Thursday, November 26, 2009

I haven't the words

For the record, when I was in Pri 1 (a long, long time ago) I was asked to choose which language I wanted to take up as a second language. A second language was compulsory, being that a policy came down from on high that everyone should have a bilingual education.

In my own wisdom, I opted for Malay. As a six-year-old, I had it all figured out. I was already quite adept in reading and writing English; and Malay was taught using the exact same alphabet. I would have no trouble with the pronunciation of words and the grammatical structures didn't seem to differ much between the two. Malay was a simple substitution code for English, so learning Malay as a new language should have posed little difficulty for me. As a six-year-old I had a clear strategy: take Malay, ace the exams, no problem.

The Fates had other plans for me, though. I never made it to my first Malay lesson. I was literally Shanghaied off to study Chinese by certain elements that did not agree with my assessment of the situation. By the time I took my 'O's, the only thing I'd learned from Chinese class was that I wasn't as smart as I had once thought I was. I believe I wear those scars still.

The sad thing was that I had a choice, and I made a choice, but there's not much a six-year-old can do when his choice gets overruled by people who think they know better.

Fine. I suppose I was a nightmare to teach just as it was a nightmare language for me to learn. I was a rebel with a closed mind, fearful and suspicious of every teacher I had. I had horrid ones that threatened and actually hit students for whatever reason (I did mention this was a very long time ago, did I not?) but I had nice ones as well.

Regardless of teacher disposition, nothing helped. The most telling incident I can remember was when I scored an impressive near-80% on one test in Sec 3. I had a nice teacher then, and I remember putting full and total effort into memorising everything she wanted me to memorise. I wasn't disappointed with the test results. But I realised that all my efforts went into memorising something I had no recollection, no understanding of as soon as the test was over. The results would not have been duplicable on a retest. To me, that was just too much work for too little gain.

In any case, the way it was taught back then is not how people learn a language. It would probably have been very good practice for people who already knew the language to have a better, more in-depth appreciation of it. But for someone who was barely conversant in the first place... well, I don't quite have the words.

It's important that we can all express ourselves in more than one language, and yes, I do feel somewhat handicapped with my less-than-satisfactory command of Chinese today. But it's not too late to pick it up, even now. Chinese serials on TV with subtitles help with the conversational aspects which I can practice with other people should the need arise. But please, don't send me back to the classroom again.

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