Perspectives: constant practice the key to learning languages

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 10:36am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 10:36am

Coaches and sportsmen and women will tell you about the value of practice for honing important skills. Top performers spend hours working on areas of their game, and so it is with academic pursuits. Language skills need to be practised to develop fluency and confidence.

While students bemoan homework, and are often reluctant to speak in a language that's a challenge, both are viewed by educators as essential practice and preparation for the successful student.

Students of the English language in Hong Kong should actively use every opportunity they can to speak and interact in English. Even basic greetings and everyday classroom expressions can move students towards language competence. Functional practice is supported by theorists, including cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok (1981), who consider it a conscious strategy that supports language acquisition.

Many NETs feel they have to compensate for the lack of English-language practice

NETs (native-speaking English teachers) working in local schools try to create more opportunities for students to practise speaking skills.

Many employ the teaching approach that emphasises interaction as both the means and the ultimate goal of study. Linguist David Nunan (1991) linked classroom language learning with language activities outside the classroom as a feature of the communicative approach.

The approach has been around for more than 40 years. However, some teachers here remain reluctant to depart from their grammar textbooks. NETs aim to use interactive and integrated teaching approaches in classrooms that can be lively and demand student attention, concentration and thought.

While introducing and reinforcing target vocabulary, students gain confidence and knowledge of the features and forms of English language.

Many NETs feel they have to compensate for the lack of English-language practice beyond the school gates. Some schools, for example, use drama and role play as vehicles for speaking practice. However, there is a wide variation in the manner in which teachers are deployed in different schools.

This means some NETs aren't able to offer the best opportunities for practice. Practice opportunities may also differ between schools that distinguish themselves as either EMI (English as the medium of instruction) or CMI (Chinese as the medium of instruction).

Many schools are involved in a range of speaking and writing competitions, such as those organised by the NET section of the Education Bureau, and quite a number have instigated "English speaking days".

However, while some schools manage just two or three school-wide occasions such as these per year, others manage something nearly every week.

Many in Hong Kong feel bound by tests and assessments that stifle other learning opportunities. There may be alternative forms of assessment that suit learners and schools better while ensuring that communication skills are reinforced and developed in more authentic situations.

Moreover, it will always be true that assessing a student's use of English and grading it for competence is more difficult than marking discrete answers in grammar or vocabulary tests.

Ultimately, students have to take the initiative themselves - to act on their motivations to maximise the use of those learning opportunities they are presented with.

It has been noted that more able students are capable of creating new language learning opportunities for their own advantage.

However, we must ask if there are enough opportunities for local students in public schools to provide for the educational needs of both the gifted and the less able students.

Hong Kong's businesses need workers who are fluent in languages other than just Cantonese, so every school has a responsibility in this matter.

It is not about making every student a graduate of English literature or of applied linguistics. The customer service provided by hotel staff, taxi drivers, hairdressers, restaurant staff, retail shop assistants, frontline office staff and those in many other occupations would be much better with broader language skills and a basic level of communicative competence.

In every country there are some parents who do little to support and encourage their child's continuing language development.

In contrast, a related issue in Hong Kong is the tendency of parents to push youngsters into extracurricular activities or tutoring with the aim of enhancing their child's future prospects.

This would be beneficial if those activities promoted self-expression and further developed a child's productive language skills through writing or speaking.

Perry Bayer is secretary of Nesta (Native English-Speaking Teacher Association)