The Language Proficiency Crisis: A Matter of Teaching-Learning Perspectives

Posted: August 11, 2011 in Academics, Communication, culture, Education, ICT, teaching and learning

Spelling errors, problems in choice of words, ineffective styles, wrong use of punctuations, poor coordination of ideas, subject-agreement problems, wrong use of verb tenses… the list of evident problematic language use is a taxonomy of both human inadequacy in the use of langauge and the issues of language curriculum perspectives. There are three dominant concepts in English language instruction that are applied in the teaching of English as Second Language, English as Foreign Language or English to Speakers of Other Languages: prescriptive, restrictive and generative paradigms.

It has been a dominant perspective to teach English with emphasis on the grammatical aspect of the language. This traditional approach has had a rich history in the Western educational paradigm. That students were instructed grammar in order to master the language. The rigid rules of language, its syntax, semantics, diction, and other aspects were like transferred to students through remote memorization and practice into writing. Here, students should be able to demonstrate mastery of the rules evident in their use of the language in speech and writing, and measured through their recall of the rules. The prescriptive paradigm of language teaching and learning emphasizes on the consistency of adherence to the rules in the use of language. Thus, the prescriptive paradigm addresses the need for learning the rules of language and applying them in various communication situations.

The other paradigm emphasises a communicative approach to language teaching and learning. This implies that language is a tool for communication, and communication seeks understanding. When there is understanding between communicating agents, language does not matter much anymore. Because language is generative, changes take place in various contexts. Hence, with a generative paradigm on language teaching, learning is contextualized by exposing students into communicative actions, whole language approaches so students will learn, value and use of language more effectively to achieve understanding.

Both the generative and prescriptive paradigms on language teaching can work interdependently. While it is true that language is generative, it is not static or fixed, in the time continuum and within spatial bounds, language use will be vary. But, even communication theories suggest that there are rules in the discourse processes and there are principles in it. One tension point is using a specific ground or criteria for comparison in use of language. There are englishes and not just English in the world.

Between British and Americans who are native speakers of the language are great differences. Compare these native white speakers to other English-speaking countries in Canada and Australia, differences are still noticeable. Moreso, with those of the African English speaking countries. World Englishes vary and change, and so generative. Thus, there is no one drop rule or prescription of language teaching. Critically, keeping an eye to evaluate one country’s use of English to either of British or that of the American’s is hegemonic.

When students could identify the parts of speech, identify the errors, identify the pattern of the sentence, identify the kinds of sentences and identify whatever should be memorized about language, that is teaching which is paralleled to students’ learning of the language. Paper and pencil tests answerable through multiple choices and fill in the blanks should measure language learning. This perspective can be construed as a restrictive paradigm. It results from the idolatrous tendency of language scholars to mimic language that is not native to other speakers of the language. Instead, of understanding a geopolotical system’s use of English and improve it from there, the generative value of language is degenerated to be a form of deficiency.

Such identification of inequity stereotypes non-native English speakers, and so those who find the mimicking convention way too difficult would just give up on increasing their level of proficiency. While others who show just a little mastery, though still imperfect tend to push the less fluent or struggling learner to the side, and so the latter ignores the value of learning the lingua franca, because they feel more confident to be understand when they don’t use the language at all.

Language is generative, there are historical and anthropological evidences to that. Shakespearan or Victorian English are obsolete in the context of modern day conversation, except for extracting meaning from classical literary texts. There are languages that have been extinguished from the tounges of the people. There are new words being coined and used, and they don’t even follow the orthodoxies of language convention. Should we then stick to the rules of language style from centuries past? How does such intention restrict the process of generating understanding on the generative development of human language?

Prescriptive approach to language teaching, still applies, but such conventions are now being questioned. Whose conventions are these anyway? Whose people are using this language convention? Whose culture and time are they representing? The distance of space and time where those conventions were collected as corpus of language use may not be so proximal after all to the present generation of learners. The gorge to be bridged will really be too wide and greatly impossible to help learners acquire a “perfectly modelled” proficiency as prescribed.

While language is generative, the epistemology of language must also be generative. Prescriptions of language usage need reexamination. But, such effort of examination must be grounded and adapted in contemporary context. The world now with its many englishes dwells in communication network, and the basic rule of this networked world is “understanding”. With this frame of thinking, who is not understanding? Is it the one learned of prescribed conventions or the one learned through the experiences of the generative language?

To illustrate this, one student who is very skillful in the use of computers could submit an original written work that is almost flawless of errors. But, the same student when writing with his hand, without the computer could express the same thoughts as he understood them and what was understood by the reader, enormously gross of spelling errors, punctuation errors and sentence structure errors. While tools are there, they must be used to where they can work best for a learner. The prescribed language conventions are also tools, but they also need upgrading and retuning.

In the illustration, the student’s problem is caused by several factors. The student has dyslexia. The student has spent most of his development years reading texts through the computer screen. The paper and the pen are strange and fragile tools for his fingers so agile clicking on the keyboard. Typing for this student is more of a breeze while his penmanship is hardly legible in its ‘crookedness’. The same student was taught to maximize technology with the many other assignments he had before, yet he is placed in foreignly inconvenient situation of working on paper and pencils without the tool he knows best.

The tool that the student knows has all the function keys to check his spelling errors, to look up the meaning of a word, to find a synonym or antonym for a word, to tell him of the sentence errors and options to correct them. Most of these are what teachers learned from the conventions of prescriptive language approaches have never encountered in their lives. Yet, the same teachers love to read the prints. The students create the prints and they can do that exceedingly well with the tools they grew up with. But, teachers will insist, they have to know and practice language withouth technology.

Again, the conventions of language is but just human technology. The time is here, where the reality of a paperless world is in the picture. But, many particularly those in the field of teaching are afraid to withdraw from. The directions for 21st century education must hold true in teaching the students new skills sets. They grew up with the technology, they know how to use it, and they are eager to discover more of it because it works productively for them. However, the tools that are available are restrictively used in language teaching. Language use is different from language in use, teaching language that used to be may not necessarily adapt to the language in use today.

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