Learning a language

Why the English language competence of children may be way below the desired level

It makes better sense to discuss this question directly with parents. The discussion that follows could be directly shared with parents, without any need to edit.The only one natural way to learn a language is to listen to it over and over again in daily routine; think of the way you learnt your mother-tongue. English will be learnt the same way by your child – by listening to English language being spoken around him/her. Much like the mother-tongue, there has to be a critical amount of time every day during which your child must get to listen to words and phrases of English.

Clearly, the problem may be that the quantity of time English words and phrases are spoken around your child is very limited. An English medium school also fails to ensure a good environment of spoken English through the teachers; hearing English only in the English period – 40 minutes out of 6 hours in school – is totally inadequate. And this, assuming that the English teachers are really good, a condition that many English teachers would fail to stand tall in scrutiny.

To top it all, English language used in other subjects completely negates whatever is gained by the students in the English period because a very small set of vocabulary is used by maths, science, social science, and other teachers. More often than not, the mother-tongue is a quick fall back language to ‘better explain’ concepts in maths, science (and social sciences) in the belief that concepts of maths and science have nothing to do with language and once the students understand a concept in their mother-tongue they will successfully translate them into the medium of instruction – English. Please ask your child’s school to stop the practice of explaining in any other language except the medium of instruction.

Further, hearing words and phrases is just one side of the coin. The other side is the opportunity to express – to talk and write in the language. Mother-tongue is learnt faster by a child who starts ‘using’ the words and phrases early on. The more the child speaks the better he/she gets. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of students do not get adequate opportunities to express their thinking and arguments in the classrooms or the opportunity to freely express in homework. Do not expect language to improve without large number of opportunities for (free)expression (and feedback.)

There is also the issue of poor quality of English words and phrases spoken around your child. The ‘level of language’ required to read, comprehend and express concepts of maths, science and social studies calls for a much richer English to be learnt. Thus, it is quite common to see many children speaking ‘good English’ in daily-life conversations but feeling language handicap when learning other subjects in English.

To sum-up, your child is weak in English because:

  1. She/he does not get to hear English words and phrases in adequate amount in school and home.
  2. She/he gets very limited opportunity to express thoughts and responses in English (except copying texts for homework)
  3. She/he is getting limited exposure to richer English at school and home
    The level of English taught in school and the level required of English for maths, science and social science education need further elaboration. In the current system of evaluation, children often manage to score very high in the English language but struggle with language in other subjects and cannot go beyond the rote definitions (cannot ‘construct a definition’ of a concept by themselves even if they ‘know’ it all).

The English taught to your child is almost always at ‘communicative level’ (‘level 2’) but transacting other subjects in English calls for ‘academic level English’ (‘level 4’). How on earth do you expect your child to do well academically! Broadly, alanguage is transacted at four levels:

  1. Basic: in terms of vocabulary* it means command over 500-1000 words
  2. Communicative: in terms of vocabulary* it means command over 1000-10,000 words
  3. Literacy: in terms of vocabulary* it means command over 5000-25,000 words
  4. Academic: in terms of vocabulary* it means command over 20,000+ words. It would be difficult to make broad generalisations of other aspects of language competence which could be meaningful and actionable for parent.
    To summarise, children must achieve academic-level skills by extensively reading and writing in English.

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