Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Expert teaching

For all the learned theories of language acquisition we have read in the university, I still find it a mystery. Parents (and early childhood teachers), don't imagine for a moment that we are the ones who get them to understand language. Most of the time when we teach a child words, we focus on nouns - 'cat', 'dog', 'apple'. Sometimes, but rarely, we move on to adjectives - 'happy', 'hungry'. Then, in the gap between our teaching and full speech, the child somehow puts in 'is', 'on', 'to', and other functional words that have no real content. Most mysteriously of all, he develops a sense of personhood and differentiates between 'baby' (in the third person), and 'I', between 'mummy' and 'you'.

How does it happen?

The biggest social hazard of being a language teacher is that parents are always anxious to get tips and tricks from me, as if I have some secret manual that we teachers possess and guard jealously. I declare that there isn't, and everything I know, I am not afraid to reveal in class. Sadly, they are invariably disappointed by my response.

What is the parent to do? I feel that language learning is far more holistic than we dare to admit. We would like to think that if we could force a child to read more and write more, he would improve. But we forget that for every hour he spends reading and writing in Standard English, many more are spent listening and interacting. If a family's lingua franca is Singlish, which is likely to have more influence on him? Basically, if parents want their child to speak well, they have to model good language practices for him. I remember that when I was young, mummy explained to me the logical relationships implied by 'but' and 'because'. And my father taught us 三字经 and 唐诗. Nowadays he still corrects the wrong characters in my Chinese smses. In retrospect, they have probably helped me tremendously in my academic pursuits.

I understand that parents are anxious to give their children a headstart in English, our language of instruction. But I think parents who are less proficient in English are better off speaking to the child in Mandarin instead. Besides, then they can save on Chinese tuition. To my horror, someone once told me that he isn't good in either language. Then...what language does he think in? But that is a cosmic question I can't deal with today.

4 comments: said...

What a beautifully written post. I appreciated it because I too used to be a teacher of languages. I learned to speak Italian because my mother spoke to me as a child in Italian, my son learned French for the same reason. There is no exact way to teach language. It is absorbed by being with those who speak it.
Nice to read this. I wish you well

Kitsune said...

Of course, immersion is the best way to learn languages. But failing that, hard work and drills work too (I really believe that).

Eric Banana said...

Hey, thanks for commenting on my blog. Actually, I was quite surprised 'cos we were shopping for boots recently and *voila* a "masterofboots "commented on the blog. So what is the origin behind this nick?

Took a quick look at your blog :) Very well-written. Did you study English during your university days?

masterofboots said...

hi Eric,

thanks:) Yes, was english graduate. Masterofboots came from a website i saw long ago while researching for hiking trips. I love rambling long walks so the name stuck.