Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Language or Culture

My friend The Cat is right. We in Hong Kong tend to think of English as a tool. We learn it to get into a better school and a better job, to make more money.

Clearly this utilitarian view of the language is not strong enough motivation for most people to put enough efforts into learning the language. We go through the motions of setting up the systems and classes, we say the right things about how important it is, we fight to get our children into the “good” schools. In the end, however, the heart does not seem to be there. Even the teachers (many of them anyway) do not seem willing to make additional efforts to improve themselves.

We forget that English, just like any other language, is part of a culture. Without a deep appreciation of the context in which the language is used, the people who use the language, and the beliefs underlying the language, we cannot use the language properly. Learning the grammar is not enough. We will, at best, use the language mechanically. We need to be able to think and reason in the language. Not merely to translate our finished thoughts into it.

A genuine interest in other people is a much more sustainable, much more powerful, and much more healthy incentive to learn their language. Are we open minded enough to have that interest?


Anonymous said...

I agree. Language is part of the culture of a people.

When I teach students English, I always tell their parents and the students they need to learn the culture too. My students often enjoy hearing about my experience and years in N. America. Surely it's hard to learn it first hand if you haven't lived in the place, but there are movies, books, even songs...

We need to read English books written for English-speakers. Not English textbooks or readers written for Hong Kong students. There are so much discussions about this EMI, CMI, and this fine tuning; but as yet, nobody dares comment on the textbooks used to teach English in most Hong Kong primary schools. Disconnect the culture and English, and we get "Hong Kong English", so prevalent among HK politicians, teachers and students, and very sadly, even in English newspapers.

Anonymous said...

Early this week, I was helping my 2 daughters in primary school to prepare for their examinations. I looked through the English text book and the exercises and recalled that how these topics repeated and repeated in my 12 school years in HK. Then I went to a bookstore selling mainly English books. I looked for English study aids for the same age as my daughters. I glanced into the contents and found totally different topics. Topics that were never touched in my school years in HK and are mentioned as part of school life in my daughters' story books. I agree that basic grammer should be taught but I don't understanding why English education in HK has to spend so many years on tenses, prepositions, passive/active voices, gerund etc. All these things I remembered were learned in primary school and repeated again and again in secondary school. I remember how boring it was to attend the English class in secondary school to learn the things I'd already learned but could never master it. We have English classes everyday in school and we still have poor English after studying it for 12 years. It is most absurd and inefficient. And worse, many of those teachers who conduct the lessons in English (including some of the English teacher) are poor in English themselves.

I think what needs to be done is restrucuring the English course.

StephenC said...

Yeah. It is truly incredible and damning on our system that, after spending so many years in English lessons, so many of our students are so poor in English.

They might as well spend all that time watching movies and TV - in English, of course.