Hornbill Unleashed

November 1, 2013

Why proficiency in English?

education (1)Lokman Mustafa

Someone recently wrote that impeccable mastery of English language isn’t the ‘be-all and end-all’ in order to attain our goals in life.

What’s more important, according to the writer is the meaning embedded into the language itself. Hence, even if one speaks with broken English, as long as the idea gets through to the audience or listener, we shouldn’t worry as to whether the sentence is grammatically correct or otherwise.

Such a view will surely not go down well with the masters of English language of yore who were known to bellow grammar lessons to students and believed that the basic rules with regard to subject and predicate must first be memorised by heart by those who wish to speak the language.

The old English masters will be indignant at the indifferent attitude shown especially towards the standards of English spoken by the younger generation today.

Upon giving both views due consideration while waiting for my class to begin, I cannot say that I disagree with the writer of the recent article.

My belief stems from the fact that I have come across plenty of successful individuals whose mastery of English language is not what some language teachers would deem native-like and deserving a band 9 in the IELTS examination.

The articles “a”, “an” and “the” in their sentences might be incorrect, the preposition “in”, “on”, or “at” might be misplaced, and their pronunciations for “develop” and “development” are definitely not as suggested in Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

Nevertheless, these people are renowned in various fields which include education, politics and business.

Success for some, I honestly think, has little to do with English language proficiency, but rather is attributed to hard work, determination, confidence to articulate ideas and probably knowing the right people.

The other day, I was at a “mamak” restaurant for breakfast. The waiter spoke broken Malay but I was able to understand him.

I did not take offence that his sentences were all fragmented or that he used a lot of hand gestures. In the end, he succeeded in bringing me “teh tarik” and I went about happily with my perusal of certain news stories.

Afterwards, I attended presentations by a few graduate students in a university near where I was staying. Most of them were confident enough to speak in front of the professors to explain what they wanted to do for their dissertation. Though their English proficiency was nowhere near impeccable, it didn’t impede the meaning.

From time to time, I have edited reports produced by research institutes where the English language used by the writers is not as good as the articles published in local news portals. Yet, these reports have been submitted to “the powers that be” and new regulations have been introduced upon considering their contents.

Thus, I am puzzled by the move to bring native speakers to train our English teachers with the intention to improve their proficiency in the target language.

What level of proficiency are we aiming for and for what?

If our present batch of English teachers is to be exposed to ways to improve their teaching, then the old masters which I mentioned earlier would be a better option.

They are staunch believers of the “drill techniques” and will definitely provide invaluable advice whilst giving our English teachers a language boot camp experience.

In terms of culture, native speakers will also find it difficult to understand why we choose certain words in our speech and writing. Recently, when a native English language trainer came and conducted a writing and proposal development workshop, he seemed surprised when I explained that some phrases such as “please” and “thank you” are a norm in this part of the world.

Therefore, I agree with the writer who suggested that native-like proficiency is not of utmost importance to everyone.

I would, however, be overjoyed if the students I am teaching strive to become conversant in a few languages such as Tamil, Mandarin, Tagalog, and Siamese, in addition to English; broken or otherwise.

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