Listen, speak, before you read and write

Last Updated : 05 December 2012, 18:42 IST

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English should be learnt like children learn their mother tongues, if you want them to be fluent in the language.  Srijaya N Char offers tips on learning English the right way.

When I first began teaching Spoken English to students who already knew written English, I had no clue what I was doing. I was unaware of the differences between written and oral skills. I had learnt it by experience and it lasted for 30 years. I have been an educator for the past 30 years teaching English in our country and realise that the way we are going about it is not very satisfactory.

I have come to this conclusion after my experience with a few students in their 20s, who completed their MBA with a First Class, but have had difficulty speaking in proper English. When I opened their MBA text books, I was overwhelmed at the high flown language in which it was compiled. It surprised me that while they could pass the examination, without any difficulty, how is it that they were diffident in speaking the language fluently? This set me thinking.

Essentially, there are two languages children need to learn other than their mother tongue.

How do they learn their mother tongue? It comes in the following order.
n Listening – Surely everyone knows that this comes first.

*Speaking – Listening is followed by speaking.
* Reading – Reading comes much, much, later after the child masters the ‘look and say’ method of identifying letters and words and begins to read.

* Writing (This comes last) – It starts only after the child is able to hold a pencil.
It is unfortunate, that in our country, we seem to place a lot of importance on writing even before the child is thorough with her listening, speaking and reading skills.

Further, English becomes a major language for children who attend English schools. In most of the local schools English is not taught in the right order. The order falls in the following way.

*Writing — children start writing ABCD without knowing their link to the vowels.
* Reading — How does a child read a given set of material if she has learnt only the alphabets first without the phonetics of the consonants+vowels?

* Listening — Of course all children have to compulsorily listen to the teachers whether they understand her or not.

*Speaking — It is rather sad that this comes last.

A child learns different languages phonetically and not grammatically. How children become fluent in their mother tongue is because no one places emphasis on grammar.

There is no need for it either. There is no point in bombarding children with grammar before they start speaking and reading. The regional language or her mother tongue is different from the national language which is Hindi. In the upper class urban areas, children are spoken to in English, besides other languages, from childhood and so they become more confident in that language.

What happens in a school is a different story altogether. Teachers are anxious to see that each and every child reads and writes all the alphabets correctly.

Of course some private pre-schools do teach English in the phonetic way. For example, they say: A says (Kannada) aa, B says (Kannada) ba, C says (Kannada) ka,  D says (Kannada) da, etc.  (I have indicated just Kannada. All Indian languages can thus be equated for the ABCD.)    

This is actually the right way of teaching English in our country, as in the Indian languages, we have more than five vowels.  We have 12 or more vowels that are taught before we start learning the consonants. Each consonant is clubbed with a vowel to give it a phonetic sound that can be used as they exist and one need not learn to spell a word stringing each alphabet.

The major disadvantage of learning English is of having to learn the vowels and the consonants and having to put them together to spell a word. It also has the peculiarity of having a whole lot of complicated spelling structures that have to be imbibed through exposure and practice. In this melee of learning the alphabets, vowels, consonants and grammar of the language, the speaking goes haywire, and unless everyone around you speaks English from childhood, it becomes difficult to get a grip of how to speak the language.

This is the reason we have a huge population that has learnt English in school, but has little confidence in speaking the language.

English in Third World countries

The English taught, spoken, and written in our country is often not plain, simple, and straightforward. It is derived, more often than not, from the English spoken and written a century ago, in some instances. We certainly need to emphasise grammatical correctness in learning English, but it is equally important to cultivate in our learners, a sensitivity and skill to use natural, simple, and straightforward English.

Teaching methods

When reading, writing, translating, and the conscious learning of grammatical rules becomes the primary goal in teaching English then the love for the language is lost.

We must keep in mind that we teach English for use and not to develop literary mastery of the language. Today, English teachers have given up teaching serious rule-based grammar.

It is enough if they are taught ‘functional’ grammar that can be used easily. A noun need not be ‘the name of a person, place or thing.’  It can be just a naming word.  A verb need not show the ‘action of the noun.’ It can just be an ‘action word’. An adjective need not say ‘It describes a noun.’ It can just be a ‘describing word’.

Since children naturally learn to speak before they read, oral speaking should precede literacy. As already cited it should be in the following order:

* Speaking
* Writing

Writing must come last of all. Like the child in his home, the student has to be immersed in language and allowed to formulate his own generalisations . . . it should consist of a series of monologues by the teacher like,‘Your name?’, ‘Father’s name?’ ‘Mother’s name? ‘Pet?’

It is unnecessary to force the child to say, ‘My name is……..’, ‘My father’s name is…..’ etc.

This should be interspersed with exchanges of questions and answers. A great deal of pantomime should accompany the talk. With the aid of gesticulation, by attentive auscultation, and by dint of repetition, the learner comes to associate certain acts and objects with certain combinations of sound, and finally reaches the point of reproducing these English words or phrases. 

The phonetic method emphasises oral expression as the basis of instruction, emphasising on pronunciation, avoiding grammatical rule giving, and seeking to impart a practical mastery of language forms for use within our country.

The teacher should read a passage aloud explaining unfamiliar words as students follow along. After discussing questions on the passage, students may paraphrase the story aloud. Written answers to questions should be the last to come. Graded reading should come later.”

It is necessary for the teacher to create a natural learning environment within the classroom. Instead of explicit grammar instruction, the major emphasis should be on communication.

Classes should be carried out totally in the language that is being learnt with absolutely no reliance on the first language or on any form of translation. The expectation is that through question and answer sessions, the language will gradually be acquired.

Teaching of receptive skills like listening and reading, in place of skills like speaking and writing, should be encouraged as the first step. Contrastive analysis of the native language of the learner with the target language must take priority. Teachers must have a good knowledge of the phonetics of the language they teach.

The main goal is to develop native-like speaking ability. Translation and reference to the first language should not exist.

It is not enough if children produce grammatically correct sentences orally and on paper. A communicatively competent person must also know how to produce an appropriate, natural, and socially acceptable utterance in all contexts of communication.

‘Hey, dude, pass your lunch!’ – may be grammatically correct but socially not so.
‘May I share your lunch, ….?  (name) – is more correct in the social context.
Some kind of sensitivity in the use of language should be maintained in relationships.
The teacher can first concentrate on teaching how to obey simple commands in the language that is being learned.

Students later become more actively involved, verbally and creatively.
It is believed that children have the inherent capacity to learn a second language without jeopardising their native language expertise. Instruction of all subjects should be in the second language, including physical education and extracurricular activities.

Published 05 December 2012, 14:02 IST

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