FEAR of embarrassment, lack of confidence and natural shyness hinder Malaysians from learning English.
Such students prefer to keep a low profile and not talk in class, hence losing the opportunity to develop their speech, improve their knowledge and command of the language, and overcome their psychological barriers.
Giving every student a chance to practice speaking in English is one of the greatest challenges faced by teachers. The problems with learning the language can be linked to traditional, uninspiring teaching materials, or conventional methods that do not endear teachers to their students.
The teaching of English in schools and higher-learning institutions has been based on a grammar-structured approach, which usually leads to boredom, lack of interest and limited motivation. Once learners stop enjoying their lessons, there is a tendency for them to learn less.
The demand for language skills is on the increase.
This is particularly true for upper secondary school students, such as those in Form Six. This is because they will pursue further studies or enter the workforce after completing their studies.
English will definitely be an asset, and they will project themselves better with mastery of the language. It is best that they acquire the skills early so that they are able to speak, write, listen and read better.
Sixth formers will have to sit for the MUET examination, in which they are tested on all four components. MUET has always been about Critical and Creative Thinking Skills (CCTS) and 21st Century learning.
What we need now is to motivate students; and teachers, like actors, have to help their audience enjoy each performance in a conducive atmosphere.
When students speak in English, it has a positive impact on their writing skills. The role of an English teacher is to make their classrooms interactive and student-centred.
In the classroom, pupils are taught to speak and read with the correct pronunciation through rhymes and chants, where emphasis is on phonics.
Spelling and dictation exercises are given on a regular basis to reinforce the application of phonic principles and spelling rules. Oral tests are given as part of school examinations.
The ability to speak, read and write forms the backbone of the primary syllabus, ensuring that pupils develop a sound foundation for the language when they are in secondary school.
Grammar is taught in the context of a topic or theme, so that pupils can see the relevance of using a particular structure (such as tense) or item (prepositions). Sufficient practice is given to enable a particular structure or item to be reinforced.
To ensure all pupils are given the opportunity to use English outside the classroom, co-curricular activities, such as choral speaking, public speaking, drama, singing and simple speeches are carried out.
There’s an old proverb that says: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. This is particularly so when learning a language.
When learning a language, it is listening and speaking that begins your foundation. Reading and writing are incidental.
The stronger the foundation, the easier it is to build on reading and writing, not the other way around.
When we learn a second language, we usually learn its safe and sanitised version, according to the formal standard register.
But, a language is complex with its sub-registers, metaphors, idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms. One has to read carefully if unfamiliar with the language.
This reminds me of an incident in my early days. A friend had just graduated with an engineering degree and was looking for a job.
He was shortlisted by a prestigious multinational company and passed a series of interviews.
Then came the final interview and test. He had lunch with the managers and another candidate. He thought he performed rather well at the lunch, which was a formal Western affair.
He used the cutlery correctly, tried not to slurp his soup and made sure not to order anything that required major wrestling and dissection with the knife and fork. A waiter came to take orders for coffee.
“And how would you like your coffee, sir, black or white?”
My friend was stumped. All his life, his only experience with coffee was the coffee that came out of his mother’s coffee pot.
The waiter saw the blank look on my friend’s face and tried to cue him.
“With sugar or milk, sir?”
He replied — with everyone listening intently — “Black please, with milk.”
Whether it was because of the coffee boo-boo or not, he never found out, because he didn’t get the job.
VINCENT D’ SILVA, NIE trainer and English Language lecturer.