Teach English in Mingren Sumu - Tongliao Shi

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I have been teaching Business English for over 13 years in South Africa, and it has been quite an interesting experience. It has given me a deep understanding of how little value South Africans place on correct and professional English usage and why, and of their reluctance to try to improve. The underlying problems that are causing a rapid deterioration in English usage in the business environment in South Africa, in general, are multiple and will not be solved easily. I have taught well over 100 classes in various aspects of business writing and I have also done quite a bit of English improvement classes. I also taught English at high school level to matric (18-year-olds), but that is also not dealt with here, as it also needs a paper all on its own. In terms of my adult teaching experience, I have taught courses such as Business Writing, Minute Writing, Report Writing, Writing Newsletters, etc. In general, when we are doing introductions at the start of a course and I ask them to indicate why they are at the course and what they think the problems is, the students say they can speak English, but have trouble writing in English. It is only when I probe further that they will say something like, “Yes, and English. I think I need to improve.” Or, “I think I have some problem (sic) with English.” But it is quite obvious to me that the English language skill is quite poor, and that they struggle to communicate when speaking. And, of course, the English is even poorer when they write, as writing is not part of the historical culture of Sub-Saharan people, and it is only in the last 100 years or so that the skill has become taught more widely, but at quite a low level, in general. The lack of writing skill is quite obvious when they are asked to write something, and it is often difficult to make sense of what they are trying to say, even when the task is to write a short email of 200 words. Sometimes, it is even difficult for them to start writing, and I need to walk around the classroom and help them to get started, as they seem unable to ‘get going’. The classes are always different in terms of the students, as there is a wide range in terms of age (usually from 20 to 55) and a group will typically comprise 1-2 Afrikaans speakers, 1-2 Zulu speakers, 1-2 Sotho speakers, 2 people from Zambia/ Zimbabwe / Angola / Mozambique, etc. The level at which they are employed also varies greatly, from receptionists to HR Managers, accountants and SCM practitioners. It is not easy dealing with the great diversity in the class and each little sub-group will have its own particular issues. However, it does mean that the teacher really learns about people, how and why they learn (or not, as the case may be), and what some of the common problems are in Sub-Saharan Africa. (There are, of course, many problems that are peculiar to specific groups/ countries, but this essay will focus only on the general problems seen.) The first problem is that most Sub-Saharan people are exposed to some English most of their lives, but this may be quite limited in terms of daily exposure. For example, people watch news and entertainment programmes on TV in their own vernacular and read newspaper in languages other than English. Also, much of the English they do read or hear is very poor English; therefore, they learn a local type of English that is difficult for others to understand. But because they hear this all around them, they think they have a good English language ability and can become quite offended is the problems with their writing are corrected or explained. But they are quite happy for the teacher to re-write their email (or letter) for them. A second problem is that, all over Sub-Saharan Africa, English teachers at government schools are second or third-language English speakers and don’t have a degree in English or fluency in English or a good understanding of grammar and punctuation. So, problems are being entrenched and compounded decade after decade and the English language used is becoming increasingly flawed and further and further from standard English. Pronunciation and enunciation is a big problem as well, and many people struggle to speak in a way that is easily understandable, as they don’t hear the correct pronunciation and don’t do drilling activities, nursery rhymes, etc., at school. The languages spoken in this area typically use the middle of the mouth and slow, big movements of the jaws, and the smaller, quicker movements used in English are difficult for many people to master. Grammar is a real problem, and in a typical adult Business Writing group of people who are employed in various jobs, the English grammar competence is probably at the Intermediate level, but they are writing tenders, legal documents, newspapers, policies, and the like in English. A common problem is the gender pronouns and men are often referred to as ‘she’. Singular-plural is also a problem, and ‘they’ or ‘them’ is commonly used when referring to one person in particular. Tenses prove difficult for people to understand and they tend to use the present continuous tense in general and then mix in a past or future modal when talking about something in the past or future. Subject and object are difficult for them to understand and prepositions are quite challenging, with the word ‘around’ being used as a general preposition used in place of ‘about’, ‘on’, ‘at’, etc. There is little understanding of parts of speech and it can be difficult for them to identify a verb and a noun in a sentence. Generally, there is an understanding of what prefixes and suffixes are and how they are used, but these are used in unique ways, with in and un and non being used as the writer chooses. And that’s just for starters. However, it is very satisfying to see the progress that some people make over time, when they start to understand why something is wrong and how to correct it. And this makes for a great end to a week. (Word count: 1048)