I came across something really funny quite by accident.
First, some background for Non-Malaysians:
For the past couple of months there has been a huge debate going on about Malaysia’s attempt to teach its highschool students English usage. For a year or two, government highschools have been teaching science and maths in English instead of in the national language, and the debate is hot on both sides about whether this has improved English – or been a disaster for maths and science.
Unhappily, the fact remains that a great many kids emerge from even twelve or more years of schooling – having had some English lessons from first grade onwards – with a pathetic level of ability to make themselves understood in English.
I am reminded of listening to a German science student on his “gap” year here talking to a group of older Malaysian university science students. The place was a scientific expedition in Perlis State Park a few years ago.
The German was chatting easily. The Malaysians stuttered and stammered, trying to make themselves understood. Most of them couldn’t even ask the questions they needed the answers to, let alone speak well enough to express an opinion, although they did try. They tried valiantly. They talked among themselves, trying to work out how to ask things.
Afterwards, I asked the German how he had learned English so well.
‘At school,’ he said, surprised by my question.
‘Do you speak it at home?’ I asked.
‘No, my parents don’t speak English.’
‘Did you ever holiday in an English speaking country?’ I asked.
‘No, never. I’ve never left German till now.’
‘Did you watch English language TV? Or go to films in English? Or read books for pleasure in English?’
He shook his head. ‘No. I just learned English in school.’
What the Malaysian authorities seemed to have missed is that teaching science and maths in English is not the way to get Malaysians speaking good English.
The answer is so simple I can’t see why they don’t see it:
1. You have good English teachers, i.e. teachers who actually speak English. You don’t do what they used to do – refuse to let people like me, a qualified English teacher and a resident, teach English in your schools because, horrors of horrors, I was a foreigner. Nor do you get teachers who can’t speak English to teach it. When my kids were in Grade One, they already spoke better English than the teacher!
2. You teach the kids to SPEAK English. You don’t get them to answer multiple choice questions on English grammar and vocab. You don’t teach them to pass written exams. You teach them to COMMUNICATE. You throw away the written books and look at pictures and posters; you play games and sing songs and tell jokes and tell stories and have fun. Once you have done that for a year, the rest follows naturally.
Give me a free hand with a grade one class of kids at the beginning of the year and by the end of the year, I guarantee, they will all be chattering in English and loving it.
Ok, so much for my rant on the subject. Now I come to the hilarious bit.
I was reading a blog (led there by Boing Boing) talking about a published book and a person (Liz Smith) praising the book in the written blurb on the back cover. That’s when I came across this:
What – what – what language is that even in? My opinion is Liz Smith is either a couple of Malaysian kids who write print columns through the magic of Babelfish, or Liz Smith suffers from mental retardation, because no one fucking talks that way if they are of average intelligence.
Oops. Malaysia has apparently become the epitome of bad English usage…