Why English is so very hard to teach and learn
If you know the feeling of rage turning into tears that do not fall, you can guess how I felt when one of my students answered “boys” upon being asked what the verb was in the sentence “The boys go to school every day.”
To say that our students’ knowledge of the English language has deteriorated is a gross understatement.
The first, and the most crucial, reason for their bad English is their negative attitude today toward the language. Students often say, “Mag-Filipino tayo, Pilipino tayo eh.” Or: “Pa-English-English pa!”
These statements give the impression that they consider it unpatriotic to be talking in English, but do they really? Aren’t these words that they have picked up from their parents and their non-English teachers? It is disappointing that students who are taught critical thinking in school mimic the words of fools.
Saying “Makabayan ako, magpi-Filipino ako” is, in many cases, just an excuse not to learn English, a way to cover up insecurities about speaking the language.
But even when they do not say anything, you can sense there is something wrong about how students regard English.
Whenever I ask someone to speak in front of the class, some of the students give one another meaningful looks, or make faces at their classmate who is speaking. Others simply do not listen.
They don’t realize that whenever they sneer by words or facial expressions—“Pa-Ingles-Ingles pa!” “Nosebleed!”—they discourage their classmates from using the language for fear of being ostracized. (I hope my students are reading this.)
English is taught as early as Kindergarten in most schools, so it is shocking for me to find some high school students who cannot even construct a sentence. What happened during their six years of elementary school education?
I think English is not taught clearly and adequately in grade school, particularly the parts of speech. If students acquire the necessary knowledge and skills in the language in their formative years (teachers, you know this), they will not have a hard time in high school.
As we know, the older a student gets, the harder it is for a student to learn a new language.
A second problem is that many Filipinos feel intimidated by someone who speaks fluent English. This should not be the case.
No language should be viewed as superior to others. We teach and learn English not because it is a better language than the others but because, for now at least, it is the global language for business, media, science and many more human activities.
We need to actively teach our students the value of English as a second language and the benefits they can derive from being able to write and speak it fluently.
I always tell my students that English is not only for intelligent people, but for everyone who is educated.
If we are fluent in the language, there will be no feeling of intimidation. English does not make one better; it makes one equal to others.
Lack of practice is another problem. Students have so little time to speak and write English.
In school, they spend an hour in English class where they are supposed to learn to be conversant in the language. But that is not often the case because English teachers have to make time for other language macro-skills.
At home, many students spend hours playing computer games and logging on to Facebook and other social networking sites. The games are hardly verbal and the language in social media is often faulty. Where is the opportunity for the young to learn correct
If there is lack of practice, there is also malpractice.
News reports tell us of errors in textbooks, especially those to be used in K-12 (Kindergarten to Grade 12). The errors can be corrected, but what is beyond our control is the students’ choice of reading materials when they are on their own.
It may surprise and worry you that the trending books are not those with superb literary value, written by William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe and other literary giants.
Inside the books that our students are reading these days are comma-spliced and run-on phrases, instances of incorrect subject-verb agreement and sentences that end not just with one but a whole set of punctuation marks (!?!?!…?!).
I find it disturbing that anyone can publish books in the Philippines without having them checked by good editors, and even sell them through reputable bookstores.
We learn to write by reading. So, let us not expect our students to write well if the books they are reading are full of errors.
What students hear also affects how they learn English. What we hear most of the time, we tend to say unconsciously. This is why you find yourself singing a song that you hear constantly although you don’t particularly like it.
Even if I say “se-re-MOW-nee” (stress on the third syllable, mow) in class, my students still put the stress on the second syllable because other teachers keep pronouncing “ceremony” that way (“se-RE-moh-ni”).
If there is one English teacher who uses the right pronunciation but there are seven or eight others who do not, there will be no transfer of learning in a one-hour English class.
The truth is, all of us using the language in school are indirectly teaching English. So let us follow this simple guide: If you cannot teach the students proper English, do not confuse them with your English.
All teachers, even those who do not teach English, have to participate in the task of changing our students’ attitude toward the language. We should give them more opportunities to use English, to correct improper usage and to be proficient in the language.
Remember, whatever we do before our students is what we teach them.
The author, whose good English helped him achieve a lot of things in college—from giving outstanding reports in class to winning essay-writing contests to graduating with flying colors—now teaches Grades 8, 9 and 10 English at St. John Academy of Bayanihan.