Native English speaker, native speaker of English, whatever …


RECENTLY, I read a remark by a minister that for students, the right and proper way to speak the English language is to learn it from native English-speaking teachers. That statement was made in reference to the decision of the Ministry of Education to engage 375 native English-speaking teachers.

“They have to communicate and speak in English to their native English-speaking teachers. There is no other way to do it.”

This simple statement (and I would say, a rather bold one) raises a number of questions. Firstly, quite a few people are somewhat bemused by the term ‘native speaker’. Is it ‘native English speaker’ or ‘English native speaker’?

Some are so befuddled that they thought it meant an English person who can speak one of our native languages.   So, let me hit that nail on the head straight away. What is meant is, native speakers of English. In other words, people whose mother tongue is English: they speak English from birth (well, from as soon as they can speak); they think in English; they use it naturally.

These days, that does not mean they would be blond and blue-eyed. Listen to the chatter of the youths on a London bus. Don’t be surprised that the thickest London cockney (or Liverpool scouse, Birmingham brummie, etc) accent may come from the mouth of someone who is black-haired and dark-skinned. If you want to get a sample of that, check out YouTube postings of the British comedian Lenny Henry.

That brings us to the question — is a native speaker of English necessarily a good teacher of English, for that matter, a speaker of good English. I know for a fact that many English do not know their elbows from their grammar.

Furthermore, many are prone to use pause fillers like, ‘um’ and ‘ah’ between sentences. Some even go to the extent of using a whole sentence. Once travelling from London to Leeds, I got a lift from a young man. By the time I arrived in Leeds, which was a good three hours later, I had “D’you know what I mean” implanted in my brain.
Of course, what our good minister meant was ‘native speakers of English who are trained teachers of English’. Yak! That is quite a mouthful. The keywords here, I believe, should be ‘trained teachers of English’.

This is the point which the Sarawak Teachers’ Union president William Ghani Bina wanted to emphasise. He said that the employment 375 native-speaking teachers to further enhance the teaching of English, a move that he lauded, was just a short-term measure. Engaging their services would be costly and it would be much more effective to train locals, he opined.

“For long-term planning, it is vital that trainers be trained and, perhaps, be sent for an overseas stint to places such as England, New Zealand, Australia and so on, to master the language,” he suggested.

It takes more than just speaking in a particular tongue to learn a language. I may be old-fashioned but I believe we should go back to the traditional grammar classes. You know, all those parts of speech and tenses. By the way, does anyone still remember what is the meaning of a ‘gerund’?

However, to really get a grip of a language one has to read. Here, we face a big challenge. Malaysians just don’t have the habit of reading. Some years ago, the National Library did a study, and it made very depressing reading (excuse the pun). More than half of the 60,441 Malaysians surveyed read less than seven pages a day. Those 10 years and above read about two books a year. (The figure excludes   textbooks for students and books that are work-related for working adults.) Also those who read books and magazines read less than three hours a week.

Last year, I made a most amazing discovery. I met four members of a local university faculty at a seminar. When they asked me what I do, I said I write a weekly column in a newspaper.

“Have you come across some of my writings?” said I hopefully.

“Sorry, we don’t read newspapers.”

It was a humbling encounter. I know many people may have their own theories about why people don’t buy newspapers, but let’s not delve into that for the moment. The rub is,  those guys belong to the Faculty of Mass Communication and Information.

A few months ago, Datuk Seri Idris Jala apparently dismissed the need for proficiency in the English language to achieve the Vision 2020 goal of becoming a high-income nation.

“You can be a high income economy with the national language. We need to remember that Korea became a high-income nation without using English. Japan went without that too.”

Many people disagreed with the Minister without Portfolio in the Prime Minister’s Department and chief executive officer of the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu), including the AmBank Group chairman Tan Sri Datuk Azman Hashim, who said that mastery of the lingua franca of the global economy, English, was crucial in transforming Malaysia to a knowledge economy.

Azman warned that in the failure to master the English language, “We are handicapping ourselves to be innovative and competitive.”

Many writers, too, have lambasted Idris for his contrarian view. I am not sure if he was quoted out of context. For he, of all people, would have known that without proficiency in English, as a native from the highlands of Sarawak, he would not have developed into the whiz kid of the petroleum giant, Shell, from there being recruited to turnaround the ailing national airline, caught the attention of the Prime Minister, and was appointed the special Minister to effect the Malaysian Government Transformation Programme.

Idris, however, did stress that education quality mattered more than the medium of instruction. That brings us to the crux of the matter relating to this issue of the enhancement of our proficiency in English. It is about quality — quality of material, quality of teaching and quality of personnel. I have not had a look at the English syllabus for schools recently, but I do know that we have   lost a whole generation of English teachers. I have come across even university lecturers who have difficulty in stringing two sentences together correctly.

Despite the dark mutterings from some quarters regarding the encouragement of the use of English, the Ministry of Education appears to be serious in its effort to uplift the standard of English. For this it must be lauded.

The ministry also announced the scheme to re-engage about 1,000 retired English teachers on top of the 375 English-speaking teachers.

Though personally I prefer to play down the native speaking bit. After all, “it does not matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”. By the way, I remember we had a very good Indian teacher when I was in school.

The writer can be contacted at [email protected].