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Focus on the English learners instead of teachers

In October, there was a survey by Pemandu (Performance Management and Delivery Unit)on ‘the importance of increasing English proficiency’. And 90 percent of the 190,000 respondents of this survey say that students in Malaysia should be given a choice to take more subjects in English.

“Malaysia has lost its competitiveness due to our standards in English going down,” AirAsia founder Tony Fernandez lamented on Twitter in the month of October.

On Nov 2, 2015, the words of Nor Azian Abd Manan, the principal of SK Bukit Beruntung: “When we think about our country, the future of our country, the future of our students... I feel very sad to see that many of our students, when they have finished school, they can’t even speak in English” were splashed on the headline of a major English daily across Malaysia.

A few days ago, Edmund Lee reported that there were glaring grammatical errors and poor sentence structures in the essays of the winners in an English essay writing competition organised by a Kuching group recently.

Lately, it was reported that 1000 medical graduates have failed in their endeavors to become doctors due to their poor grasp on English. And on Nov 11, 2015, five shocking big words, ‘Our English needs life support’ were splashed on the headline of a major English daily.

Professor Dr Raymond Azman Ali, the chairperson of medical deans council of public universities, was quoted further in the report as saying, “How do you expect them(medical undergraduates) to comprehend medical theses and help patients if they cannot understand them in the first place?”

The news are chilling!

All these happenings have converged to conclude that Malaysia’s English is in a state of decay. Something urgent must be done to address the decline of the standard of English in the country.

But, we have been clamouring to arrest the deterioration of English in the country for many years.

The Malaysian government has implemented a bewildering array of initiatives to rectify our English problems, but all to no avail.

Every day, we keep hearing from one shocking news to another about the sorry state of our English.

What’s wrong with the teaching of English?

During the budget 2016 speech , our Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak said, “Given the importance of the English language to face current global competition, another two initiatives, namely the Dual Language Programme and Highly Immersive Programme will be implemented as an option at a cost RM38.5 million. In this respect, 300 schools have been identified as a pilot project.”

Could the above plans really solve the problems? I doubt it.

From Oct 19 to 21, there was an English teaching event, the International Conference on English Language teaching (ICELt) 2015, which was organised by the Faculty of Educational Studies, Universiti Putra Malaysia and Majlis Amanah Rakyat (Mara).

The chief aim of the conference was on English language teaching, its theme - ‘Creative Teachers, Efficient Learners’.

During the conference, the text of Rural and Regional Development Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s speech, was read out by the ministry’s deputy secretary-general Rahim Abu Bakar. The minister said in his speech, “It’s not just about getting teachers to be more proficient in the language. It is about being better and being creative teachers.”

It’s a laudable objective.

In the Malaysia Education Blueprint, there is also an initiative to make SPM English a must-pass subject, although its implementation has been delayed by the ministry recently, citing inadequate teaching resources and undesirable English standard among students as main concerns.

One crucial attribute

So far, what have been reported by the news media about the initiatives to improve English among Malaysian students have focused on teachers, teaching methods, and learning environment(to a certain degree). However, they have missed about one crucial attribute: the successful English learner!

In her seminal paper, ‘What the ‘Good Language Learner’ Can Teach Us’, published in March 1975, Joan Rubin stressed the importance of drawing from the success of accomplished language learners, “ We all know of students who learn a second language in spite of the teacher, the textbook, or the classroom situation. How do these individuals achieve their success?

She stressed in the paper, “I would like to suggest that if we knew more about what the ‘successful learners’ did, we might be able to teach these strategies to poorer learners to enhance their success record.”

The paper stated that those weaker students might become aware that stronger students always have the right answer but the weaker students always fail to discover why, always fail to discover what little “tricks” stronger students have employed to find the right answer.

The little ‘tricks’ distilled from research on ‘Good Language Learner’ are:

1. The good language learner is a willing and accurate guesser. He is able to infer the meaning of a text or a speech based on its context ( For example, the topic, setting, or attitudes of a speaker or a writer).

2. The good language learner has a strong motivation to communicate, or to learn from a communication, no matter where he is. He is determined to do anything to make himself understood.

For example, he might use body gestures to communicate if he couldn’t pronounce a word properly. He might also deploy a circumlocution, the practice of using more words to express something, by asking, “What is the object you use to click an icon on the screen of a computer?” when he is groping for the word, “mouse”.

To promote the use of English among Malaysian students, language researcher Robert L Cooper has this to say, “If we want to enable the student to use English, then we must put him in situations which demand the use of English.”

3. The good language learner is not afraid of making mistakes when learning, writing, or speaking a second language.

4. The good language learner constantly finds patterns in the language. He constantly analyzes, categorises, and synthesises the myriad forms of sentences in the language.

For example, a good English learner is aware of the various tenses appearing in a text or a speech. He understands whether a sentence signifies the past, the present, or the future. He knows how to use the correct order of adjectives in a sentence: “a big red bus” instead of “a red big bus”; “a good boy” instead of “a boy good”.

5. The good language learner seeks every opportunity available to practice the language. For instance, a good English learner might mingle with English native speakers, travel to English speaking countries, listen to English news, watch English movies, and speak English as much as possible everywhere.

Joan Rubin further summed this up in the paper that the good language learner takes and creates opportunities to practice what he has learned while the poorer learner passively does what is assigned him.

6. The good language learner always benchmarks himself against the best or native speakers. He never ceases improving and always learns from his own mistakes.

7. The good language learner always pays attention to meaning. He pays attention to the context of the speech, the interrelationship of the participants, the rules of speaking, and the mood of the speech. The good language learner constantly finds ways to make the things he wants to remember more meaningful. As the famed language researcher John B Carroll says, “The more meaningful the material to be learned, the greater the facility in learning and retention.”

If we want to arrest the decline of English among our learners in Malaysia, it is absolutely essential that our poor English learners could learn from the little ‘tricks’ of the good language learners as espoused by Joan Rubin in the paper.

So, where to begin? I strongly believe that motivation is the crux of the matter.

To this, I would like to quote Gabi Schmiegel, a native German speaker, “I went into my first language class and made a promise to myself that I would speak this language without an accent. I went on to become not only fluent in English, but also Latin, French, and have just passed intermediate Arabic. My fluency and ease with English enabled me to study abroad”.

Mastering English is inevitable. As our Prime Minister Najib said recently, “Like it or not, English is a prerequisite in today’s world, and without English, Malaysians can only be ‘jaguh kampung’ and lack the ability to penetrate the international market.”