Wednesday, November 1, 2017

English: Being proficient in a language needs practice

STARTING next year, imported English textbooks instead of locally produced ones will be used in schools. This is part of the Education Ministry’s move to implement the new Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR).

The CEFR is a guide developed by the Council of Europe to gauge foreign language proficiency. From next year, preschoolers, Year One and Two pupils and Form One and Two students will start off with the curriculum, according to Deputy Education Minister Datuk P. Kamalanathan.

He said the ministry would “buy off-the-shelf books” to cater to schools because locally produced textbooks are not able to meet the new CEFR levels. Primary school pupils will use Super Minds from Cambridge University Press, while secondary students will read Macmillan’s Pulse 2.

According to the Macmillan website, Pulse 2 provides an integrated approach to skills so that students can develop receptive and productive skills while perfecting their communication competence. Super minds comprises a seven-level course that enhances young learners’ thinking skills, memory and language skills as described in the Cambridge website. Teachers are being trained and the books were already available in all schools.

We have, over the decades, been trying different ways and means to improve the students’ command of English. In 2003, the PPSMI was introduced, emphasising the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English from Standard One. The aim was to address the deteriorating standard of English among our students. In 2009, the strategy was reversed. This time around, Mathematics and Science were again taught in Bahasa Malaysia. We didn’t really get to measure the result because the system was stopped halfway.

At present, English is taught in schools as one of the examination subjects. In secondary schools, English is taught for only three hours per week. After class, most students will speak in their mother tongue.

In my opinion, those who spend more time speaking in English in school and after, will find the new textbooks interesting. I am sure this group can excel and eventually raise the CEFR standard. But, what about the rest?

We have to bear in mind that language is a skill. Having more subjects in English is the best way to boost one’s proficiency. We are certain that students have more time to use the English language. Unfortunately, when the policy was reversed, students only learnt English as a subject.

In my many years of teaching language, I found that the best approach is to start language classes as early as 6 years old. Parents in urban areas normally speak English to their children as young as one-year-old. That is why children in urban areas generally speak better English. Stephen Krashen’s widely known and well-accepted theory of language acquisition underlines this fact, stating that language needs to be acquired and not learned. We should, therefore, focus on encouraging “acquisition”, providing input that stimulates the subconscious mind.

According to research, the best time to start learning a second language is during early adolescence, when one is between 7 and 13 years of age. Having more subjects in the earlier years of schooling may help. However, efforts to consolidate the role of our national language, Bahasa Malaysia, should not be compromised.

When discussing about student fluency in the English language, it is imperative that we also look at what we want to achieve. If highly advanced textbooks are introduced to students with generally lower proficiency levels, the likelihood of a mismatch between the learning and teaching objectives will be greater. When this happens students are going to shut off when it comes to learning English.

We must also remember that language is a skill — the more we practise the better we become. We need to speak and practise the language, whether it’s Mandarin, Arabic, English or other languages.

If we continue to treat English as a second or third language and as examination subjects, we cannot expect things to change drastically. It is for the same reason that the academic standard of proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia occasionally slumps, even among native speakers.

We can find many examples to support the notion that practice is fundamental to language proficiency. For example, there are many straight As students who scored distinctions in Arabic at the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia level, but are not able to speak the language after they left school, because they do not “use” the language. Similarly, I know many of my students who studied in Chinese vernacular schools for six years but are now finding it difficult to maintain the high standard of the Mandarin language for lack of practice.

It is heartening to note that we have been continuously finding ways to improve the standard of English proficiency among our students. But, let us not forget that learning languages involves more than just reading textbooks.

We can have all the best books but our children will not be able to master the English language without consistently using the language.

WAN NORLIZA WAN MUSTAPHA is a former associate professor at the Language of Academy Studies, Universiti Teknologi Mara, Shah Alam

1 comment:

galaksi viral said...

Wowww... such a good info. The keyword of this article is "Language Is Skill". Practice makes perfect.