Whither our English language proficiency


  • Education
  • Sunday, 19 Jan 2020

I REMEMBER how my colleagues in the English language department used to joke about the level of English proficiency among the students they taught. We were used to the different versions spoken in our classrooms, the confusion caused or the lexical borrowing. Hilarious stories often emerged of teachers trying to get their students to speak better English.

More than once I have heard teachers comment that after a few years of going through this, they ended up making similar slips themselves.

“My husband commented the other day that I don’t speak English as well as I used to when I first started teaching, ” moaned one teacher. “It’s happened at last. Instead of me influencing my students to speak better English, I find myself making the same language mistakes they do.”

Ït’s true, said another teacher. “The other day I was horrified when I found myself beginning a sentence with ‘Does you.’ Do you think there will come a day when we will begin to stop striving for higher English proficiency and begin to be satisfied with error filled variations?”

Speaking without mistakes

‘Will we’ was the question then, but looking all around me I feel the question should be ‘Have we?’ Have we already reached the state where error free English is no longer considered important in the places where they should be?

Have we reached the point where it no longer matters that students who declare English or the teaching of English as majors, hand in final versions of research reports, present dissertations and make presentations which are chockful of errors in grammar, tenses, syntax, and other language rules.

It is never a good thing to ‘over-correct’ a student’s initial attempts at writing or speaking as this can cause him to lose confidence and hesitate in making future attempts at communicating in the language.

It is our job as teachers to correct, it is true, but this must be done gently, with discretion and not in a manner that will damage our students’ ‘language-egos.’ But in other situations where there are high expectations, language accuracy is crucial and standards need to be upheld. Material submitted for publication or prepared for presentation needs to be checked and edited for accuracy.

We have often been amused by social media sharing of posters, notices or announcements with funny language mistakes.

While we have a good laugh at these often hilarious postings, it is quite another thing altogether when we see these mistakes in signage, notices, or official announcements displayed by management teams in institutions of learning where it is so crucial to showcase examples of accuracy in language.

And yet when we take it a little further, isn’t this attitude of complacency, this settling for something lower than what should be, found in so many other parts of our education? If you talk to people who were in the school or higher education system decades ago, they will talk about how challenging it was to score an ‘A’ in their major examinations. Not because they were less smart than the present generation, but because standards were higher.

Benchmarks that had been set reflected true quality. We have gone through changes in our assessment styles in schools recently and in future, grading systems may even change accordingly.

But where there are benchmarks and standards of expectation in different parts of the education system, these need to be monitored to ensure quality is sustained. Although the situation of every student in an educational institution graduating with straight As in every subject or with a Grade Point Average of 4.0 seems too fantastic or rather ludicrous to imagine, this can actually happen when standards stoop so low that they hit the ground. Fraud is not acceptableWhat is more terrible perhaps is when it happens so slowly and so insidiously that we don’t realise it till the final impact hits us. And even then we may not realise that we have churned out graduates with degrees or postgraduate degrees who fall way below the standards of where they should be. Perhaps another question we need to ask ourselves as educators is whether we ourselves are where we need to be.

Just about a month ago, an ex- colleague told me that she had been approached by a parent of a student pursuing his postgraduate degree, whether she could do his thesis assignment for him for a fee.

“Ï was so upset, ” said my friend. “Fortunately, before I could send her a scathing reply she texted to tell me that it was okay. The parent had found someone else, with a PhD, who was willing to write the whole paper for him for payment.”

While this was not something new and many similar stories have emerged, it was still depressing.

What was more depressing was the fact that both the parents who had requested it and the person who had agreed to write the assignment were educators.

So the lingering question is whether our standards have somehow slipped and our perceptions of integrity become skewed.

Have we reached a point where the Ás we award our students are actually Çs in disguise? Will we begin to think that it’s okay for our students to outsource their assignments to others for a fee as long as they submit it on time? Will we remain loyal to our own personal standards of excellence without compromising despite whatever may be going on around us? Perhaps it is time to make a stand for standards and stop them from slipping any further.

Dr G Mallika Vasugi who currently teaches in a local university, provides insights on the teaching profession. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Star.

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