Monday, April 30, 2007

Which Language To Emphasize And How To Teach It?

I have been hearing the phrase, teaching English as a second or secondary language, since I finished high school in the Philippines, and since I have been here in the US way back in 1980.

The only part of the methodology of teaching English as a second language that I have been exposed to and therefore familiar with has been that whereas before English had been taught primarily through the total immersion process with very neglectful regard to the native dialects of the learners, it is now being taught on top of and with deferential regard for the primary languages that migrant or foreign students are born with.

Using a poor analogy for the latter, it is much like using and learning Windows on top of DOS, which was the situation prior to Windows XP. (Though many would still contend that WInXP continues to have remnants of DOS.)

Tracing then my contemporaries’ journey in learning English, we can vouch that the old ways were “imposed” on us in earnest and with obvious noble intentions. While we had Filipino English teachers in grade school, most if not all of our English teachers in high school were young American Jesuits who spoke no other languages, both foreign and local. Additionally, since the school administrators were also American Jesuits, all English teachers starting from the primary grades had strict instructions to follow total immersion “techniques” in teaching English. (And I believe the concept or art of teaching English as a second language had not germinated then. At least not in that milieu that we were exposed to.) A quite tangible, and not easily forgettable, imposition was the draconian rule that only English could be spoken within campus. And sanctions were strictly imposed on violations, which for us was a possible unwanted trip to the office of the Dean of Discipline for a “jug” sign-up.

It should be noted that an all-girls college across town, run and operated by an all Filipino complement of nuns, also followed this total immersion process, complete with pecuniary sanctions on violations to the English-only rule. As I recall, each violation divested the violator of 10 centavos, quite a fortune during those idyllic times.

Then on the way to the forum, certain things changed. English would be taught as a second language. New books, still in English as were all the other textbooks in school, were published and given adequate promotion incorporating this new methodology, mode, or approach. I can’t really recall what brought this wind of change. It just happened. There were no pious or remorseful admissions that we, the prior recipients of the older method of teaching English, were incorrectly taught.

We in no way considered ourselves deprived, under-taught, or any such thing in our learned English. I suppose this whole thing was pretty much like the onset of the new Math (remember that?) which came about the same time. Was that then considered a period of Renaissance or Enlightenment in the education process?

Who knows? But whatever happened to new Math, anyway? Consigned to the dustbin of best-forgotten history?

Anyway, when we arrived in California in 1980 with school-age children, we unerringly got exposed to bi-lingual education in the public school system, with focus on teaching English as a second or secondary language. At that point, we had what they called education centers for the major minorities, such as Chinese and Filipinos, and of course, Hispanics, whose numbers had outstripped all others. New immigrant schoolchildren went through these centers prior to being sent to “mainstream” schools, ostensibly to get a better grasp of English before being diluted with the rest of the student population.

It all sounded good on paper. But when overall student scores started falling, specifically in English proficiency and in the sciences, questions about bi-lingual education started being asked. And relevantly so, when California students compared negatively with the rest of the country.

Nowadays, bi-lingual education has lost a good portion of its luster, and its once-avid proponents in the education field appear to have cooled off.

Imagine callers to San Francisco city hall complaining that they could hardly understand the English of staff members answering phones. Or that newly-hired airport screeners had to undergo intensive re-training in English prior to being deployed to their respective assignments, most requiring interaction with the riding public. And US citizenship is required for the position. Or that call center operators in the Philippines, India, or maybe, China, are being hired at a premium based on their English proficiency.

But those described above and much more are the realities, not only in the US but arguably for the rest of the globalized world.

So how are the various authorities responsible for general education responding to the situation?

World countries, states, and provinces where English is the official language are dark blue; countries, states, and provinces where it is an official, but not a primary language are light blue.
English as a global language

Because English is so widely spoken, it has often been referred to as a "global language", the lingua franca of the modern era. While English is not an official language in many countries, it is currently the language most often taught as a second language around the world. It is also, by international treaty, the official language for aircraft/airport and maritime communication, as well as being one of the official languages of both the European Union and the United Nations, and of most international athletic organizations, including the Olympic Committee. Books, magazines, and newspapers written in English are available in many countries around the world. English is also the most commonly used language in the sciences. In 1997, the Science Citation Index reported that 95% of its articles were written in English, even though only half of them came from authors in English-speaking countries.
From Manchester Central School of English