kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

Learning English the ‘Peserian’ way

THERE is a book I can never forget. It was written by R. Duncan of the Malayan Education Service and published by Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd in 1951. The title was Look and Read. For primary school pupils in Malaya in the 1960s, Look and Read was one of the textbooks used.

Lesson One was on “A Malay Hut”. It has a picture of a house. The first sentence was “Malay people live in this house”. The Malayan Readers series first published in 1947 by Longmans, Green and Company was used as textbooks, too.

Look and Learn Part III Introductory Reader

And, of course, English Comprehension for Malayan Schools published by Longmans in 1958. The Oxford English Course for Malaya was another compulsory text, first published by Oxford University Press in 1946.

These books were printed in London and brought in for students in Malaya. We didn’t learn too many subjects back then — English, Bahasa Melayu, Arithmetic, Nature Studies and Geography. It wasn’t easy for me when I went to an English school in 1960.

My kampung folk were more amused than anything else when my father, an illiterate rubber tapper and part-time barber, sent his son to an English school.

All my friends went to a Malay school. It was the first “sekolah orang putih” (literally white man’s school) outside the towns of Batu Pahat and Muar. It was housed temporarily at a religious school at Sungai Sarang Buaya, two kilometres from Semerah.

I knew three words of English when I joined the school. I grew up in a Javanese village. I had never heard anyone speak the language other than in cowboy films shown by Jabatan Penerangan Malaya. TV was many years away.

I learned the hard way. An English teacher told us anyone who spoke any other language would be fined five cents. I was a self-imposed mute for three months. Our English teacher terrified me.

Modern Speech Rhythm Excercises

But, he taught us that language could be fun. He was strict, but fair. It was always about composition, comprehension, grammar, revisions, knowing adjectives, verbs and sentence drills and more composition.

He introduced nursery rhymes to us. It opened my eyes to a totally new horizon. I could never imagine the notion of “Baa, baa, black sheep”, “London Bridge is falling down”, “Diddle, diddle, dumpling”, “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall”, “Mary had a little lamb” or “The Mulberry Bush”.

Those were alien to us, thousands of kilometres away from where the nursery rhymes were born. Dramas were introduced early. We acted in them, grudgingly initially, but I developed a liking for the genre for the rest of my life.

The Oxford English Course for Malaya

We were taught gospel songs to excite us and choral speaking to improve our language. We hardly knew the words, but then, remembering the words was fun.

There was no accusation of religious conspiracy against the teacher who taught us those songs. He was a Malay anyway! And there was the 1955 Macmillan and Company book, Modern Speech Rhythm Exercise by B. Lumsden Milne, to help us with the pronunciation, intonation and rhythm. We learned how these sentences are spoken correctly: “The skipper had taken his little daughter, to bear him company” or “Another class is quieter, and one is tidier, too.”

We were taught rhythm, stress, pitch, pause and such. Imagine the amusement of my Javanese friends when I taught them nursery rhymes and intonation in sentences like “My mother says I’m all the world to her, I wonder what she did before I came, for sometimes I’m a rather naughty boy, and yet my mother loves me, just the same.”

New Method Malayan Readers
Imagine those words repeated over and over again. “Here we go round the mulberry bush” was sung around a coconut tree in heavily accented Javanese.

It didn’t matter if they didn’t understand a word of what was said or sung, but the giggling that punctured a serene village in the middle of nowhere meant so much to them and more so to me.

The students were fortunate to have Master Ismail Omar as our headmaster at Peserian Primary English School. “Master” was a term commonly used to refer to anyone teaching English.

He inculcated the value of the English language to us. You won’t be less Malay or Chinese if you are good in English, he reminded us. English is your passport to success, he told us.

We didn’t really understand what he meant at the time. There have been heated debates about the deteriorating standard of English among our students today.

The teaching of English has changed dramatically since the days I was in Standard One, 55 years ago. The art and science of teaching English has evolved, certainly for the better. But despite new teaching methods,

English is perceived as even less interesting than even Science or Mathematics today. Something must be done fast to improve the command of English among our students. Perhaps my way of learning the language isn’t cool now, even primitive.

But what I learned changed me forever.
Tags: english, history, linguistik, sejarah

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