[SMC Magazine ‘নোঙর’] English for non-native English speakers: Mahin Hossain
Take a science subject like Biology for instance; to score well a student would have to go through hours of rote memorization, drilling a certain set of arbitrary facts into memory. After all the biology paper is largely a test of memory retention and therefore students who have put in effort will get their hours’ worth.
In stark comparison, a literature paper does not have a sheet of facts to drill into memory. Many students will attest to the fact that literature/language examination papers are no gauges of the work and effort that the candidate has put in. Unlike the science subjects, huge effort put into studying for a language does not directly equate to results.
Or at least this is the common, unfortunate perception among many.
It all starts from the earliest rung of the education ladder, in primary school. Some non-native English speaking students sitting for the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) often believe that it is quite possible to get an A* in every single subject except for English. Sometimes even parents help perpetuate such beliefs and are apprehensive of English language.
Such beliefs are baseless. A good percentage of students in Singapore get a bona fide A* in PSLE for the English paper each year and there is no reason why many more shouldn’t.
Many believe that linguistic mastery or artistic flair is necessary for any student to do well in a language paper. Mastery of the language is extremely helpful for examinations; but this is not a stage one can reach by being talented or blessed in any particular way.
First off, one cannot master any language unless they are truly and earnestly willing to do so and that demands a high degree of motivation. To refine one’s linguistic capability, one must be open to constructive criticism. For instance when someone is corrected of a wrong pronunciation he/ she should be thankful instead of taking any offence. Unfortunately such behavior is rarely seen among youths who would rather shrug it off with indifference. This means that the mistake is likely to be repeated in future. A single mispronounced word might not appear to be a big deal when it comes to language mastery. But it will make a difference when all such wrongly pronounced words add up to form a significant portion of the individual’s vocabulary being mispronounced in day-to-day speaking in that language. It must be noted that every language has its intricacies, in English in particular, where there are many words which have pronunciations that differ from their phonetic spelling. This is much more crucial in the context of grammar. By obstinately refusing to correct grammar, one compromises on their ability to craft sound sentences. Common grammatical errors are often a result of colloquial speaking, e.g. the so called ‘Singlish’. In 2011, the Cambridge University English Literature faculty conducted a series of studies which revealed that students who were weak in pronunciation and grammar were most likely to lack confidence in their command of the English language, especially among those who did not speak English as a first language. This goes to show that a student’s confidence in linguistic command stems from something as basic as pronunciation and grammar. This culture among many Singaporean students to trivialize and not pay due attention to the most basic elements of the English language is doing the greatest harm in the long run. However, this problem can easily be fixed by adopting the appropriate attitude towards learning from mistakes. If one has been corrected upon making a mistake, instead of brushing the correction aside or being overly defensive about the mistake, it should be taken as a learning opportunity. The aforementioned person should take it in stride, making conscious note of the correction and trying not to repeat the mistake in future. One must be consistently on the lookout for all such small but significant opportunities.
On top of that, another plus point is to read widely and critically – exposure to a great many number of books or works of literature in that language will be extremely beneficial. Unfortunately, this too is trivialized by many students and parents alike. A great many parents scorn at storybooks or unrelated works of literature thinking that only syllabus-assigned textbooks hold all the answers to a good grade. In modern education systems the learning emphasis has moved from ‘what to think’ to ‘how to think’. The more progressive systems, such as the one Singapore has been adopting lately, are a lot more process-centered. They inculcate in students critical thinking skills. Instead of forcing students to digest pages after pages of data or information, students are now required to know how all that information or data is attained and how such data or information might be reproduced. To sum it up in one line, modern education systems require a lot more creativity and analysis as opposed to traditional rote memorization. While on the subject on English examination papers, memorizing “model essays” will only get a student so far – hence the importance of being erudite and voluntarily inculcating a broad knowledge base. Furthermore, memorizing model essays would most likely not help increase one’s command of the language if one chooses to memorize blindly without giving due thought to what is being memorized.
Reading and swallowing all that literature, however, is pretty hard work and so is consistently compromising with self-esteem by allowing others to identify and correct mistakes. If nothing else, the above two will boost one’s confidence in command of the language which is absolutely essential to mastering the language. The reason why many non-native English speaking students are put off from making active efforts to increase their linguistic capabilities bit by bit is because of all the stigma and hysteria that surrounds the perceived “impossibility” of doing well in an English paper. At the end of the day, the student who masters language is the student who has the will and motivation to do so, and puts in the work and effort necessary.
[Mahin Hossain is Sec-4 (10th Grade) student of Raffles Institution, Singapore. He is a language/literature enthusiast who enjoys reading literary fiction from authors classic and contemporary. His co-curricular activity in school is debating, another activity which he immensely enjoys. He is the son of Md Shakhawet Hossain(17)]