Attaining the proficiency of native English language speakers is possible if local teachers employ various tools and methods to continually upgrade themselves.
IT is very disturbing to know that around 15,000 English language teachers are not really proficient enough to teach the global language despite the many initiatives of the Education Ministry. The authorities recognise the importance of teaching English as a second language (ESL) in the country.
The training of future teachers is commendable. It is the language proficiency of the teachers which has to be improved further.
What is required is lifelong teacher development until a teacher retires. The specific areas that ESL teachers need to focus on are the four macroskills of listening, speaking, reading and writing, together with the many subskills associated with them.
These include their pronounciation skills, grammatical and lexical competence.
As non-native speakers and teachers of English, we have to step up our efforts to be of native speaker competence.
Completing a TESL (Teaching of English as a second language)/TEFL (Teaching of English as a foreign language)/TESOL ((Teaching of English to speakers of other languages) programme ought to be considered the commencement of a lifelong quest to improve ourselves to teaching a language, which for many of us is not our dominant language.
The observations here are based on my experience with numerous graduates. It outlines where the weaknesses are and steps that may be taken to rectify the situation.
Training in progress: English teachers during an upskilling programme.They need to attend courses to constantly hone their skills in teaching the language. - File photo.
The majority of ESL teachers are non-native speakers.
But if we are to excel, there has to be a change in our mindset.
If English language teaching (ELT) is our chosen vocation, we need to multiply our efforts to have the proficiency of qualified native speaker teachers.
This needs to be our benchmark.
So, we need to make a transition from being non-native speaker teachers to near-native speaker teachers.
English teachers here, and in other countries where English is a second or foreign language, need to adopt a multi-pronged approach to enhance their knowledge of the language and raise their proficiency.
The specific areas that ESL teachers need to focus on include the four macroskills together with their numerous sub skills.
The teachers need to have knowledge of applied linguistics, appropriate classroom methodology, grammatical and lexical competence as well as familiarity with international English usage and language change.
There are many books on these skills that can contribute immensely.
Prominent educators have emphasised some of the essential characteristics good ESL teachers should have. Besides equipping themselves with a TESL diploma or degree, they should have a liking for the English language.
They must upgrade themselves continually. They must also be eager to know more about the target language speakers. They have to strive to attain communicative competence in the English language .
Focus on grammar
Let us now look at a few essential components in language teaching. Grammatical accuracy is no less important for teachers.
The acquisition of grammar is neither simple nor easy. English grammar is inherently difficult.
Usage of the tenses, verbs and prepositions accurately is not without problems.
When we watch international news, read magazines or online material, we may be confused by the grammatical usage in them.
Grammar acquisition is not solely about grammar facts and rules. We need to have the linguistic skills to use grammatical structures accurately, meaningfully and in context.
Teachers need to be aware of the emphasis on certain grammatical categories and changes in grammar.
If we are not dominant speakers of English, there may be some gaps in our own knowledge of the grammar. So, we need to consult grammar books and dictionaries, especially those which have entries from authentic sources that exemplify real language use.
We ought to analyse material of various genres to fill the gaps and enhance our grammatical knowledge and proficiency.
If we are to be communicatively competent, we need to be grammatically competent too.
A command of vocabulary is also essential to a teacher’s linguistic competence.
Vocabulary is not just about the acquisition of words. The ability to communicate successfully and appropriately is important in social and occupational contexts.
It must be acknowledged that language users may still be able to communicate to some extent even with deficient grammar, but in the absence of appropriate word choice, intelligibility of meaning may be compromised.
A teacher has to know the denotation and connotation of words, their grammatical and lexical properties as well as their general and specific meanings. How they are pronounced and spelt is also part of knowing the word. The formality of a word has to be understood.
Extensive reading and listening will enable teachers to possess extensive vocabulary and knowledge of their use. There is much language change involving lexical items.
What used to be harmless or neutral in terms of their meaning, has now got to be used appropriately.
As professional educators, we need to be keenly aware of contemporary lexical change. All vibrant living languages change over time, they do not remain stagnant.
We cannot become dinosaurs in our profession. English has borrowed numerous words due to language contact.
Many have been Anglicised as well. These should not be dismissed as non-English words as they have entered the lexicon of English.
Teachers ought to be familiar with the natural usage of lexical items in various genres, both in the spoken and written medium.
Frequent reference to contemporary dictionaries which use authentic examples is essential for comprehending the behaviour of certain lexical expressions.
With regard to our pronunciation, ESL teachers must aim for global intelligibility. By this, it does not mean that ESL teachers should be able to speak like their American and British counterparts.
The English we speak must be understood by others. A strong foreign accent does not help in ELT.
The variety of English we use should not be a challenge for our audience to comprehend.
One does not have to go to a country where English is used as a primary language. Thanks to the modern mass media, we are able to listen and watch various programmes, including language enhancement ones, for a global audience.
This indirectly enables us to pronounce the language in a way which more people would be able to understand.
Teachers also need to be aware of the pronunciation variations between the two globally influential varieties – Standard American and Standard British.
These are used on a global scale, and our students, depending on the countries we teach, may be comfortable with one of the two.
Being proficient in the language is one thing, but it has to be complemented by clear and easy-to-follow pronunciation which goes beyond identification of a specific ethnicity, area or country.
It is only normal for us to have many types of accents depending on our experience and exposure. Some accents are considered more prestigious professionally such as Received Pronunciation (RP).
Though not many Britons have an RP accent, this is the accent prescribed and described for teaching purpose in many countries of the Commonwealth and Europe.
It is a status accent. Since this is the case, we ought to aim for a near-RP accent in our own teaching, if we are teaching in countries which prefer this British variety of pronunciation.
This is obviously more intelligible to our listeners and not associated with any particular region.
We need to be free from a heavy first language phonological influence for greater clarity. We also have to recognise the expanding worldwide influence of standard American English or mainstream United States (US) English.
If our teachers had received their TESL training in the US, there is no harm in using this international variety.
Our students have a lot to gain by acquiring the two most influential varieties. This will also be to their advantage if they seek to work abroad. Their job prospects become much better in a globalised environment.
Also, we teachers have to regularly reflect on teaching. Some pertinent questions that teachers need to consider are: Did the students show interest in the lesson? Was participation forthcoming? Did the students seem to understand? Were they able to respond accurately or satisfactorily to the questions posed to them? Did the teachers feel they could have done better?
Teachers can also record a full lesson on video. By doing so, we study and observe our own strengths and weaknesses.
Teachers must continue to read professional and leisure materials in print and online.
There are professional ELT communities with whom we can interact through email and social networking sites. We need to continuously practise our language skills too.
It will be good if we carry out some informal activities which can contribute to our overall proficiency. These include watching sitcoms, documentaries and international news broadcasts. Focus on the language used as it could be real or nearly authentic, not bookish or artificial.
At home, it would be appropriate to use English with family along with our native language.
English can be used in ways which are compatible with our religion, culture and beliefs.
As English language teachers, we need to have resources which we can turn to. They include websites on the Internet that give us a wealth of information on numerous aspects of the language and linguistics.
It also includes Standard American and Standard British English which are considered teaching models, the online Thesaurus and dictionaries with sample and authentic sentences.
There are enormous benefits of sharing experiences, reviewing each other’s notes and papers and organising workshops, among others.
Fresh graduates ought to sit in and observe senior teachers during lessons. Veteran teachers may not be tech-savvy.
Still, new teachers may benefit by consulting senior teachers about classroom methodology and content difficulties.
Peer feedback is valuable, but sensitivities may be involved here. If we can look at the bigger picture objectively, there is much to be gained about our classroom performance, students’ behaviour, delivery of lessons and pedagogy itself.
We may also develop professionally from the feedback provided by our students.
This is when they are asked to evaluate teachers on criteria such as their knowledge of the subject, if lessons were interesting and whether student participation was encouraged.
Most of us would have come into ELT with professional teaching qualifications. But we need to regularly update ourselves through in-service training courses. We can also attend other programmes organised by other parties including public and private universities.
Teachers should also attend academic gatherings to boost their confidence.
Let us not forget that teacher development is a worthwhile investment. It benefits the teacher directly and the learners indirectly.
Learners stand to gain from the expertise and professional development invested in their teachers.
As English language teachers, we ought to aspire to acquire overall linguistic competence. We really need to immerse ourselves in the language so that we may have native speaker language competence.
By doing so, we can set a benchmark for ourselves. Our efforts require lifelong interest and passion. We have to be good enough not only to teach here at home, but also abroad.
Teaching English has become a globally competitive enterprise. We cannot and should not lose out to our competitors.