BACK TO BASICS: Too many cooks have been spoiling the language teaching broth over the years
IT is comforting to know that Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has instructed English grammar to be re-emphasised in schools. Too many cooks have been spoiling the language teaching broth over the years. English teaching has been treated like boutique hotels; it sounds cool, looks trendy, but has very little to offer.
I must confess, I suffered terribly learning both English and Bahasa Melayu (the term used back then). My teachers were horrible. They terrorised the class. We went through language drills not unlike the foot soldiers in the army. We were made to stand on chairs and tables and endured humiliation for failing to differentiate a transitive verb from an intransitive one. We learned the hard way. But we can never forget the principles in sentence construction, the role of verbs, adjectives and clauses.
My Bahasa Melayu teacher was the legendary Cikgu Mokhtar bin Talib or Matlob, a strict grammarian who couldn't tolerate idiotic mistakes (his words) in language.
My headmaster at the Peserian Primary English School was Ismail Omar better known as Master Ismail, a disciplinarian and an English teacher extraordinaire. And there was a Yorkshireman whose fierce look and even fiercer attitude towards English made us shudder in class. "No one shall speak a word of any other language other than English in class," he decreed.
I was mute for three months when I joined the school with hardly three words of English.
How, I wonder, can anyone learn a language without understanding its grammar? Yet, according to the Minister of Education, "grammar" as we understand it, has not been taught in school for many years.
Perhaps there are new techniques and pedagogical applications that have rewritten the way languages are taught in schools. Or perhaps, there are new ways of language learning -- a modern way, Gangnam Style, devoid of grammar and basic understanding of composition and condensation.
I still keep my New Method Malayan Readers by Michael West and H.R. Cheeseman which was first published in 1947, a standard English text in the 1960s.
Lesson One is about the story of Tiger the kitten and two Malayan boys, Ah Chong and Hamid. There was English Comprehension for Malayan Schools by Clifford H. Fisher, another must-read English text, published in 1958.
There were 22 passages consisting of texts and exercises to make us understand the meaning of words and basic grammar.
The Oxford English Course, published in 1946, too, consisted of revisions on text, verb, adverb and adjective exercises, composition, sentence drills and letter writing. We were given tables to construct sentences correctly.
More importantly, we were taught nursery rhymes to get the feel of the language. For a boy who grew up in a Javanese village, those nursery rhymes were godsend. I learned them and taught my friends.
Imagine the chorus of Baa, baa, black sheep, Goosey, goosey, gander, The Mulberry Bush, Hickory, dickory, dock, The grand old Duke of York, Humpty Dumpty, Jack be nimble, Little Jack Horner and London Bridge in Kampung Sungai Balang, 26km from the nearest town.
I was the only boy who went to the English school and my friends found it amusing learning those strange rhymes from me.
In school, I learned many church songs, too, and we merrily sang them without having to worry that we would be converted to Christianity. We believed nursery rhymes, songs and dramas were tools to learn English.
How things have changed.
What happened now? Have we neglected the first principle in language learning -- to make it fun and exciting.
I was clueless who Shakespeare was but I loved the story of Macbeth, King Lear and Julius Caesar. I learned a lot from the stories in Sejarah Melayu from my Bahasa Melayu teachers -- the army of Raja Suran, the exploits of Semerluki, the strength of Badang, the loyalty of Hang Tuah and the ruthlessness of Sultan Mahmud.
We fell in love with the stories and we loved the language in which the stories were told.
Language learning should begin by making students excited and interested. Language is dynamic. It is alive and kicking. Great stories are told in beautifully crafted words. Wordsmiths are the geniuses of civilisation. They make us love the language. We admire their works for that.
To achieve that, they have to write well. Even if we can't be like them at least we can use language to communicate effectively or at least write simple sentences to express our thoughts and views.
It all begins with grammar.
Johan Jaaffar | email@example.com | Twitter: @Johan_Jaaffar New Straits Times Columnist 06 October 2012