kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

English: Teachers, mind your grammar

THERE has been considerable debate on the deteriorating standard of English among our students and the lack of competency among English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers.

In this regard, I share A. Nadarajah's view ("Get teaching of English right first" -- NST, Sept 27) that the training of ESL teachers should include the teaching of grammar.

Yes, we are forever lamenting how poorly our students and young working adults (teachers included, and others in various profession) speak and write in English.

There will be no end to the debate if measures are not taken to address the matter. We will continue to have ESL teachers who will be ridiculed without mercy by their own students and who will be of no use to the majority of students who seriously need to learn English and improve their proficiency.

On the other hand, I think we must also reflect on the competency of Bahasa Malaysia among our young adult learners.

I am a retired lecturer in Japanese and I used to supervise graduates and undergraduates, and examine dissertations written in BM. I found to my dismay that many could not write clearly and coherently in BM, either.

I agree with columnist Wan A. Hulaimi that our young should appreciate the "power and beauty of words" ("Power of words will move people to action" -- NST, Sept 30).

I quote him: "Nowadays they blog and they text yet our children are not in touch with words... they cut and paste because they have not been taught the value of self-expression, how to think through the maze and how to put ideas in your own words."

Honestly, I am appalled, too, at the way young adults write on Facebook. Their messages appear in a jumbled mixture of dialects with some variations of BM and a hint or two of English.

Their lingo is rather incomprehensible to audiences outside their group as they tend to abbreviate the words and use sound-like signs.

Having sophisticated gadgets and not thinking much to make sense to communicate is a mere waste of time, even among peer groups. It's annoying to the general public.

I fear that this socio-linguistic phenomenon will spread like wildfire, destroying along its way all efforts that educators are making to train our young into becoming proper language users.

As educators, we should remind young adults to always show courtesy to their friends and audience on Facebook. They must make their message sound right and look good, even on Facebook. It does not matter whether they are using dialects, BM or English.

Most importantly, they must make sure that they write well-formed, intelligible utterances (I don't mean they have to write full sentences) without grammatical and spelling errors before they click the send button. That done, they can surely face the real world with bigger language challenges.

What is fundamental to language? Some say words, others say grammar. Both are fundamental to language. Yet, many tend to forget that most fundamental to language is its ability to make meaning through words and grammatical relations.

So, I call for a more rule-conscious language learning for teachers who need to be trained or retrained in how to teach grammar. They will need to study the grammar of any language they are assigned to teach from a meaning-based perspective.

Grammar is not just about rules, parts of speech, punctuation marks and things like tenses. What about languages that do not have tenses then?

Not surprisingly, grammar is dismissed as being about rules, correct spelling or correct punctuation, even among native speakers of English who are professional writers.

Drawing insights from a syntax and case grammar study I conducted about 25 years ago, I learnt that the base component of grammar of any natural language is the meaningful relationship involving nouns and other parts of the sentence. This is termed as "case relationship" or "case-function".

Basically, understanding case grammar enables a conscious learner to relate logically the verbs and the nouns in a sentence by the functions of linguistic devices such as inflection, affixation, prepositions and word order. This meaning-based component of grammar is understood as the "proposition".

Through this approach, the learner indirectly learns about the rules for verbs as well as for nouns, and these are words that are vital in a language.

In short, the learner first learns the sense and meaning of a verb, then he learns to relate it logically to a noun or nouns and other parts in a sentence.

There is another component of grammar, the "modality", which includes tense, aspect, mood, negation and many more which a conscious learner of BM or English is able to identify and relate to in the course of their learning.

This component is outside the propositional content and, therefore, should be dealt with separately.

Grammar lessons based on logic are learnt in whole meaningful contexts.

The same logical rules may be met over and over again over the whole course, so learners will grow familiar with the rules and this will lead to mastery.

Learning should be based on logic and not mere memorisation of facts. This applies to language learning as well.

Therefore, grammar rules should be approached with a logical and analytical reasoning. This method may not breed immediate fluency but I believe fluency will take care of itself given time and persistency once the basics are mastered.

There are other newer approaches to analysing grammar which can be used to explain grammar even beyond the sentence level. But, basically, nothing beats case grammar if you are looking for an approach that makes sense. The case grammar approach may also be combined with the traditional grammar approach.

Dr Suraiya Mohd Ali, Kuala Lumpur | New Straits Times Letters to the Editor 04 October 2012
Tags: english, language, teachers

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