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Ability matters, not the length of service
Published on: Saturday, March 25, 2017

By Megawati Omar
SOCIAL media exploded with glee recently when the video of a university staff pronouncing “salmon” wrongly went viral.

In the video, “salmon” was pronounced in what sounded like “see-men”, which intensified the already embarrassing situation.

Some thought it funny, others watched with glee and some, especially the university’s English lecturers and officials, turned red faced in anger and embarrassment.

This gaffe may offer a wide reaching insight into what we should do when running the affairs of language education.

First, any teaching conducted on the Internet should always have an expert to monitor the contents.

Many of us do not know if the lady in the video is a teacher of English or other subjects.

If she is an English language teacher, there is nothing wrong with seeking the opinions of those who are more able to vet and approve the contents before uploading. If she is not, she needs an English language expert for guidance. Have we not heard the saying that a “little knowledge is a dangerous thing”?

The other lesson is to let the experts do the teaching. Many people think that when they can speak English well they can also teach the language. Some people think teaching English is easy. I once heard someone during an academic meeting say that a person does not require a PhD in English to teach English.

Little wonder then that there are many self-acclaimed “qualified” people teaching the language, hence the “see-men” gaffe.

A person who is fluent in English may not know the phonetic notations required to teach the language in second or third language contexts, especially in a multi-ethnic context like ours. To be correct, some pronunciation must be done in strict phonological term, which involves certain vowels, diphthongs, consonants, stress or syllable.

A person must learn this first in order to teach English pronunciation well. Had the lady in the video known these terms, the glitch of “seemen”, “semen”, or “samon” would not have occurred.

There are many levels and aspects in language teaching. It involves matters like reading, testing, listening, speaking, pronunciation, translation, and writing. And in each of these elements – for example, writing – there are many levels of instruction too. Writing can be thesis writing, article writing, report writing, essays, features, documents, etc.

Some prefer to categorise writing into expository, persuasive, descriptive, and narrative.

For thesis writing, it is best that a person with a PhD does the teaching. The rigours of doing a PhD make one more fluent and suited to teach thesis writing.

Another lesson from this gaffe is that the hiring manager or hiring department of an organisation must be well equipped in the recruitment, selection and hiring of new staff. If an English teacher is to be recruited, the hirer must not just look at the resume. One’s language ability cannot be known entirely by a resume.

He or she must be interviewed to analyse the teaching ability, speaking skill, knowledge of the language structure, writing, and etc.

I once interviewed a person who had taught English for 18 years in schools. In the end, this person was not hired because when asked to narrate her day in the past 24 hours, she made many errors.

One would also wonder why a language teacher cannot speak the language fluently outside the classroom.

This person must have relied heavily on teacher talk to teach the language.

There is nothing wrong with teacher talk as it falls within the hierarchy of speech, which is acceptable and usually used by foreign language teachers. It also has its own linguistics adjustments to ensure the learners easily understand what is being taught.

So, because of this, there are some teachers of language, for example English, who cannot sit down and speak with colleagues fluently in English outside class.

But teaching English subjects in a university, for example reading for critical thinking, needs fluency far beyond teacher talk. I also used to receive email from people interested in becoming English language lecturers.

Many had higher than 3.5 CGPA for the English course, but I found their letters had errors and their style did not sound natural. It sounded like Bahasa Malaysia words written in English. How can applicants like these teach English writing even with their high CGPA?

So, to avoid a similar gaffe, we must hire qualified and fluent speakers and writers to teach language.

Secondly, no matter how long they have been in service, university staff must be humble enough to seek help to improve their knowledge. Half-baked knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance.

Megawati Omar, Academy of Language Studies UiTM, Shah Alam

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