Phil Roeland

Never mind fluency

Here comes the grammar teacher

I met a Thai girl the other day. I looked into her eyes. She didn’t turn away but looked straight back. Bold, defiant, seductive. We started talking. She was nice and talkative. One thing led to another. We hit it off and ended up talking about English grammar!

Sorry to lead you on, but this is not a Thai-farang love story. I suggest surfing to other websites if that’s your thing. Please don’t email me to get the web addresses. I’m sure most of you can google your way around the World Wide Web. By the way, I wonder how long it will take for the word google to turn up in mainstream dictionaries as a new word, a verb perhaps.

Now here’s what really happened. I was waiting for a bus into town the other day while this Thai girl was standing next to me. As the bus approached, she opened her purse and dropped a few coins. Being the perfect gentleman, I picked them up handed them to her. She smiled and thanked me in Thai.

I assumed this would be the end of our brief encounter, but to my surprise something remarkable happened. We made contact. We started talking. My Thai is all but perfect (read: it sucks) but to my relief, she spoke English. Her English wasn’t accurate or sophisticated, but she was quite fluent. More than that, her pronunciation was first-rate so I understood almost every word she said. I was flabbergasted. Rarely had I conversed before without having to ask my Thai counterpart to repeat things ad infinitum.

Fon was a student at a well-known university in Bangkok. She had almost finished her first year of Political Science but still had some exams coming up. After the usual chitchat about her background, she told me that she had flunked her English exam, and not just by a narrow margin. It wasn’t a close call; it was a disaster. I wondered how that was possible, as her spoken English wasn’t bad at all, on the contrary.

Being an English teacher myself, I wanted to know more about it. It turned out that she had three hours of English every week. Her teacher was a Thai lady who apparently didn’t do a lot of teaching, but instead instructed her students to read books. I couldn’t find out if the books she mentioned were textbooks or English novels. Unfortunately, dear Fon didn’t seem to grasp the difference between both and I decided not to push her too hard.

I believe it’s likely that she meant reading textbooks. When you ask university students what they do in their free time, they often reply reading books. When you ask what kind of books they like to read and in what language, they turn out to be textbooks, so what the students really mean is that they study in their free time.

She told me she didn’t know things like subject and object, adjectives and adverbs. The exam she referred to had clearly focused on grammar. It was probably one of those typical multiple choice grammar quizzes. There wasn’t an oral exam to uncover if students were actually capable of uttering some basic English sentences. Who needs conversation if you can have grammar rules?

I wasn’t really surprised. I had heard many stories before about Thai teachers of English awarding a ridiculous importance to grammar, as if it were the best thing since sliced bread. Of course it’s obvious why they do it. For many of them, it’s the only thing they’re really comfortable with and good at when they are teaching. I don’t want to offend Thai teachers, but it is no secret that numerous Thai teachers aren’t great conversationalists in English. Quite a few speak heavily accented English and aren’t particularly fluent. If the Thai government is serious about improving educational standards, they should either provide more assistance and funding for Thai teachers or hire more well-trained Western teachers.

I think it is quite absurd to reward students who are good at cramming grammar rules – and may not be fluent at all – and punish students who can speak English fairly well but aren’t very accurate. English is a language. The main purpose of a language is communication. Communication in daily life means talking to other people, not being able to explain in your mother tongue what the difference is between a transitive and intransitive verb.

When I asked Fon if failing English would have negative consequences on her further studies, like preventing her from advancing into the next year, she shrugged and said it wouldn’t be a major problem. She’d just have to take the exam again and again and again until she passed. I was relieved. In the end justice might prevail. She deserves to pass English exams. I’m sure she’s much better than most of her fellow students who scored well on the test. I wish her well.

= = =
Additional comments

How should people learn a language or how should teachers teach it? I don’t pretend to know the perfect way, but here are some ideas I’ve come across that I agree with. They are just a few theories about language acquisition but they are food for thought (note: I’ve translated boring, academic prose into understandable English).

Form and function
In language teaching, great attention should be paid to the relationship between form and function. Form means structure, grammar, while function indicates which type of language should be used in different social contexts. Function is more important than people think.
What good is it being able to form grammatically correct sentences without knowing how or when to use them? Imagine a student asking another student “How are you today, Sir?” and when seeing the school principal using the expression “How’s it hanging, dude?” Quite hilarious, isn’t it?

Language learning is an organic process, not a brick-by-brick process. Teachers shouldn’t try to build a wall of grammatical bricks and then expect the students to be able to use them correctly. Instead, they should consider themselves farmers who sow grammatical oats. Some of these will germinate and keep on growing, giving the students essential information about the English language.
Sometimes the oats will grow and flourish, while on other occasions they might not even germinate. Teachers will just have to accept that not every student’s brain is capable or willing to produce another language.

The teaching of rules is not helpful. Teaching students grammar rules first and then have them produce artificial sentences with these rules isn’t the best way to proceed. Students should be exposed to English as much as they can in order to familiarise themselves with the language. Then the teacher can have them use the target language without the need to pre-teach rules.
This is probably similar to the way as an infant learns a language. I’m no expert, but I don’t think parents teach babies the difference between present simple and continuous, nor do they expect them to utter grammatically correct sentences when they start speaking.

The learning of grammar should be inductive, rather than deductive. Students ought to discover grammar rules by themselves, be able to grasp the rule after having used lots of target language, rather than have the rules spelt out for them first and then start using them.
To do this, teachers should try to use as much of the target language and structure as possible before teaching the actual rules. Immerse the students in the target structure and have them formulate the rules themselves afterwards.

I’m sure there are many more theories, but my column ends here. If you’ve come up with a brilliant theory of your own, please keep me informed. To end the article, I have a quote I came across on the Internet. I think it hits the nail on the head.

The mediocre teacher tells.
The good teacher explains.
The superior teacher demonstrates.
The great teacher inspires.

PS: I might write an article about the use of English in the classroom, particularly how much English is used in a typical Thai classroom. To this effect I have a set up a poll that will hopefully give me some more information. Please surf to and vote. Thanks!


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