Syahida Johan (in baju kurung) with some of the pupils
WHEN I asked some 30 children in class what was the most difficult about learning English, they looked at me and said nothing. They seemed lost.
It was early on a Saturday morning some weeks ago and it was my first day as a volunteer to teach “conversation English”. The venue was a study room in one of the mosques in Petaling Jaya. If I could sense their command of English was suspect in urban Petaling Jaya, imagine the rural areas. I am not an educationist nor a teacher, but there is something not quite right about the teaching of English in our schools.
The children have gone through at least five years of learning English. They understand basic grammar and are quite aware of the meaning of basic words. In short, they understand what is said, but find it difficult to express themselves. The problem with our kids is that they have little opportunity to practise the language. Or they believe there is no necessity for English other than to pass examinations, making it almost impossible for them to master the language.
Like any other language, to be able to converse in English, you have to practise instead of just learning grammar. We can teach them conjunctions, the difference between a noun and a verb, force them to memorise past and present tenses, and let them write down the correct spelling but if they do not converse in English, they are not actually learning it.
Speak to children in English or coax them to talk to you in English, and you realise you have difficulties. More often than not, you have to translate the words into a familiar language and explain each meaning.
I did that. I let them hear their own voices saying the words. I encouraged them to speak up regardless of how incorrect it might be. Even “broken English” suits me for starters, as long as they converse in English. I assure you it is not easy.
Most kids are embarrassed because they do not know the appropriate words to express themselves. Many would rather remain silent. It is up to me to create a comfortable and enjoyable atmosphere to encourage them to speak up.
They found word games such as Hot Seats, Hangman and Chinese Whispers fun and they took part enthusiastically. Baby steps, indeed. Tongue twister games allow them to laugh at themselves and at their peers and, later, will motivate them to get it right.
I spent a lot of time stressing pronunciation and intonation. I believe if I can get the children to say the words correctly, sentence structures will come naturally.
I made full use of popular English nursery rhymes. It doesn’t matter how old the children are, as long as they are beginners in English, nursery rhymes provide the best introduction to English words and sentence construction.
Children will learn to say rhymes aloud and get a feel of the words and sentences. Not surprisingly, they enjoyed the rhymes. They memorised them and became curious to know the meanings and the stories behind the popular ones. I was told that was how the earlier generation learned English — by using nursery rhymes and dramas.
At first, it’s just like singers who can’t speak a word of English but can sing songs in the language almost flawlessly.
I found that after a few sessions working with children using nursery rhymes, they began to enjoy them — completing the first step in making them speak English. For many of them it was an eye-opener. Many have never heard of Three Bags Full, Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, Humpty Dumpty, Hickory, Dickory, Dock or Jack and Jill. These are rhymes from an alien, faraway culture. But isn’t English a foreign language originating from thousands of kilometres away?
True, English is no more the language of the English. It has developed into a truly global language, especially with the advent of the Internet. Perhaps even native English speakers are “spoilers” of the language now. Others are better speakers and writers of the language. Native English speakers may have been taking the language for granted, just like the Malays in this country take Bahasa Malaysia for granted.
I learned something valuable: be generous with children. Do not penalise them. They hate English because it is a compulsory subject. They find English “difficult” just like Mathematics or Science. They hate anything “difficult”.
I found out also that there is no joy in learning English. I called it teaching English the straightjacket way. It bores them.
They seldom converse with their peers in English. Why should they? They are comfortable in their ethnic enclaves, and with the reversal of the policy of teaching of Science and Mathematics in English, they don’t find English “useful” anymore. English has overstayed its welcome in national schools, at least that is the perception.
In fact, trying to coax their peers to speak English with them will result in a backlash. Berlagak (showing off) is the dreaded word levelled at English speakers in schools. My experience when I was in school (also in Petaling Jaya) was that there were two classes of students — the English and non-English speakers. The “divide” is evident even in urban schools. This is the reality most schools would not want to address.
It is sad that the divide escalates into class wars and to the detriment of integration among students. Little wonder that it is difficult to address racial issues even in our multi-ethnic schools.
Learning a foreign language, English included, is always a tedious task, especially when it is done unwillingly. Children must enjoy studying the language. There must be a reason for their reluctance to master the language.
It can’t be that they are not aware of the importance of English. They are not naive. I am sure they know we simply can’t live without the language. Their future depends on their having a good command of the language.
I learnt another lesson. When I asked my pupils what was the hardest thing about learning English, I realised that they stared back at me not because they didn’t want to answer my question but because they didn’t know how to.
It’s time we teach them how.
• The writer is a final-year student of English Literature at Greenwich University near London.