. When this transfer takes place, its called communication. I am of the opinion and belief that language is communication.

STRUCTURAL APPROACH VS COMMUNICATIVE APPROACH

How different is the structural approach from the communicative approach? Let’s take the example of two children raised in two different environments. One child whose mother tongue is English is raised in an English speaking environment. The other child whose mother tongue is not English is raised in a non-English speaking environment. The child whose mother tongue is English enrols in school already equipped with established speech habits which include the main English sentence patterns, the use of tenses of the verb (although to a limited extent), the use of the articles, word order (imitating the adults) and a host of other structural features of the language. On the other hand, the other child whose mother tongue is not English is confronted with insuperable difficulties to learn English in an environment that does not afford the practice of spoken English.

As such, the foreign student has first to learn and establish as habits, the very material that children whose mother tongue is English already know on their first day at school. Therefore, a totally different view of the language is required for the foreign student. The materials and methods required for the foreign student differs from the native speaker of the language. Hence, it is justified at this stage to use the structural approach for the foreign student. The foreign student is exposed to a variety of sentence patterns (positive, negative, interrogative) involving the most frequently used verbs in the English language – the 24 special verbs. After hearing and practising these verbs and their use in sentences in their daily lives, the foreign student instils in himself/herself the habit of speaking and writing correctly. It is also important to consciously teach word order to those learning English as a foreign language.

For example, take the case of my son. At the age of six, I began to teach him the pronunciation of the 24 special verbs and structural words or ‘function’ words individually. What are structural words? They are the little words which link up the bigger words. For example:

The exports of China are increasing every year.

Sheep eat the grass which grows on the hills.

The consumption of petrol by an engine increases with speed.

The words in italics are structural words linking the content words (referring to things and actions). The content words are linked by the structural words, the words which show how they are linked: the words of relationship. The structural words are important to the speaker of English.

At eight years of age, he could read books in English very clearly. He was able to comprehend more than 80% of the reading material. Certain words that presented difficulties were overcome by the use of the Oxford dictionary. Comprehension and vocabulary exercises were used to facilitate his command of the language. It is at this stage that I introduced grammar learning as an aid to composition. Now he is able to divide a sentence into Subject and Predicate and identify easily the parts of speech in a sentence. He’s not yet nine years old but he is able to compose paragraphs of about five to six sentences on any given topic. My wife and I speak only English at home. This affords him to practise his spoken English widely.

The ‘structure’ of the language does not mean the ‘grammar’ of the language. A teacher of English should be clear as to the structure of English. We never realise that we are using structural English in our daily lives. If there is no structure, we will present our materials in an unorganised and unintelligent way. Knowledge of different sentence patterns allows us to comprehend and apply the various structures habitually in our spoken and written English. This will lessen the tendency to make mistakes. My experience in applying the structural method towards students from differing levels has proved to be effective and results based.

Malaysia introduced the communicative syllabus in 1970. Back then, the study of grammar was considered not ‘fashionable’ and out of date. Students were not taught how to build correct sentences in English. Too much emphasis was placed on spoken English. Role-play and how to respond to given situations took centre stage.

I noticed very clearly the defects of the communicative approach in Malaysian students. Their knowledge of English was flimsy and superficial. Most of the time was spent in de-learning what had been taught to them before. Unable to write clearly and speak confidently, they sought help desperately to improve themselves in a short period of time. Anyone involved in language acquisition knows the time, effort and energy that is spent to master a language. Attitude is an important quality in acquiring knowledge or skill. This quality is clearly lacking in Malaysian students now.

Reliance on the communicative approach in Malaysia has presented numerous problems to the government (the so-called English language experts in Malaysia will never admit it). Their students display an inferiority complex to present academic papers at the tertiary level. There are glaring mistakes in grammar and vocabulary in their papers. To indulge in a serious conversation pertaining to current world affairs seems to be a monumental task for them. Due to this lack of communicative skills, the government has reintroduced the study of grammar in their schools and universities. Grammar study seems to be a vogue. But grammar study in its entirety is just a mechanical exercise. Grammar should be an aid to composition.

The study of sentence patterns is crucial in the structural approach. The sentence patterns are organised around the verb (which is the most important part of speech). The student is taught how to divide a simple sentence into Subject and Predicate.

John reads.

Dogs bark.

I have slept.

Students are later tested by a series of exercises to supply Subjects and Predicates to incomplete sentence patterns.

Stars ______.

Policemen ______.

Assess ______.

______ is grazing.

______ flows.

______ is speaking.

The next sentence pattern to be introduced is Subject + Verb + Object. Prior to this , the students will already know that nouns and pronouns can be used as subjects and objects.

The boy kicked the ball.

He killed a snake.

As usual, students are given exercises to practise this sentence pattern.

______ like honey.

______ eat grass.

______ have finished their lessons.

Masons build ______.

Parents love ______.

Authors write ______.

Shut ______.

There are more than 20 different sentence patterns (which are commonly used) to be mastered in order to speak and write English correctly and effectively. They will be spread out over a period of time to allow ample practice in daily situations. At this stage, it will do well to remind the students the importance of word order and how it conveys meaning. For example:

Jack hit Jim.

does not mean

Jim hit Jack.

Even though the structure is the same in both sentences (S+V+O), the meaning conveyed is different.

The Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) Approach has its benefits but it is not the sole method to learn the English language. It is not my intention to deride the CLT approach. Since 1970, Malaysia has used the CLT approach without any beneficial success for 40 years. The Malaysian government has spent a lot of money training their English teacher population in CLT. All this has come to nought as the student population can’t express themselves confidently in spoken and written English. For this reason, employers in Malaysia are very sceptical to hire a person who is not well versed in spoken and written English. More so now in the globalised era where English is the lingua franca in trade, commerce and business opportunities. This in turn has led to a drop in foreign investments into Malaysia.

As Brown (an authority on CLT) remarked: “No one these days would admit to a disbelief in principles of CLT; they would be marked as a heretic.” I may be branded as a heretic by CLT practitioners. Hence, CLT (in my opinion) is not the all popular approach to learn English.