Being fresh in the public education sector, I naturally began comparing my on-the-field observations with my own 12 years of experience as a public-schooled, standardized-tested student. What's on my mind today: how students learn the English language.
While my rather "extreme" personal experiences might be more indicative of the education system in Singapore, but I see clear parallels here in Chicago.
I loved English. Or more accurately, I loved English as a tested subject. Because I was great at it.
The year was 1998. Fresh off the proverbial boat in Singapore, I was blessed to be able to pick up the English language quite naturally (yup, English is one of Singapore's official languages). Before I knew it, I was getting nothing less than an A and bagging the top prize for English each year. Thus began by tempestuous love affair with the language.
I graduated from a now-defunct primary (elementary) school, and moved on to a reasonably reputable secondary school (grades 7-10). This school was reputable because it consistently produced high scorers in the O Levels, the national examination that served to rank all 10th-graders in the country to determine which junior colleges (grades 11-12) are within their reach. As you can imagine, what made a secondary school elite, then, was its ability to prepare students to outsmart this system.
The concept of "good words" was again and again drilled in us. What made a word "good"? This nebulous concept was never explicitly defined, but what I understood was that these were the big and/or unusual words that would earn us little check marks in our essays. And the more check marks there are on our manuscripts, the more impressed the grader will be, and the more likely they are to bestow a high grade.
Writing became, to me, an exercise in showing off my vocabulary. Preparing for the English essay exam meant poring over the thesaurus. Don't write "beautiful butterflies" if you can say "beauteous butterflies", or "blue skies" when there's the superior "azure blue"! No one told me that, and I don't think anyone meant to. I internalized it myself.
Don't get me wrong -- I have nothing against big words. As we get older, we experience more and feel more, and we'd need words with more nuance and precision to articulate thoughts with greater accuracy. But at the middle school age, did I really need to be saying "I was surrounded by gargantuan trees" and "the math problem obfuscated me"? And what good comes out of "my mother harangued me with a barrage of errands"?
I wrote like that, blogged like that, and was proud of it. My peers would validate my false confidence in the English language by telling me how "good" my English was. Once, a classmate introduced me to his father this way: "Pa, this is Karen. Her English is very good."
In 10th grade, I was once ill-prepared for a big, end-of-year essay-writing exam. So I had "no choice" but to write a "simple" and "plain" essay about why homemade gifts will always be superior to store-bought gifts. My grader thought it was "lovely", and made copies for the entire class. I was honest-to-God mortified. I didn't want that essay to be read by everyone! There weren't enough "good words" in there! Not an accurate representation of my language ability! I was forced to conclude that this particular grader had unusually and patronizingly low standards for writing.
A few years later, I left Singapore to go to college at The University of Chicago. At some point, I found myself in a Creative Writing class with a bunch of snobbish/well-intentioned (I can't decide) English majors. One of the critiques was particularly brutal. "It's clear that you've read a lot," she wrote, "but it's also clear that English is not your first language." Ouch. For so many years I was confident that apart from my accent, I exhibited no other tell-tale sign of English being a second language. Thus began the deconstruction of everything I thought I knew about having a good grasp of a language.
What I learned a little late (but better late than never): a language is a tool of communication, not a subject matter in and of itself (unless we're talking about linguistics). It's not about the "quality" of the words you use (as if there were even any objective measure of the relative superiority of words...), but the quality of your message. It is our thoughts and our ideas that are valuable, not the words we use. The words we use, therefore, should convey our message, not obscure it.
I currently teach Math. But I don't have a single student who likes their English class, and it makes me wonder why. I loved it because I happened to be an obnoxious little linguaphile. The way English classes are (often) run would surely turn off any kid who isn't one.
If I were to venture into teaching English in the future, I'd be sure to tell my students every day that the true value of writing lies in their ideas. And their ideas are so valuable that the words they pick to communicate them have no business stealing the spotlight. And maybe, just maybe, if they also come to see how valuable their ideas and opinions are, they'd be willing to put in the effort to pick up the vocabulary and grammar skills that would help them better convey them.
This post originally appeared on Under Reconstruction. You can follow the blog on Facebook.
Follow Karen Zainal on Twitter: www.twitter.com/karenzai
Being an English major, some of the most common things you hear are about how much people who aren’t English majors hate English, whether you ask for it or not. “I hate essays”, “poetry is lame”, and “I never read” are just a few of the things that I hear consistently whenever English is brought up. For me, these are insane reasons not to like English because I can’t imagine myself without it in my life. So, I decided that I would write a few words on why I love English to maybe address a few of these points and, hopefully, give people a greater interest in English.
English and language are everywhere, from signs that need to be read to reading an assignment for class to talking with different kinds of people. To do all this, we all must prescribe meaning to different sounds and symbols, pictures and actions. We have signifiers and the signified (shout out to Saussure). We give meaning to different things and with that we are all able to understand each other and the world we live in. Without language and English, we would not be able to study and understand meaning that is necessary to help us communicate with one another.
Thinking of the English language itself, we only use 26 letters to convey thousands of emotions and feelings. We use punctuation to convey the tone in which we mean different phrases and emphasize words and ideas to convey feelings that can be mistaken for different if not read correctly. With just 26 letters, you can move someone to tears or have them laughing their butt off, you can move a country but also just a singular person. There are so many combinations of words and actions that make up human life and the ability to understand these are learned in the study of English and language.
In regards to writing, I don’t see the problem, but I’m also biased because I like to write. Personally, I’d rather write an essay instead of take a test every other week but I also would prefer creative writing over professional writing, which is also why I write for the Odyssey. Writing for me is like telling a story, but one in which the words are handpicked and thought about to make sure that story has the most effect. It’s using the perfect words to describe a situation that makes the reader think about what you’ve said and think about that not only in relation to themselves, but to their sociocultural understanding as well.
Which brings me to the point of poetry. I, personally, love to read and occasionally attempt to write poetry because for so few words there is so much to be talked about. Poetry is one of the hardest things to write, but if done right, is one of the best things to read. My favorite part of poetry is that there can be so many different interpretations that make the dialogue unique to the reader, which is also true of literature but especially poetry. Poetry has the power to move in the vaguest sense, and is one of the reasons that I couldn’t live without studying English.
In a world of too many decisions and uncertainty, English is the one thing I can come back to that makes sense. Even amid uncertainty, English makes you think in ways that don’t necessarily provide an answer, but provide some satisfying insight into our culture and our lives.