Understanding the Concerns of Teaching and Learning English in the Context of Asia

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  • This article was downloaded by: [McMaster University]On: 16 October 2014, At: 08:19Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Asian EnglishesPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/reng20

    Understanding the Concerns ofTeaching and Learning English in theContext of AsiaFoo Chee Janaa English Language Education Consultant (Former Head,Language Teaching Institute, SEAMEO Regional Language Centre),25 Lily Avenue (Off Sixth Avenue) Singapore 277771, E-mail:Published online: 11 Mar 2014.

    To cite this article: Foo Chee Jan (2010) Understanding the Concerns of Teaching and LearningEnglish in the Context of Asia, Asian Englishes, 13:1, 72-77, DOI: 10.1080/13488678.2010.10801273

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13488678.2010.10801273

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    Asian Englishes, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2010

    72

    Understanding the Concerns of Teaching and Learning English

    in the Context of Asia

    FOO Chee Jan

    Speaking of Asian Englishes, on reflection, I consider myself fortunate to have been able to spend thirteen enviable years in an environment where that brand of English was very much alive and tangible. With the exception of a few, almost all of the students of the Language Teaching Institute (LTI) of the SEAMEO Regional Language Centre were from East Asia and Southeast Asia. The insistence on using only English on the premises and in their dormitories made it necessary for participants to make tremendous efforts to be intelligible when interacting among themselves. The language ecology that resulted was just fascinating!

    Students at LTI at the time were technical students, academic students, professionals, diplomats, senior government officials, army officers and specialists. Extra-curricular activities such as excursions, singing parties, tea sessions and discussions were specially organized to facilitate their spontaneity in communication. Inevitably, during these functions the inherent inhibitions that usually held them back were discarded. The motivation to socialize and the urge to understand and be understood compelled them to make utterances that were hitherto unheard by themselves but were at the time comprehensible to their listeners. Never mind the pedantic demands of grammatical accuracy!

    Cambodians, Chinese, Filipinos, Indonesians, Japanese, Laotians, Myanmar, Thais and Vietnamese were all using English to express themselves. With staff from Canada, Britain, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Singapore among them Asian English(es) flourished! What resulted was what one would recognize and acknowledge as the process of the internationalization of English, Asian English(es) being a vital ingredient.

    LTI was not the only institution that provided such a significant service for the teaching and learning of English. In fact, there should be more to cater to such needs. That LTI has done it in such a unique way is credit to the staff that devoted time and spared no efforts to ensure that targets were met.

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    Essay Understanding the Concerns of Teaching and Learning English in the Context of Asia

    Understandably, the teaching and learning of English in Asia continues to be beset by difficulties. Although they are not insurmountable, the difficulties confronted could be in many ways minimized if scholars and educators could take a concerted look into what needs to be done to serve what immediate wants there are.

    Despite the administrative nature of the main functions of my work, I had never failed to notice, from the limited number of contact hours I had in teaching the various adult professionals at my institute, the concerns pertaining to the learning and teaching of English among those involved.

    These concerns are many and do often overlap. Some learners have wondered why English is such a difficult language to acquire, while others, more fortunate and better endowed with favourable conditions, have breezed through the process of English acquisition and become proficient users. There was sufficient evidence that among groups of learners, indeed among countries keen on English, a creditable and admirable number of learners have excelled in the use of the language.

    Except for a few countries in Asia, especially in Southeast Asia, English is a foreign language. For those who have had a colonial past and, since independence, have adopted English as a medium of instruction and a working language, teaching and learning the language has been less of a burden. This is especially so when the national policy makes it obligatory for its inclusion in education and the social system. Subtle encouragement in most instances and overt recognition has made it possible for par excellence achievements.

    At the national level, when it is important to make a decision to give a bias to the learning of English, the proponents are always confronted with the problems of justification and appeal to the population. The extent of the reach is often determined and limited by the resources and, the paramount consideration, finance. When the end needs to be justified by the means utilized, implementation is accordingly hampered.

    If the hurdle of justification is overcome, the next stage is the number of teachers available to deliver the language. Numbers of teachers may be available but qualifications and competence together can be a serious setback to implementation. The next question is the number of those competent to teach and the number to be trained. Training needs time in addition to the important requisite of finance. Such training involves the number to be selected from their normal curricular commitments.

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    Asian Englishes, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2010

    Of course, there is the necessity to provide enrichment to those who are deemed capable of teaching the language. Those inadequate and mediocre in the language cannot be allowed to continue to teach without in-service training with the latest pedagogy and a progressive upgrading of their language proficiency.

    Training needs trainers. Where these personnel are supposed to be sourced from needs serious consideration. The simple solution is, of course, to source native speakers from everywhere, especially the English native-speaking countries.

    This practice often makes the assumption that there is a limitless supply of nativespeakers and every one of them is a competent English language trainer. The unusual preference for nativespeakers has somewhat drained the supplying countries of this resource and what is left to be available is at the level of mediocrity. In the long run, engaging such teachers is going to be costly, maybe phenomenal for countries with limited financial resources, and may delay necessary attitudinal changes towards NS varieties.

    Implicit in teacher-training would have to be providing teaching materials and facilities that would also involve technology relevant to and available at the location of training.

    It is important to meet the need to supplement the numbers of trained teachers to cope with the ever-increasing numbers of those who need to learn. Apart from the in-service training mentioned, pre-service training needs to be planned. Whether graduates or non-graduates with post school qualifications, the ready numbers ensure a continuous supply of teachers. Interest, competence and qualifications have to be looked into and these pose some concerns.

    The next level will be the learners, those who are captured in a school environment and who are supposed to go through a specified number of years of school attendance. Whether all have to learn English skills is decided by national language policy. It does not nesessarily have to be compulsory for all to learn English skills. Only those who choose to study English would be given the opportunity to do so. Would this option pose another concern relative to the countrys current position or its position eventually?

    What is used to convey language skills is another area of concern. Materials and pedagogic instruments range from the simple pen-and-paper,

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    Essay Understanding the Concerns of Teaching and Learning English in the Context of Asia

    through textbooks, to e-learning assisted by information technology and the internet. In Asia, this whole range is applicable across the countries. An uninformed choice or an overly ambitious one can bring in its train senseless and continuous waste of effort and money. A computer is a novelty and is hailed as the best learning tool ever invented, but it remains a white elephant as long as there is no reliable supply of electricity.

    Having overcome this level, the next to be contended with is which of, or what combination of, the four skills of language is to be taught first and in what sequence. This is determined by the function of the language desired by the society. Experts say that in order of acquisition, it should be oral/aural, reading and then writing. Sometimes this order of acquisition is not faithfully adhered to. For some reason, before the oral aspect is sufficiently reinforced, learners are made to do writing, whether it is graphic production of letters or words, or simply reproduction of sentences. Ignoring this paced order may result in having inadequate users of the language in the country.

    The number of such users, accumulated over the years, may eventually affect the economic growth of that country, if that country depends on English for development and advancement. It is therefore important to seriously consider the pace and order of language acquisition. In the long run this will determine the level of proficiency of the language in the country concerned.

    The acquisition of oral/aural skills, especially the aural, may be facilitated by the numerous CALL programmes that are available on the market. Accuracy and fluency are in-built and even preferences for native-speaking models are pandered to. Then the concern will be what models to use for learning. Corrupted imitation of native-speaker models may be resented and ultimately deter learning efforts. Planned and correct instruction for intensive imitation and repetition may result in creditable near-native competence. The teacher taking the role of the oral input during interactive sessions will then have to match the level of competence of the utterances produced by the courseware. Any discrepancy is bound to be unwelcome.

    Reading materials in short supply will not help to enhance the reading skill. In some countries the reading skill is lamentably lacking. In circumstances where learners do not have to use the reading skill extensively, an emphasis on spending long hours on improving the reading skill may not be necessary. However, where it is important to possess it as

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    Asian Englishes, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2010

    a tool for the acquisition of knowledge and for the interpretation of written communication the reading skill is imperative. Text sighting and abundant opportunities for the development of micro-skills need to be looked into as well. The concern then is the question of how much time and how frequent the engagement of instruction should be.

    The writing skill, or generally, the ability to use the tools that aid graphic representation to express oneself, becomes important. The pencil and paper, the typewriter, the email, the mobile phone for short messages and downloading and comprehending materials from the Internet are technologies that require immediate attention.

    Even if all concerns mentioned so far are addressed, the paramount concern of countries wishing to accept English for use and to introduce it for wider communication is the extent to which it is internationally intelligible. Only overall acceptance and use will make the English taught in a particular country recognized as an international language of communication.

    Moving on from here is the inevitable need for mutual intelligibility among the users of English in Asia. English being accepted as an international language for communication, there is more reason for countries in Asia, where there is already a diversity of languages used, to pull together to overcome obstacles that might impede communication. Efforts required might only help to minimize the linguistic features that interfere with clear communication. With the diversity of languages used in these countries complicated further by differences in phonology, lexis, grammar and syntax, it would be nothing less than an enormous task to facilitate the process.

    However, if Unity in Diversity is what we are aiming for (the objective of a recent Asia TEFL conference held in Beijing), efforts already made, as evidenced in the organization of this conference, must necessarily be further reinforced and intensified.

    There are capable scholars and academics in our midst who are non-native speakers of English who have achieved highly educated levels of proficiency. These might only account for a negligible percentage of the aspirants but it is sufficient to demonstrate that high levels of proficiency are within reach and rewards for attempts are realistic. Those who are there must not be allowed to go astray to follow their own pursuits in fields of scholarship which do not have direct relevance to the immediate solution

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    Essay Understanding the Concerns of Teaching and Learning English in the Context of Asia

    of lifting the many who lag behind and are in dire need of the language for international communication. Lamentably, good teachers with exemplary English language proficiency have left for more lucrative undertakings in the business and commercial world!

    Indeed there are concerns pertaining to the teaching and learning of English in Asia. These can be adequately addressed by efforts made in relation to the whole gamut from the highest level of language policy and planning to the lowest level of what to teach to be learnt effectively for productive use in the classroom. Understanding these concerns brings all a step closer to achieving the threshold level for international communication

    Englishes in Asia merit recognition as members in the family of the world Englishes as, regardless of their often peculiar but negligible divergence and deviancy from Standard English, these different Asian Englishes are being used for international communication.

    At the Global English Teachers Associations Annual International Conference held in November 2009 in Gwanju, Korea, a panel comprising only Asian featured speakers used English in their deliberations on English Language Teaching issues in Asia. That event alone redounds to the admirable efforts made in the direction of Asian Englishes. Together with fellow panelists from Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines, I felt a sense of pride.

    My stint of thirteen years as Head of Language Teaching Institute, SEAMEO Regional Language Centre, gave me the enviable opportunity to witness the dynamics of Asian English(es) and how it flourished and effectively enhanced communication. It would be an exaggeration to say that we consciously set out to teach Asian English. It just evolutionised, burgeoned and made its presence felt!

    FOO Chee JanEnglish Language Education Consultant(Former Head, Language Teaching Institute,SEAMEO Regional Language Centre)25 Lily Avenue (Off Sixth Avenue)Singapore 277771

    E-mail: cheejan@gmail.com

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