Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Are You A Good Language Learner? (Wadah Siswa/2/2012)

This was my second article that was published in Wadah Siswa, Issue No.2 recently. Happy reading!

English is such an important language to learn that millions of people want to master it. In China for example, the drive to learn English is high because English is important in the business world. Millions study English to improve their status. Those who could communicate in English found themselves facing a much brighter future in China. English is essential for employment opportunities and for higher education. The situation is no different in Malaysia.

In our own country, English is officially the second language after Bahasa Malaysia. It is a compulsory subject to learn in schools from Primary 1 to Form 5 for secondary education but it is unfortunate that many do not have a respectable command of the language even after thirteen years of learning the language. i.e from primary 1 to Form 5. The sad situation is reflected in the Minister of Education’s comments on the state of English recently.

Are teachers incompetent, or school books unsuitable? The Education Ministry will look at these factors to determine why students continue to have a poor grasp of the English language.
Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also education minister, said the ministry would review the curriculum with regard to the teaching of English as well as identify the reasons behind students’ poor command of the language.Muhyiddin said even after learning the language for 13 years at primary, secondary and matriculation levels, some students still could not master English…
                                                                                                                            (NST Online 7 August 2011)

Among others, he is concerned with a number of issues related to English teaching such as English teachers’ competency and the suitability of the curriculum. Hence, efforts are in place to revamp the curriculum to adopt a more fun approach in teaching the subject.As a student, there are valid reasons why you need to master English. For a start, the following information gives us a good idea as to where English stands in comparison with other languages of the world:

On a worldwide basis, the languages and the number of native speakers (people speaking their own language, in millions) are as follows: Mandarin 1.52 billion, English 375 million, Hindi/Urdu 316 million, Spanish 304 million, Arabic 202 million, Portuguese 190 million. Russia, with 143 million people, is conspicuous by its omission from the list….While Mandarin is used by the largest number of people; English is the most widely used language in the world. The following are other data relating to the use of English in different situations: (1) 380 million speak English as a second language; (2) one billion speak English as a foreign language; (3) there are an estimated 1.7 billion users of the language: English dominates the Internet, the print media, business, aviation, conferences, other international events, etc.; (4) approximately one billion are learning English worldwide; (5) over the Internet, about 80% of home pages and 60% of e-mail are in English; (6) English is the medium of higher education in many countries, e.g. India, the Netherlands, Oman, South Africa, Sweden and Turkey; (6) 85% of the world’s knowledge is in English; and (7) 98% of scientific papers are written in English.

                                                                                                                   (Sunday Star, April 24, page F24)

Hence, it is obvious why having a good command of the language is crucial. The figures speak for themselves. How then can you help yourselves be proficient users of English? I believe that if you want to learn English well, you cannot wait for your teacher. You have to take charge of your learning. Here are some guidelines on how you can learn English in fun and effective ways.

1.   Become a person who likes English

Your attitude towards the language influences your actions. Stop saying you do not like English. Do not shun the language. Instead you should be proud that you are learning a language that is spoken by 380 million people as their second language. Imagine what a good level of English can do for you. You have to imagine being able to speak to native speakers with ease as if English is you first language. Imagine writing emails to people from all over the world, travelling to distant countries and being able to converse in the language. Imagine finding your way at the airport easily because you can understand the signage and imagine sitting on a plane and speaking to a British passenger next too you confidently.  Only a good command of English can afford you all these. It is time to gain an impressive knowledge of English.

2.   Spend time learning the language every day

Most students want to improve their English but they do not want to spend time learning it on their own. They generally lack the motivation to do things on their own. Even revision for the exams is done at the eleventh hour. What you should do is to take small steps every day that will culminate into something big and effective on a regular basis. Learning English requires ACTION. Here are some actions you can start with:

  • Read a book in English or a newspaper in English for at least thirty minutes a day.
  • Read the dictionary. Yes! The dictionary is a library of words. Study ten words a day and its part of speech (whether it is a noun, verb, adjective etc.). Write a sentence on each of the word and keep it in you vocabulary notebook.
  •  Listen to the news in English daily. Pick a station that you like and listen to how the words are pronounced by the broadcaster. You will learn that to be understood, you need to speak correctly.
  • Write email messages in English to a friend, a pen pal who is a native speaker or your teacher. Check the language with an online thesaurus and dictionary before you send the email
  • Use the thesaurus to find equivalents words and build your vocabulary.
  •  Aim to speak twenty words (minimum) in school today and increase the number every day.
  • Use English with friends at the canteen and on the field.
  • Watch a movie in English. Movies provide you with the opportunity to improve your pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. You can listen to native speakers using the language like in real life.

3.   Spend some money on learning English

Your teachers always tell you to invest in a good dictionary but you probably do not know what kind of dictionary you should buy. A good dictionary has to be an English-English dictionary. Makes sure it has phonetic transcriptions (for pronunciation) for every word). You should also look out for example sentences for every word so you know how to use the word in a sentence. Now that you have spent on a good dictionary, make sure you maximize its use.

4.   Find a friend who is learning English

It is good to have a friend who is interested to improve his English and who is of the same level as you. Find someone who is in the same class or neighbourhood. You will have someone to talk to in English and increase your motivation. Learning English will be easier because you can discuss problems in learning English with your friend and he or she will drive you to study English more because you will want to be better than your friend. J

5.   Read fun things.

Read something that you like. If you can’t stop reading, that shows you have chosen a good text. If you choose to read something that you are not interested in, it will not sustain your interest to continue reading. It does not have to be intellectual and do not feel guilty about reading comics, newspapers, magazines, blogs etc. The most important thing to do is to read what you like and develop the habit of reading on a daily basis. Allocate at least thirty minutes a day reading in English. Once you have nurtured this habit, you will find that reading comes quite naturally. On top of that, you should read “everyday” English. Read natural and contemporary English which is current. Some books have older words and phrases which are not used widely today unless you are in the literary circle. However, if you want to read Lord of the Rings for example, go ahead and read it. There is no harm in reading something that interests you.

All the tips above show you how you can improve your English and not be left behind. Let us look at some characteristics of a good language learner and ask yourselves if you have such characteristics. Based on research, a good language learner displays certain characteristics:

1.  Good language learners find a style of learning that suits them.
They are self-aware and they know themselves. They can adapt easily in any learning situation. They are positive that they can they can always learn something, whatever the situation. They also know how they prefer to learn and choose learning situations that are suited to their way of learning.

2.  Good language learners are actively involved in the language learning process.
      They practise, practise and practise! They take responsibility for their own learning. They do not         
      depend on the regular language classes alone but they always look for and create opportunities to use 
      the language. They do not mind appearing foolish if necessary.

3.   Good language learners try to figure out how the language works.
They pay attention to form and look for patterns. They develop good techniques for improving their pronunciation, learning grammar and vocabulary. They treat mistakes as opportunities to learn more about the language.

4.   Good language learners know that language is used to communicate.
They pay attention to meaning. They have good techniques to practise listening, speaking, reading, and writing. They do not worry too much about making mistakes. They speak and try to become fluent. They look for opportunities to speak with native speakers.

5.   Good language learners are like good detectives.
They always look for clues and make guesses. They ask people to correct them if they are wrong. They monitor themselves by keeping a record of what they have learned.

 6.  Good language learners learn to think in the language.
They think in English when they are writing an essay for example or when speaking to others. They try to use think in the second language and not allow too much dependency on their mother-tongue.

7.   Good language learners realize that language learning is not easy.
They do not give up easily. They try to overcome their feelings of frustration and their lack of confidence. They are able to come to terms with the demands of language learning.

                       (Wenden, A. ‘Helping language learners think about learning’ in Currents of change  
                        In English Language Teaching ed. by Rossner and Bolitho OUP 1910 p 174)

Do you possess the above characteristics? Think about them and start developing those characteristics. The importance in learning English cannot be emphasized enough.  In order to contribute to nation-building, the country needs citizens who have a respectable level of English. We need knowledge workers and skilled workers who are confident to use the language in whichever field of work that they choose. The benefits of mastering a second language are manifold. It works to your advantage if you are able to speak the language well.

Don’t forget that you already know some English. That is already a big success! Now it’s time for more successes. All it takes is ACTION. Don’t put it off. As the saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Take Action!

The Thinking Teacher

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