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!!