WHENEVER the issues relating to the falling standards of English are addressed, there is a tendency to make a comparison between the present and past teachers.
While the teachers of the past are glorified and given accolades, the present teachers are often primarily castigated for students’ low language proficiency levels.
Are the current teachers to be blamed for the lack of proficiency among students? It is true some teachers should not be selected in the first place even to teach any subject in English. However, there are also a number of hardworking and dedicated teachers.
Although ESL (English as Second Language) and EFL (English as Foreign Language) are often used interchangeably, there are unique differences between the two.
Is Malaysia an ESL or EFL country?
Generally, most experts agree that the medium of instruction is para-mount in determining ESL or EFL status.
ESL countries are nations where the medium of instruction in education and government is in English, athough English may not be the native language.
On the other hand, EFL countries do not use English as a medium of instruction but English is taught in schools. Malaysia was once considered an ESL country but now leans more towards EFL.
The methods and approaches of teaching English as a second language and foreign language do differ greatly.
It is important to recognise the characteristics and the dichotomy between ESL and EFL before making a comparison between past and present teachers.
In an EFL situation, the language is used in an artificial context. The students’ usage of the language is mainly within the confines of classrooms.
Students are almost exclusively dependent on teachers in learning.
The need to use English outside school is not necessary.
The main goal is to meet academic requirements.
On the other hand, ESL students are more dynamic. Students communicate in English not only in classrooms but also in real life situations – conversation, reading, playing and even in arguments.
Therefore the challenges faced by EFL and ESL teachers are also different.
Compared to ESL teachers, the biggest challenge faced by EFL teachers is in getting students to use the language in a natural context.
In language learning, the actual learning takes place outside the formal setting.
It is like learning how to ride a horse. An instructor can show you all the techniques, but if you don’t want to get on a horse and ride, you learn nothing!
Simply put, if students do not read for leisure and do not use the language outside the classroom, there is very little a teacher can do to improve students’ proficiency.
In this aspect, even teachers in the past have acknowledged teaching limitations. To promote good reading habits, one of my teachers said: “I can give you my best but it is only 40%, you must make effort for the 60%.”
Several studies have shown that students who read extensively also make improvements in other language skills.
Unfortunately, students nowadays tend to read only textbooks.
Should teachers be blamed for students’ poor reading habits?
Teachers can only persuade or motivate students to read.
These efforts are best described by the old maxim: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
Students read more when reading materials were available only in print.
The reading habit
Now with electronic and information technology, students have the opportunity to read from almost anywhere.
Sadly, such advancements have not spurred good reading habits among students!
One of the reasons for poor reading habits among students is because these days, they have very little time for leisure.
Comparing schools now and then, students today, especially at secondary school level spend longer hours at school.
One can only wonder how they cope physically and mentally in the classroom.
The system is so taxing that students do not have time for recreational activities in the evening.
School days have become grimmer and the element of fun is conspicuously missing.
Extra classes have now become the panacea to cure all academic ailments.
Even school holidays are not spared. I remember back in the early 70s, my sister had to put herself in the waiting list to borrow Gone with the Wind to be read over the school holidays.
You must have not only an interest to read the classic, but also the physical might to carry the 1,000-odd page novel. I jokingly told her that she should have hired a truck to bring it home!
It must be noted that in those days, students did not read to win prizes. It was for sheer pleasure.
Classic novels by well-known authors were the most borrowed books. During the school holidays, the chances of finding these novels in someone’s possession were far greater than locating them at the school library. There aren’t many graduates who read such books these days.
We are definitely indebted to past teachers for their contributions in raising the standard of English, but it is unfair to compare them with present teachers. Based on the different situations and conditions teachers experience in their respective times, it is difficult to compare teachers across eras.
How do we compare our Malaysian coach, Datuk K. Rajagopal with Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson?
Can Ferguson replicate the success he has achieved with Manchester United if he were to manage the Malaysian team? Then again, can Rajagopal produce a world class team if he has top-ranked players?
In addressing the problem, policymakers should not make populist decisions merely to appease the masses.
It is important to focus not only on teachers in finding solutions.
To improve educational policies, teachers, students and parents should be given an avenue to give open and honest feedback and suggestions, not sugar-coat the truth out of fear of offending policymakers.
After all, any change in policy affects them the most.
One pertinent question that demands to be answered is why are our students reluctant to use the English language beyond classrooms unlike past students?