Monday, December 24, 2007

Chinese Chess

Chinese Chess or xiang (4th tone) qi (2nd tone) is a popular game, often played by old men in the back streets of cities, towns and villages throughout mainland China. These players are often surrounded by bystanders, as absorbed as the players themselves. Their points are chalked up and I've seen cases where they peck their point sheet to their ear lobes with wooden cloth pegs! I tried to take a photo of some players once but they forbade it. I used to feel sorry for these old folks. It seems as if xiang qi occupied their lives to the exclusion of all else. That was before I understood how mentally challenging and stimulating the game was and how it can even help ward off dementia.

The origin of the game is debatable. Some scholars claim it originates from India, others say it began in Persia. But in China, records show that the game was played as early as the fourth century. It was believed to have been created by one of the generals in the Chinese epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Like western chess, the equivalent of the king, is the general or jiang (4th tone) He is assisted by the mandarins or shi (4th tone) Other pieces on the board are the elephant, the cannon, the soldiers and the chariot, each character in red or black depending on the player.

Today, like online martial arts, online Chinese chess is also very popular among young people.

The Brain and Dementia

Have you wondered why some old folks remain mentally alert while their peers have short attention spans, repeat themselves, suffer forgetfulness - the usual signs of old age and dementia?

Studies confirm what many of us already know- to retain our mental sharpness, we need to be mentally stimulated. It works on the same principle as physical exercise. To keep fit, we need to run or walk. We carry weights to strengthen our muscles. Our brain, too, functions in a similar fashion. The more we exercise the brain, in this case, through mental activity, the sharper it becomes.

Old people should not give up mental exertion. Deng Xiao Ping, the father of China’s opening and modernization lived until his late eighties or early nineties. Like many old people in China, he spent his time playing Chinese chess, when he was not working on national matters. The game requires full concentration and excellent memory. You need to think ahead of your opponent, make the right strategies for the wrong move could spell disaster.

If you're not into mental games, get involved in things just to be occupied. Participate in church activities, spend time with little ones, get involved in ballroom dancing, learn things that interest you or travel - anything you have a passion for. Remember, there's nothing more pathetic than a fuddled, old mind.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Car thefts

I was chatting with my sister in law while waiting for the traffic lights to turn green when I heard a loud bang. I almost jumped out of my seat! A taxi had hit my bumper! I came out to inspect the car but didn't see the dent that was caused and so I let him off.

My sister in law then told me that she didn't leave the car because my engine was on and anyone could have made off with the car. The presence of passengers in the car would not deter such people.

Her warning was confirmed today when I heard a similar case where a man got out of to inspect his brand new car which had just been hit. While he was doing that, another car swerved in, and a man jumped out and drove off with his car and the man's wife was in the car! Fortunately for her, she had the presence of mind to jump out. When the car was finally recovered, the authorities found a long knife in it.

There are also cases of cars being hijacked right at one's doorstep as the driver is shutting the house gate. And ladies, don’t think for a moment, that just because of centralized locking you can have your handbag sitting on the front passenger seat. There have been cases of motorcyclists, breaking window glasses when the traffic lights are red and heading off with the driver’s handbag while all she can do is stare in shock. Many a window screen have been broken because the remote control for paying toll was sitting prettily on the dashboard. Ah, the pain to the heart and the pocket when that happens.

So be alert, drivers! Remember never to leave your car, unattended with the engine on. Anything can happen in a split second. And don't invite covetousness, either.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Masters and Ph. D Writers for Hire

The New Straits Times has an interesting article today on how “hundreds of masters and PhD students are getting "professional thesis writers" to pen their theses. This seems to be a growing trend in many countries. Not only is the practice unethical but prone to potential danger. Imagine being on the operating table of a surgeon who “bought” his degree in this manner or hiring a lawyer with poor legal foundation or having a professor who is only a lesson ahead of his students. Unfortunately, the culprits get away with it.

A doctor who buys his degree can play safe by working as a medical practitioner who dispenses medicine for coughs and aches and pains. Likewise, the lawyer who gets someone to write his theses can work safely just rubber stamping standardized sales and purchase agreements. The professor with poor research skills would be like the blind leading the blind.

The examination authorities should come down hard on such practices. The busyness of the candidate should be no excuse. The university's reputation is at stake here and especially since we want to make our country a regional educational hub.
Make sure all theses pass Copycat/copy scape tests. Apart from the thesis, marks should be evenly distributed on ongoing course work, class participation and not just the thesis.

Pregnancy and the College Girl

Jamie Lynn Spears (sister of Britney Spears) who plays the popular, teenage virgin on “Zoey 101” is pregnant. The news of her pregnancy sparked off a controversy about sex, contraceptives and teen pregnancy. Parents worry that the news would send the wrong message that it is cool to be sixteen and pregnant as American teens regard her TV character as their role model.

In mainland China, if a female student is pregnant, she would be expelled from school or college. This spells total devastation for her future. For this reason, both teachers and doctors are often empathetic and apparently, it is the unwritten, standard procedure to help such girls undergo abortion to save their future. Rare is the case of one who would dare upset society's propriety and one's own prospects by giving birth in such circumstances.

I once conducted a debate on the moral issue of abortion and the majority of the forty odd students in the senior class concluded that the mother's future should come before the foetus. In other words, pragmatism should rule the day.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Riding the Bicycle in Beijing

Crossing the road in Beijing can be a real hazard. The roads can be three or four lanes wide both ways. Luckily, I overcame the phobia when a Chinese professor showed my Australian friend and I how, when he accompanied us on a trip to a museum. We had to cross one of those wide, busy roads and he grabbed us by our arms and guided us across, lane by lane. That was such an effective lesson in road crossing, China style. Not that there are no pedestrian crossing or overhead bridges. The trouble is those could be a mile off, from where you are. Not to mention, the tedious task of walking up those long bridges for those with tired feet.

Taking public buses was another challenging experience. When you take the public bus in Beijing, you need to know which station you’re disembarking because if you miss it.... boy or boy! Are you headed for a long, long walk! Sometimes - the next station could be a kilometer away.

Everything in Beijing is on a super-large scale even the campus. So a bicycle comes in handy when you do errands. I had learned to ride a bicycle when I was a kid but had not ridden for several decades. I soon learned the truth of the statement that once you’ve learned to swim or ride, you never forget it.
I relearned how to handle the bicycle on my good friend’s bike in Tienjin and after that I was riding all over the neighborhood and its surroundings and I learned how to ride on icy roads without falling.

Bicycling is another very good form of exercise but unfortunately, our roads do not make allowance for bicycle lanes.

Walking and dementia

Dementia in old age is terrible. Not only do you forget where you leave your house keys, your car keys or where you parked your car. Imagine the terror experienced when you can't find your car in one those monstrous malls with multiple levels of parking and exits. In more severe cases, you may forget about your bank savings or fail to recognize a relative or friend.

The latest scientific findings (New York Times, 20th) show that walking reduces the risk of dementia or memory loss. We all know that brisk walking is good for blood circulation and cardiovascular function but that walking can help boost memory is so exciting! And so simple! So what are you waiting for? Invest in a good pair of canvas shoes, look for a park and the most suitable time and begin your daily walk for better health!

The Power of Words

The New York Times (December 20th)has an article on how to encourage the family to eat vegetables. The idea is to use the power of words to describe the greens. Mention "juicy" or "succulent," and immediately one's mouth begins watering. The findings was based on research conducted at a cafeteria. The same food was given different different descriptions and the outcome? The more interesting the description, the higher the ratings were given.

This reminds me of the names given to dishes in some Chinese restaurants. Sometimes the descriptions do not give one a clue of what the dish is. You may order a dish like Weeping Willow only to have a plate of bamboo strings.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Pavilion

Pix C.K. Tang, Pavilion
Last Saturday, I set out for Pavilion, one of the latest shopping malls, housing several upmarket stables in clothing and jewellery. It's just opposite Lot 10 and is built on the former Bukit Bintang Girl's School. I was told the school was relocated to Cheras. BBGS was one of the premier schools in the country but had to give way to "the Golden Triangle and development." Money talks, eh!

I had been offered a complimentary pass to the cinema or so I thought. Sad to say, I never got to see any movie because it turned out that the pass was meant for a show at the Pavilion, Genting Highlands. What a pity! I would have loved to see The Warlords starring, Andy Lau, Jet Li and the handsome Japanese actor.

My sister in law and myself went up to the Food Court on the fourth level where she had Ipoh noodles. I ordered a Korean pancake. Korean food in China beats those here anytime, anywhere. In Guangzhou, the Korean pancake is made wholly from potato. It is crisp and absolutely divine. Here, I give a five out of ten points.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mao Tse Tung (Part 2)

In Beijing, some taxi drivers have pendants of Mao Tse Tung hanging from the ledge of the driver's mirror. They actually regard them as holy amulets to protect them from accidents and danger.

The same too applies to illiterate peasants who hawk under the overhead bridges. Talk about Mao Tse Tung and automatically, they put their hands together in a prayer gesture. Although he's dead for so many decades and his body lies embalmed in one of the musuems in the Tiananmen Square, he continues to hold power and sway among the illiterate.

On practically every campus, you would see a life sized stature of Mao. In those days, the college would take us out on weekend tours and when we returned after a long journey, usually by the late evening, the first things our eyes would figure out for in the dim light would be "Chairman Mao." It meant "we have arrived 'home' safely!"


Nicole, may be the new kid on the block, but she barks louder than the neighbourhood dogs which can be an embarrassment. I tie her up in the living room when I go out. But yesterday, when I returned, the whole hall was in mayhem! She had managed to cut lose, trampled upon the sofa, bringing several down the floor, wet on one and pooped again. The curtains were drawn. Boy ! I gave such such a hard spanking that even my hands hurt. I think by now, she's learnt her lesson.

The neighbor commented that her bark may be worse than her bite.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

How to toilet train a puppy

During the car ride home of twenty kilometers or so, Nicole sat on the front passenger seat, quiet and uneasy, sensing that she was in unfamiliar territory. I stroked her back and crooned to calm her down. I was afraid she would wet the car seat which would mean plenty of headache for me. Lucky thing, she didn’t. I stopped at a convenient place and placed newspapers beneath the rug, just in case. When I lifted her from the seat, I could tell she was quite frightened since I had to practically prise her off the seat. I placed her on my lap. She began looking out of the window at the passing scenery before lying down and placing her jaw on the crook of my inner elbow. I guess she needed the assurance of human contact.

The first thing she did when she arrived at her new home was to wet the hall and walk all over her urine. Yuks! I cleaned up the spot, introduced her to the washroom, then told her in no uncertain terms to do her business there. She didn’t get it. For the next few days, she began wetting in different areas of the house. Each time she did it, I made a ruckus, warned her and took her to the toilet bowl again to tell her to do her business there. She’s scared of the toilet and of falling in. Now she doesn’t wet or poop in the open but does it in hidden corners, which is even worse. Phew, for the past few days, I’ve been like a maid cleaning up after her. ” Nicole, Nicole, when will you get it?”

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Cindy, the dog lover

Picture shows Cindy with her niece, Sook Yi, the family dog, Sally and Nicole

Apart from taking care of hubby and two growing boys, Cindy picks up stray dogs, nurtures them and finds foster homes for them. According to Cindy, both Sally and Nicole are sisters whose mother is the church dog. The latter has given birth to several litters. As always the female puppies get abandoned whilst the males have no problem getting adopted. It looks as if there is no end to sex discrimination as long as humans are involved.

Though Sally and Nicole are sisters, they are as different as day is to night. Sally is smoky brown from top to toe except for two white spots above the eyes and around the mouth. Even her eyes are brown. They blend so much into her face, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish the difference in the dark. Nicole, on the other hand, is snowy white and the tips of her ears meet each time you call her.

Apart from color, they are also different in character. Sally is more spirited and endearing. She jumps all over you, wagging her tail, licking you, begging to be patted. Nicole, on the other hand, tends to be timid and reserved. Her favorite place is under the sofa. I had a hard time choosing between the two. I was inclined towards Sally because of her high spiritedness but in the end, I chose Nicole because she looks like a mixed breed.

Cindy was sad to part with her.
“Say bye bye to mommy," she told Nicole as she bent down to kiss her. You’ve got a new mommy now,” she added.

Sally is available for adoption and after that Cindy will go look for other strays to take care of.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mao Tse Tung and queing up for hot water

I was reading an online book on Chairman Mao of mainland China. The writer said that Mao, by virtue of his learning was looked up to in a peasant army where illiteracy was common. (that was before he rose to power) As he was regarded as a scholar, Mao felt it was beneath him to queue up for his daily supply of water.

That account reminded me of my student days in Beijing. In those days, we had to line up, together with the local workers to get our supply of hot water. I think the higher staff have hot water faucets at home. At that point of time, I used to think pensively how I took the conveniences of life at home so much for granted. And here I was freezing in the cold winter waiting for a flask of hot water that would last me just one day. It wasn't funny at that point of time, especially when the queue could run a mile long but looking back it was quite an unusual experience. You fill your hot water bottle at the front where there is a long sink with several faucets. You need to watch out how you turn off the tap and you can't fill the flask to the full, or you might get burnt by the hot boiling water. The water depot is opened for a few hours in the morning and again in the evening. Very inconvenient. You might ask why not just buy mineral water or use the water off the tap in the dorm. Mineral water can hurt the pocket. As for the water in the dorm, it is undrinkable and is thick with a kind of carbon found in old pipes.
Several months after that, some young punks spoke up and demanded that foreign student quarters be supplied with hot water pipes and would you believe it? The college administration bowed in to student demands. Oh, the power of the greenback!

Losing face

In mainland China, many students are afraid to speak English for fear of making grammar mistakes in which case they would 'lose face' or have 'no face' or 'wouldn't know where to put their face.' Some foreigners get stumped by these idiomatic expressions but they should not underscore the concept. Face value is something that is strongly embedded in the tradition and the culture of the people. To lose face or have no face happens in a situation when one's ego is punctured either by a third party or by oneself as in the case of making a fool of oneself by using the wrong grammar. So rather than making grammar mistakes and 'having to lose face' it's better not to speak English. I always encourage my students by telling them "I don't expect you not to make mistakes."

Language is active and has to be practised to perfection which infers mistakes will be made. So have a "thick face" which means "have a thin ego" and all will be fine!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Perfect Cup of English Tea

A mug of tea (Pix)
I watched Martha Stewart a few days ago (I’m watching the re-runs of 2006) and a classy British actress promptly announced, "let me show Americans how to make proper tea." Then she forged ahead, (unaware of the tension aroused by her statement) threw two tea bags into a "china pot" and then poured "hot boiling water" into the pot. The pot has to be covered with mittens, (only in winter, I suppose) and "its milk in the cup first, always, before the tea." I wonder what other differences there are between the two cousins, besides language and tea?

By the way, left-over tea can be frozen in ice trays just as with any drink- coffee, orange or syrup.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Bone Scan

Femur Bone Density (Pix 1) Spinal Bone Density (Pix 2)
Today, I went for a bone scan at the Nuclear Medicine Unit. It was a six month’s wait to get the scan. I was so afraid that I would forget about the appointment that I had it noted down in my cell phone as a reminder and had my alarm set two hours before the appointment. Getting there was not much of a problem but finding a parking bay was, especially since I had a car tailing me so closely all the way round the spiral route leading up several parking levels. I missed two empty spots since I couldn't backtrack with him breathing down on me.

One has to be off vitamins and calcium for at least three days before the scan. I went even further by not taking them a week before. You aren’t required to fast but you’re advised to come wearing clothes without zips or buttons. The instruction on the appointment letter was to wear T-shirt and track bottoms. The scan was to check for signs of osteoporosis due to a recurring weak knee cap and pain in the lumbar region.

You lie down on the bed with both your knees over a box and the overhead scan which uses a large camera travels over your spine. The radiographers watch the scan in the same room from the computer. The second scan x-rays your femur bone. The results are given to you almost immediately.

I was told that my calcium level was in good shape. If that’s the case, I wonder what’s the cause of my bone aches. Now I have to wait until February, next year to see the Medical side, a wait of eight months all together. And it all began with a case of severe ache! Wake up, University Hospital and revamp your system! There could be patients who have died waiting for an appointment!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

American English versus British English

If you compare English television broadcast in Beijing and Guangzhou, you will notice that up north, local newscasters and anchormen use American English, whereas in Guangzhou, British English is used. The obvious reason for the latter is its close proximity to Hong Kong. This is not confined to the square box only, but to the classroom as well. Having had the experience of teaching both in Beijing and Guangzhou, I had to adapt to the local accent of both environments.

These days I'm beginning to fall in love with the British accent. From the right speakers, it comes forth so classy - very pleasant to the ear. It's just like Pudonghua or Mandarin. When I listen to someone speak Beijinghua, I just wish I could speak like that.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

English Corner

English corners are a phenomena found on campuses throughout Chinese universities in mainland China. They are often initiated by students from English faculties. Why, one may ask would English major students need the English Corner? Don’t they have enough of English in class? Yes, but in class, very often they are passive listeners. After class, most students revert to speaking in the mother tongue. Trying to speak English outside of class may not go down well among peers unless they are convinced of the advantages of being able to communicate the language spontaneously.

Oral English lessons account for the most two hours per week or less and students naturally want to have a chance to practice the language in a real environment and the English Corner seems to be the best place. Apart from that, the forum acts as a good place to meet up with students from other faculties.

Some of these clubs are quite well run. Foreign teachers are invited to share about their lives and experiences and to answer questions from the audience. Some times they want the foreign guests to sing as well –anything in English, would be welcome.

Friday, November 30, 2007

KLCC Twin Towers

Last week, I scored another first, despite my physical ailments. I went up the sky bridge on the 42nd floor of the KLCC Twin Towers. The escalator moves at one second per floor, so it took less than a minute to reach the skybridge. Talk about modern technology. You get a panoramic view of Kuala Lumpur’s high rise buildings but the most beautiful views were the bird’s eye view of the various sections of the park below.

I wrote an article about KLCC when it was still new. I was freelancing at that time. I wonder if it ever was published? Sometimes, you do a write up, interview people but the article doesn’t see the print. It can be pretty embarrassing and can cause misunderstandings. It is something beyond the control of the writer. I hope readers understand. It’s the editor that calls the shot.

Anyway, my Xuzhou students tell me that someone from Xuzhou was involved in the designing or architectural aspect of the complex. They are very proud of him.

Help! I've got a fishbone stuck in my throat! Part 2

My headache throbbed on mercilessly. Each time I worked on my computer, my eyes automatically shut and I dozed off more than did my work. Finally, I wised up and took a complete break. I decided to focus on something which I’ve always wanted to do but never got round to. I decided to learn how to make bread. Before I could do that, I had to send my Cornell oven for repair. I hardly used the oven because I didn’t know how to adjust the temperature. The service people told me the heating element was faulty. No wonder. I bought all my ingredients and just when I was about to begin, I discovered that the scale was not functioning.

I had to invest in a new one. I found one at TESCO, weighed out the ingredients and followed the recipe to the T but halved the proportion. Twenty minutes into the over, I sniffed. Something was burning alright. I opened the oven and saw a burnt crust. I turned down the temperature from 180 degrees centigrade to 160 and reduced the time from 45 minutes to 40 minutes. Here’s the outcome. Looks yuk but at least, its cooked and it taste like bread.

Help! I've got a fishbone in my throat!

It’s been an agonizing week, healthwise. A fishbone or scale, (till this day, I don’t know which) got stuck in my throat. I tried swallowing bananas and drinking lots of water but the object kept jabbing my throat. I couldn’t do a thing!

It was so bad, I had to go to the emergency ward where they did an X-ray and confirmed it was a bone. It looked like a figure seven hanging on to the larynx. It looked so huge on the –x-ray, it scared the life out of me! They gave a referral to the Ear, Nose and Throat Department. There the experts in the field stated that everyone has that bone. The doctor then did a scan, through my nostril, but she couldn’t see a thing. The machine wasn’t clear. (That’s based on her conversation with the hospital attendant). Then she did the scan through my throat. I felt the bone hurting me but still she couldn’t see a thing. Her supervisor came in. He, too didn’t see a thing. So he gave me two options. Take a course of antiobiotics or have my throat opened up and the latter was no guarantee that the bone could be found. I didn’t have to consider. I took the safer option.

Meanwhile I came home and tried one home remedy after another. I swallowed vinegar, the rationale being that the acidic properties in it would dissolve the bone. It didn’t work. I drank glasses of black vinegar mixed with Sprite to make it more palatable. That didn’t help. I swallowed rice balls – all to no avail.
I suffered though the week, which was compounded by a throbbing headache on my right temple. No amount of Paracetemol could get rid of it. Finally, I decided to go for a massage, to get rid of the headache. The headache remained but thank God, the jabbing sensation in my throat is gone.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

IELTS Listening (contd)

The IELTS listening test last 30 minutes and consists of four sections, each with increasing difficulty. Before the test begins, the examiner will play a pre-test tape. This is the time for candidates to adjust their earphones to the volume that they are most comfortable with. There should be no question of the ear phones not working because the equipment are usually tested by technical staff before the exams.
There is also no basis for the sound being unclear since the tapes are professionally produced unless of course, there is an oversight. If a candidate is unhappy, he or she can address the problem in the feedback form that is given at the end of the writing test. If you are unhappy with your results, you can ask for it to be reviewed. However, to do that you have to pay a fee.

Friday, November 23, 2007

IELTS Listening

Cheryl C. wasn’t too happy about the IELTS Listening Test that she took recently. In fact, she was a bit worried about her performance. Her English is good, but IELTS is a requirement for non native English speakers who wish to pursue their studies in the UK and Australia. She admits that age has to do with her listening test. Cheryl is in her early forties. Although she understood the script, trying to recall the information was not easy. She added that the other problem was that it was too fast.

My advice to those sitting for the exam is to know the format of the Test from the back of your hand and practice, practice, practice. If you keep practicing, your mind would be attuned to the speed of the task and the expected questions.
As for Cheryl, I don’t think you should worry too much. I’m sure your score will meet the university requirements.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Diet and Cancer

The link between what we eat and cancer has been proven repeatedly by scientists. The message issued by the American Cancer Society is loud and clear – eat more fruits and greens and less red meat and carbohydrates. The information is not new but serves as a good reminder. The first few days of adjusting to such a diet would be critical. One challenge would be how to deal with the inevitable hunger pangs. Learn to nibble on an apple, a carrot, cucumber, banana or anything that can be eaten raw. Take soya bean curd or soya bean water. Have a handful of almond nuts which are good for the heart.

Exercise regularly. When we sweat out, we actually cleanse our internal system by releasing toxic and excess salt. Lift weights while watching your favorite TV program. Lifting weights make one’s muscles lean and reduces the risk of falls which are fatal if one is suffering from osteoporosis.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A dog is man's best friend

A dog is man's best friend. As far as I can remember, there was always a dog in the house. My dad loved dogs. He once brought in a stray, pregnant dog, gave it an old blanket and a corner in the back portion of the house. When Blackie delivered a litter of puppies, he provided confinement food in the form of ginger chicken.

It was no wonder, the dog remained faithful to him. One time, my father was so ill, he had to remain in bed for several days. We, his children thought nothing of his illness. We were our usual selves, playing,laughing or fighting. Not Blackie. She stayed under his bed and refused any food until Dad recovered. Blackie, Buddy and Sunny were never toilet trained. Yet, they somehow knew where to go when nature called. I suppose, a kampong atmosphere with plenty of wide open space helps.

Dogs in housing estates, however, are different.They are confined within the four corners of the lot and have to depend on owners to take them out for runs and to do their business. The sad thing is that some dog owners, allow their dogs to do business along the road, in front of other people's houses AND they do not bathe their dogs. Can you imagine how intolerable it is to have to suffer the stench of dog shit each time there's a breeze?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Speech and Drama Programs

I have a brochure at hand advertising speech and drama courses by a private educational center. Speech and drama are very effective methods in improving oral English. When I was in China, English speech competitions were highly regarded and encouraged. One of my students, whom I helped coached, emerged as the provincial champion. It was no small feat! She went through different levels - class, college, inter-college, provincial and then national level to win the title. The national level was sponsored by the British Council at that time. I'm not sure if the British Council is still sponsoring the program.

Drama too is another way to help students lose their inhibitions and fear of speaking English. Many foreigners complain that Chinese students are non participative. The ones I had in a college were such a blessing! They were enthusiastic and serious about learning English. I got them to make dramas out of news items and songs! Boy! Sometimes, they surprised me with their vivid creativity and imagination.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Give the children a break from studies

The holidays have begun but parents are not about to let their children out of "school." Apart from a few days of holiday outings, the rest of the long holidays are spent studying to equip for better performance for the next hurdle. Thus children are enrolled for holiday classes, run either by the school or private centers. Very popular are courses for preparation of high stake examinations such as the UPSR, PMR SPM with focus on major subjects like Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mathematics and Science.

I'm not against learning but as the saying goes All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Another saying with similar inference is There's a season for everything - a season for work and a season for rest.

Children should be allowed to expand their horizon beyond their studies. Exposing them to spheres outside of academic subjects will actually make better students. Drama, creativity courses and survival camps would serve them better in the long run than dry, academic subjects. This has been confirmed by educational experts who suggest that we bring our prior knowledge into our studying.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Teaching language through culture

Thanksgiving is approaching. It’s an American holiday and is usually celebrated on the second last Thursday of November of each year. Its tradition dates back to the first Thanksgiving by the Early Pilgrims who celebrated their first successful harvest in the new land with the Red Indians who had helped them to adjust in the new land and taught them how to plant and fish.

Today, Thanksgiving in the States is celebrated usually with families, much like the Chinese family reunion dinner on the eve of the Lunar New Year. The signature dish seems to be the Thanksgiving turkey.

In China, most American teachers celebrate the occasion with their students. Although I’m not American I did the same with my students in order to expose them to American culture.

I remember in one Thanksgiving, I had the class think of one item to be thankful for. Many of the young ones said they were thankful for their parents, but three comments stood out and these were from those who had experienced the Cultural Revolution, first hand.
Cai Xu, an associate professor said he was thankful for Deng Xiao Peng who re-opened the universities. Otherwise, he would have been a carpenter. In those days, intellectuals were discriminated against and his mother put him in a carpentry school to avoid being stigmatized. He attended one day of carpentry class but quit the next day when the universities re-opened.

Monitor Fung was thankful because he and his siblings were never short of food since his mother was in charge of the ration cards during the revolution.

Mary had a hard time during the Cultural Revolution. Her family suffered hunger and cold. From her sharing, one could tell her family had no guanxi or connection. In China, good guanxi can make the most difficult task a piece of cake!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Malaysian English

It's funny because when we're with English speaking foreigners, we use official English but when we're among ourselves, we tend to switch code, use the local accent and of course, throw in our famous la's at the end of sentences. Somebody sent this to me via e-mail. I'm sorry I'm able to cite the source but there cemented is a good example of Malaysian English.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

High Stake Exams

The UPSR results are out! Joey passed with 7A's. Her mother, Li Qi was overjoyed. So am I! I had taught her and her siblings English.
"How will you reward her?" I asked the mother.
"We'll see," she responded.
I wonder if this high stake exam will still be on next year. There was talk that it might be scrapped because it can be a source of great stress for candidates. It's true that written exams may not be the best assessment of a student's abilities. After all, one's performance in a big exam is dependent on several factors apart from head knowledge. An otherwise brilliant student may not perform well because some circumstance has upset his/ her equilibrium. A cold, poor sleep, bad news can take its toil on one's thinking skills at a time such as this.
Despite such factors, I personally feel that exams are valid instruments for assessment.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Idiomatic Sayings

GB enjoyed the Ipoh salt chicken so much that he crunched the bones to bits. Laughingly he said, “My brother says that when I eat chicken, the dogs and the cats cry.” He means that he had so cleaned up the chicken bones that there is nothing left for the domestic animals to enjoy.

I liked the way he expressed his enjoyment for the dish. In fact, I often encourage my students to use local idiomatic expressions in their essays. After all, different races have their own way of expressing the same thing. Let’s take jealousy for instance. The English language expresses it as green eyed jealousy. The Chinese express the same emotion as : So and so has red eyes.

Monday, November 12, 2007


Sun Yi asked in an e-mail what is the meaning of set aside.

The English language has many idioms. For instance the verb put has idiomatic phrases like put away, put on, put up with.

Knowing how to use such phrases will go a long way in helping one's oral as well as written expressions.

Set aside
has several meanings.
1. It can mean to put aside what you're doing to concentrate on something urgent/ or important at hand.

The mother set aside her laundry when the baby started yelling.
Jane set aside her homework to help the younger brother with his mathematics.
She set aside her ambitions for a tertiary education to take care of an ailing father.

2. One can set aside something : eg savings/ time
She set aside monthly savings for emergency purposes.
The busy father set aside time for his growing child.

3. In law, set aside means that a court decision is not valid.

The High Court set aside the Session's Court's decision.

Photoshop Elements6 made easy!

Today I stumbled on the lazy man's way of using this program. Click on the Edit button on the upper right hand side. Then select Guided. A dialogue box appears asking what would you like to do?

he drop down menu gives several options-basic photo edits which include cropping, rotating and straightening. Then there is lighting adjustment, color correction. Then there is the Guided Activity The last category allows one to work on a project and is grouped under Photomerge/ Group Photo and Faces.

The tools are easy to use. When you click on the crop icon, a box appears immediately on your subject and all you have to do is to resize it by using the arrows to shift it up or down or left or right. The lighting and color corrections uses a slider for adjustment. The Guided Activity helps to take care of blemishes, scratches and marks in the photos.

I have here a picture of Xiao Hong taken with my Nokia cell phone. The picture has been cropped and adjusted for lighting and color.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Cropping tool in Photoshop Elements6

I’m still imbued with Photoshop Elements 6. I’ve got a side profile of a young Indian beauty with all her features in perfect proportion. I tried the cropping tool to remove the background but failed miserably. I didn’t seem to be able to capture the portion I wished to retain. In other words, my subject turned out to be in discarded area, which wasn’t what I wanted.
I tried to preset the crop size but still failed.

I soon realize that it was easier to go Image>Crop to get the job done. Here’s the outcome. I hope the borders will vanish.

Friday, November 9, 2007

My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blooms...Song of Solomon 1:14a

I met a young a web administrator at the Adobe Photoshop Workshop 2007. She commented that I could pass off as a Malay or Chinese. I suppose it’s because I wear a scarf. I wear it not for vanity sake but to cover my flaming, henna dyed hair. I hate the color but between grey hair and red, I’d rather opt for the latter. I can’t use commercial dye because of a sensitive scalp.

It is interesting that henna is mentioned in the Bible in the Song of Solomon 1:14:

My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blooms
In the vineyards of En Gedi (New KJV)

According to Biblical scholars, the henna shrub was planted in vineyards to prevent soil erosion and to protect the grape vines from attacks of wild animals. The reference here has romantic connotations. We are talking about Biblical society two thousand years ago.

Henna in our century is still used in the context of romance. Indian women use henna for a variety of purposes that smack of religious as well as aesthetic connotations. The high fashion world has adopted henna as a hair dye as well as a body tattoo dye. The Malay bride-to be –dips her fingers in henna – a beautification ritual.

The inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible has been proven beyond doubt, in history, archeology, culture etc. This is another example that proves the Book of Life is indeed as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago.

The picture has been edited from Haslina Henna Mashoor Dawakhana Package.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Adobe Photoshop Workshop 2007

Sorry, only tea and coffee provided. I don't blame the organizers. I was told there was an audience of close to 4,000. The majority were those in their twenties and early thirties.I found myself lost in the sea of Photoshop's terminology. Did I hear cloze or clone, stack or stuck, opacity or capacity? Whatever it was, fiery Filipina, Marianne sent us reeling with her power knowledge. She even put herself on the chopping board using a picture of herself at her worst and appying the magic of Photoshop to correct the fierce, red blotches on her cheeks. I salute you, Marianne. That was such an effective teaching method. That image will be embedded in my mind for some time.

Christine went on to further prove the limits of Photoshop. Baby fat, unwanted moles, disappearing acts- phew!!! With the click of the mouse using lighting effects, filter, mask -tools in the program, a village girl can be transformed into Miss Malaysia! Now, I understand why some videos are not admissable as court evidence.

The last speaker, a French Australian took Photoshop to the zenith, showing how it can be used by professionals like doctors and architects. It was a long day. Many waited for the lucky draw. The winners were over the moon. The prizes included CS 3, CS3 Extended worth RM4000 or more. There were free courses as well. Unfortunately for me, I have to contend with my now 26 days left of my free download of Photoshop Element 6.

By the way, don't forget your name card for the next workshop. It is used as part of the draw. I took a picture of the event with my Nokia cellphone and took the opportunity to use Photoshop Element 6 to lighten the dark areas, using Enhance >Adjust Lighting.

blog reviews

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Emergence of Asian Educational Hubs

Until 1997, several Asian countries including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea were riding high, attracting high foreign interest investment and maintaining good currency exchange rates. Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea were nicknamed the young economic tigers. Suddenly, almost without warning, at least to the man on the street, interest rates started tumbling and naturally the currency exchange rate followed suit.

What was affordable was now exorbitant and this was particularly true of western education. Parents found themselves unable to support their children's education abroad and many had to return home unable to complete their tertiary education.

Many who had aspired to go overseas for further studies thought they would never see the chance of ever owning foreign degrees. Fortunately for them, they were wrong. Private entrepreneurs in the education industry turned the financial disaster into a blessing by introducing twinning programs which allowed students to still own foreign degrees but at a lower cost through the 2+1 program or its equivalent option. The 2+1 means two years of study in Malaysia with the final year at the related western university.

At the same time, these private institutions gained experience through their exposure with their western counterparts and were soon able to conduct their own bachelor’s degrees. Some have even been able to offer master's degrees.

This was followed by changes in the Education Act which allowed for liberalization in the education field to allow for the establishment of more private universities which were allowed to recruit foreign students since English was allowed to be the medium of instruction.

The flourishing of Asian educational hubs was aided not just by the lower cost but as an outcome of 9/11 which made obtaining a student’s visa from the US or UK almost impossible. This accounted for not just the large number of students from the Middle East but those from China as well.

What does this reversal in trend imply for foreign universities that previously had strong foreign enrollment? Every adversity in business can be turned into an opportunity. Several Australian universities have stepped up on their research strengths, reinforced partnerships with local Malaysian institutes. In the recent past, some have even set up branch campuses.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

English Foreign Teaching and Learning

How old are you? How much do you make a month? Are you married? What's your weight? Ask these to a westerner and you're likely to lose a potential friendship but pose the same questions to Asians and very likely, you'll receive a good natured response without any fear of the question being misconstrued. That is one key difference one encounters in multicultural linguistics. Today, we'll raise this issue in the light of EFL teaching and learning in an Asian context.

Traditionally, students from Asia would go to English speaking countries to pursue tertiary education. But 9/11 , the Asian economic crisis and globalization seems to have reversed the trend -or almost. These days, educational hubs in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and India attract their own people as well as foreigners with degrees from Western universities through twinning programs at half the cost. Not only do these institutions offer western courses, they also have their own courses which are just as competitive and taught by well qualified lecturers.

The presence of foreign students is a totally new form of dynamics for both teachers and students in the host country. Apart from knowledge content, how will the EFL teacher convey his lesson effectively? How will the learner respond to the teaching? As we know, language is more than just knowledge of grammatical rules and how to say this and that. A lot of culture goes into the nuances of a language as we saw in the taboo questions above. Does an EFL teacher in Malaysia teach western culture or Malaysian culture in the classroom context? How does one compromise with the way certain things are expressed? Malaysians like to say "let's tackle it this way." Some of my western friends say that's not the way they would express how to deal with a problem. Then of course, there is the issue of the different Englishes- Malaysian English, Singlish, Qinglish and what have you. You here an Asian speaking with an Australian accent and you know he's had his education from Down Under. What happens when you hear a non Malaysian speaking English with the 'lah,' at the end of each sentence. What would your reaction be? Malaysians know when to speak proper English to a westerner and to revert to our own lingo among ourselves. Would our foreign students know how to do the same? Any comments?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Venting my frustration!!!

My exam paper was finally done, so I thought. What a relief! No sooner had I submitted it, I was told we had to design the paper based on the new syllabus. How frustrating can it be! Why couldn't they have told us earlier? Such a waste of man hours! Urggh!!!!!

Friday, July 13, 2007

College should be fun!!!

It is so sad to find students coming to college, unprepared for the skills of college reading. Life must be one uphill trudge. Think of the reading assignments! And having to do it, word for word, looking up the meanings of words that should have been part of their vocabulary in school. I feel sorry for them. Many drop out unable to cope with such curriculum demands.

How do we conduct remedial work in the midst of lesson preparation, grading and administrative work? No wonder teachers are washed out by the end of the day. No wonder they are compared to the flickering candle that blows out by the slightest waft of the breeze.

For weak students, the college would have to prepare remedial courses to teach the skills of reading and writing and assign supervisors to monitor assignment in stages until the students can handle complete assignments on their own. Students shouldn’t have to go through such misery if their teachers had taught them the skills of reading while in school. College out to be fun!!!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Newspapers for speaking, reading and writing

It is well documented that newspapers are an effective means of teaching a language. In many ESL environments, students read newspapers in their own language. How then can teachers turn this situation tinto an asset in order to teach English?

It will be to the teacher’s advantage if they know the students’ language. But this is not often the case. However, not all is lost. The teacher can either get the best student in class to translate the selected news item for the lesson. At the same time, the teacher can read the same piece of news in the English newspaper. Of course, this has to be done in the preparatory stage.

Then the instructor can write up her lesson plan and objectives. In my personal opinion, it is more effective to discuss topics that are nearer home to the students and of greater interest to them. Since lack of vocabulary is the main stumbling block for oral discussion and writing, the teacher would need to work out the vocabulary. Much of class time will also be spent on how to use the new words in different situations.

The activity involves reading, speaking and writing as well as word building. As a spin off, it can be turned into a drama, a mock trial, a debate etc depending on the story.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Of American Idol and ESL Music

Music is a universal language. Long before they could speak English fluently, many Chinese students I knew were belting out current hits like professionals! No doubt, their foreign teachers provided some impetus. However, these days with American Idol, music videos and karaoke, students do not need adult motivation in this direction.

Since students learn more effectively if they are interested, why not take advantage of this to stage song competitions as part of language learning? Certain songs can be turned into dramas. I remember teaching my students Nat King Cole’s “Bicycle Built for Two" – an oldie but goodie. I then divided the class into different groups to present stories out of that song. I was pleasantly impressed by their performances! Trust young people’s imagination with romances! The most important thing is that the students are learning the language the fun way! A song can also be turned into a comprehension piece or a ‘fill in the blank’ passage.

American Idol as well as other reality shows can be used as the basis for oral English discussions concerning young people, trends, culture and new technology. Or it can be turned into a debate on the judging criteria, talent versus looks, comparison of American and Asian singers, comparison of the various contestants, an appraisal of the three judges and many more issues!

How to get students interested in reading

Weak students often drown under the weight of college reading assignments due to lack of vocabulary, poor grammar and poor reading skills. Lack of interest in the subject matter too plays a part. The teacher is unable to give such students easier reading tasks because they have a syllabus to complete.

To overcome such problems, I often get my students to read the night before and to find out the meanings of difficult words. During class, I would have a quiz on synonyms or antonyms related to the assignment at hand. Very often, I would go over the meaning of words with them, illustrating their meaning by making sentences or by giving examples. Sometimes, I use cloze passages to test their new vocabulary.

I remember one particular reading assignment that was related to baby snatchers. It coincided with front page news about a senior government official who had just married a woman, more than twenty years his junior. We turned that topic into a debate and it was one of those rare moments for a teacher to see disinterested students suddenly becoming enthusiastic about their reading. Their ability to relate the reading text to what was happening around them was the reason for the change of mindset.

IELTS Reading Test

There are three reading passages and test takers are required to answer 40 questions within 60 minutes. Test items are graded in terms of difficulty. The length of the passage is between 1500-2500 words. Due to the length of the texts and the time constraint, students often make mistakes which include rushing through the text without really understanding what they read or reading too slowly with the result that they are unable to answer all the questions.

To avoid these mistakes, learn to speed read. Take a reading passage which is about 1500 words long, time your reading and calculate your reading speed by dividing the number of words read over the time clocked to get your speed per minute.

Learn to skim over a passage very quickly to get a general gist of the article. Then read more carefully, underlining important points, taking into consideration, topic sentences as well as discourse markers before reading the comprehension questions. Then scan for the answers.

When you come across a difficult word, read the sentence before and the sentence after
it to make an intelligent guess of the meaning. You will not be penalized for wrong answers, so make sure you attempt all questions.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Reading and Writing Strategies

Contrary to popular belief, reading is not a passive activity. We bring our background knowledge into our reading. For example, when we read about badminton, immediately we associate it with various competitions such as the Thomas Cup, the All England Championship or the Sudirman Cup. We think of singles and doubles, badminton court, shuttlecocks, rackets and the three countries that predominate in this game –China, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Likewise, when we read about bird flu, (Avian Influenza) the virus that is transmitted from fowls to humans, instantly, we think of mass culling of fowls, its economic effects on poultry farmers and the Kentucky Fried Chicken industry as well inoculations and vets.

If we make a habit of reading using the above methods, the text in question becomes more interesting. And we can go one step further by responding to the text with our written thoughts. Reading strategies are important not just in IELTS but in college where we really need to know how to deal with heavy reading assignments.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Sharpening listening skills -Part II

Another effective way of helping elementary students in their listening ability is for the instructor to invite a few volunteers to the front of the class and tell them they need to obey whatever instructions you call out. The rest of the class will watch the action.Then call out one word orders like "stand, sit, jump, hop, jog, run, laugh, cry, blink, sleep..etc, etc. The volunteers only act out your orders. Once they get the hang of the game, let one of the volunteers act the role of issuing the instructions while the rest of the class obeys.

For the slightly more advanced classes, play 'Simple Simon Says.' They'll enjoy it. And they'll learn multiple skills the fun way because the game reinforces the following :
1. third person verb with an 's'- eg : says' instead of 'say.'
2. the game stetches their vocabulary bank.
3. tests their pronunciation skill since a badly pronounced would lead to confusion.
4. Last but not the least, the game reinforces leadership skill.

Point out these positives to the students to convince those who think that playing games is a waste of class time.

Acquiring listening skills

A good lesson can have a deep impact on the learner. I learned the art of teaching listening skills from a course organised by the British Council, more than a decade ago. It's still stuck in my mind and I apply it whenever suitable and the resulting outcome never disappoints.

This is how it's done. Relate to your students about your family, throw in some interesting details but do not allow them to write it down.

Then test their ability to relate what they've just heard.

Such lessons are very effective for elementary students.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Vocabulary learning

College curriculum makes little allowance for vocabulary learning. This implies that the initiative is left very much to students themselves. My students tend to use their electronic dictionaries in class. They come across a difficult word in their reading or listening, flip open their e-dictionary, check up the word, very often without any regard to the word in context and promptly forget its meaning after the lesson.

It is the same too with students preparing for IELTS. They have the misconceived notion that they need to know at least ten thousand words in order to excel in IELTS. Very often, they learn words in isolation, including bombastic words that one hardly hears of! And it isn’t their fault! Their instructors at privately run IELTS centers often impress them with such words! Vocabulary is important if students are to understand not just reading but speaking, listening and writing. Teaching them the base words, their derivatives, different meanings of the same word as well as idioms will do much to help them during tests to make intelligent guesses of new words.

I feel thematic teaching also helps in systematic vocabulary building. For instance, a theme on weddings would take into account, the main players, their roles, the wedding banquet, the wedding gifts, the taboos and so on… Imagine the number of words learnt just from a topic like this. Their meaning becomes reinforced if they dramatize the activity, sing songs about it or watch a movie pertaining to it. Teachers will find that their students will begin to enjoy learning English words when the right scaffolding is provided.

Playing vocabulary quizzes, scrabbles, word puzzles are some fun and challenging ways to help ESL students prepare for their IELTS.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Mock Weddings!

I was teaching in an English center once where they had a three and half months, intensive, stay-in course. The finale of the course was a mock wedding where the sponsors and the press were invited guests and it was an occasion which exposed the students to foreigners where they could practise their English. Among the students was a former civil servant who was preparing to immigrate to Canada and several others who had similar dreams.

Four weeks before the real event, I began exposing the class to the vocabulary and culture related to weddings. For instance, I taught them the symbolism of the wedding ring – that its shape symbolizes the permanency of the marriage contract which implied that when they see an attractive man with a wedding ring, they should know that he’s been taken and vice versa. Thus culture and moral values came into play whenever appropriate.

Of course, an expected question was why the wedding dress is white in color? Each person in the class was given a role. The ‘father’ of the ‘bride’ was the oldest in the class. He was given the responsibility of giving a speech and a toast. A week before the ‘wedding’ one could feel the tension in the centre! Each person was memorizing his/her lines. The ‘groom’ and the ‘bride’ rehearsed aloud their wedding oaths as they marched up and down the long, narrow, hostel corridor! Every evening, for a week before the real event, we went over the ceremony and practised the wedding march from the corridor to the 'altar' to perfection.

I had meant for them to use things around their environment for the wedding –flowers plucked from the roadside, a white lace which was in the center to be used as the bridal veil, simple food like nuts and popcorn but no siree! The students wanted everything to be in style.

They rented real costumes from a wedding company, ordered a three tiered cake and had an expensive bridal bouquet!

They had a hilarious time and for some, it was their first encounter with Caucasians. To be able to converse and to be understood in English left them in a state of euphoria for days !

I know the experience left a deep mark in their language learning experience. As for me, I learnt further the importance of being sensitive to the culture of my students. I had given the role of recording the event to the second oldest student in the class who thought the task was beneath him but he didn’t tell me this. Instead, he nursed a grudge until after the course, when he spilled it out during one of our get togethers!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Tongue twisters

Tongue twisters are often a challenge to eager students but occasionally, teachers get students who pour acid down on such so called ‘kindergarten’ approach. How does one prove to unconvincing students on the effectiveness of tongue twisters for improving speaking?

One way is to change their mindsets. I often tell the story of how Winston Churchill, who despite his lisp and stammer rose to be a world renowned orator. (I read his story umpteen years ago in Reader’s Digest).

Then I tell them how some of the best Hollywood actors recite tongue twisters to help them perform their lines more fluency. Following which, I bring home the point that if native speakers need tongue twisters to improve their speaking, how much more learners of the language.

To further impress my unenthusiastic students, I would explain the role of the tongue when we say certain English alphabets. For example, the different positions of the tongue when we utter the sounds of ‘l’ ‘r’ ‘th’ and ‘t.

When I present ‘Betty Baker’ in class, I give both the British and American rendition to emphasize the differences between British and American English. You will find that once students are convinced of the helpfulness of tongue twisters to their speaking, they will become more eager.

There are different versions of the Betty Baker tongue twister. This is the one I use.
“Betty Baker bought a bit of bitter butter to bake a bit of bitter butter cake
A bit of bitter butter cake did Betty Baker bake.”

Telling stories to improve speaking

One of my assignments for my Masters in TESOL course was to write an analysis of a high stake examination. The task required me to observe how such an examination was conducted, to assess its strengths and weaknesses and to interview the candidates to obtain first hand response. I chose IELTS because many of my students were future candidates for the examination. The security surrounding any high stake examination is always tight and IELTS is no exception. So after several weeks of email correspondence, followed by phone calls, I was finally permitted to observe one such examination being conducted, subject to stringent conditions.

I asked the candidates what worried them most about their Speaking Interview. Their response was: “poor grammar,’ pronunciation and fear of being tongue tied.” Their anxieties sum up the general feeling of most ESL students preparing for the IELTS. The main cause for their worries is the lack of exposure to an English speaking environment. This implies that they speak and learn English only within the confines of the classroom but once out in the market place or at home, they revert to their mother tongue.

In order to improve students’ speaking proficiency, I often tell them inspiring stories taken from 'Chicken Soup for the Soul’ or from other reading sources as well as TV programs. Then I make them repeat the stories in their own words.
They continue to rehearse the same stories or stories of their choice as they go about their daily business and to present them in class or to willing listeners. At the same time, they are encouraged to maintain a constant dialogue with themselves in English based on potential IELTS topics. This approach has been very effective in improving spoken English.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

First Language Interference

When I first started using a cell phone, everything about it was strange and almost intimidating. Isn't it the same for everything new, including language? Just as I needed time to go beyond the basics of handling the new technology, my students had to get used to speaking the English language. Often, their first language slipped into the new one. One case I remember, glaringly, to this day, was a sentence a student made. It was something to the effect of :

"My dry father visited us during the holidays."

"Uh, my dry father?" I repeated, eyes blinking.

At that point of time, my Mandarin vocabulary was limited and I didn't understand that it was a literal translation of the Mandarin word for 'godfather.' Luckily for me, a more advanced student came in to the rescue.

This illustration shows how helpful it would be for an ESL teacher to understand the language of students in order to help them correct their errors.

Here's another illustration to support my case. I used to literally grit my teeth whenever my students apply gender terms 'he, she' or 'they' interchangebly with no care for the actual gender in consideration. Then I found out that there are no gender equivalents for these personal pronouns in Chinese. Once I realised it, the irritation I felt dissipated. I knew right away, the source of their problem and was in a better position to guide them.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

IELTS Interview

There are two types of IELTS tests - they are the Academic Paper which is an assessment requirement for entry into universities and the General Paper for miscellaneous purposes including immigration.

For many, the toughest challenge lies not in the writing, listening or even reading module of the IELTS but in the speaking module, often referred to as the interview. The test lasts from 10-20 minutes but that short span of time can seem like an eternity for those who have problems expressing themselves in English.

Long before the test, some candidates spend thousands of dollars in courses to prepare for the exam. Those who can afford may hire personal tutors and be charged by the hour. Some enterprising ones may practise the language with their foreign teachers over meals or outings. They spend hours memorising common topics, not realising that IELTS examiners have been trained to sniff out rehearsed speeches.

Why is speaking English so difficult for some people? I think one major reason is that they think that they can master a language like they do History or Geography - by memorisation. Although memorisation is required to some extent, the secret to successful learning of a language is consistent practice and exposure.

In my travels, I have met with tour operators or taxi drivers who speak English so naturally they put some graduates to shame. The reason they are good is because they pracise the language at work - in authentic situations.

I did the same when I was learning Mandarin at a late age. I applied the new phrases in my shopping, marketing and travelling. If the other party understands what you say -the sense of empowering is pure joy! That's what makes language learning challenging and alive.

At this stage you are still making mistakes. People might laugh at you but if you develop a thick skin and persist, before you even know, you'll be speaking like a pro.

I think the reason why many Chinese, Koreans and Japanese are poor in spoken English is because they revert to their native language whenever and wherever they congregate. I say, learn from the Indians. When Indians from different corners of the world meet, their main language of communication is English. That is why some of the best foreign speakers of English are Indians. Some of the best foreign writers of English are also Indians. (I admit Indian history has a part to play too).

Another reason why I think Chinese, Koreans and Japanese students find it hard to speak English is because they focus too much on the 'perfect accent' to the detriment of their progress. To such people, I wish to remind them that adult, non native speakers will speak with a foreign accent when they learn English.

Remember for the IELTS interview, the examiners know this theory for a fact. As long as your accent does not interfere with your being understood, you are safe.

And don't give the excuse that you're not in the UK or the US and that's why you cannot learn the language well. The cliche 'global village' applies too to language learning. There's always ASTRO, the BBC, VOA and chat rooms where there is some form of authentic environment.

Friday, April 27, 2007

English for success, Mandarin for making money

During the Look East Policy of the seventies, the English language almost suffered a demise in Malaysian schools. Today, many of those in their mid-thirties still carry the scars of that short-sighted policy. Poor grammar, bad pronunciation and poor writing mark those who failed to take the initiative to improve their English.

Fortunately, the language that gave us Shakespeare, Dickens and the King James Bible bounced back with a vengence! English periods more than tripled, important subjects like English and Mathematics are now taught in English and British teachers are imported to serve in rural schools. You need to pass MUET, the university entrance test to get a place in a Malaysian university and you need to have a good grasp of English to land a good job. Globalisation and technology has ensured a permanent place for the English language. This English thing is a worldwide phenomena.

Mandarin or Putonghua is the other sought after language. Again this is not just happening in Malaysia. However, within the Malaysian context, if one were to go to any Malaysian Chinese school (I was about to say a good Chinese school but I've been told that almost all Chinese schools are well run), and you'll see, apart from the Chinese, Indians and Malays as well. You may even run into a head prefect who is an Indian or a Malay. Watch them play in Mandarin.... It's a good feeling. Let us hope that as music and sports unite people, that English, Mandarin and Bahasa Malaysia will build a new generation of Malaysians that cut across racial barriers.

Malaysian parents are pragmatic. Their children should know English for professional success and know Mandarin if they are to capture the world's largest consumer market!!