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Language Proficiency Isn’t a Skill: It’s a Lifestyle

Contributed by Professor Douglas Robinson, Dean of Arts, HKBU

One of the most common complaints one hears at Hong Kong universities is that our students’ English isn’t good enough. Students can’t express themselves orally. Students can’t write academic English. Students can’t read the books and articles assigned to them for class. “What should we do to fix this?” colleagues ask. Should we require all students at HKBU to take four courses in English, or six, or twelve? Would that solve the problem?

Possibly. Learning a foreign language is difficult, and the more time and effort you spend learning it, the more likely it is that you’ll improve markedly. And it’s entirely possible that more required courses would achieve that goal.

But it’s also possible that more required courses would have very little effect at all. As all teachers know, just requiring a student to learn something doesn’t guarantee that s/he will learn it. The student also has to be motivated to learn—and motivation isn’t something anyone can require or demand. It can be inspired by good teaching; but ultimately it has to come from inside each student, often supported by small groups of students learning together.

My suggestion, hinted at in my title, is that we think of language proficiency not as a collection of skills—say, vocabulary plus grammar plus a few pragmatic rules (what constitutes politeness in various contexts, say)—but as a way of living in the world, a way of interacting with other people. Chinese people who have lived in English-speaking countries for many years may have excellent or weak language skills, or something in between; what is typical of the way they use English, though, is that they’re comfortable interacting with others in it. If they don’t know how to say something, they still manage to express themselves, and in a style that puts the person they’re talking to at their ease.

That is the “lifestyle” I mean: that communicative comfort level, or comfort zone. Language proficiency as a lifestyle means not being afraid to enter into conversation in the foreign language—also not being afraid to make mistakes, even to make silly mistakes and be laughed at. Foreign language learning in the classroom is often about correctness, and proving that one has learned the structures well enough to get an A; the lifestyle of communicative comfort is about social interaction, being friendly, being helpful, being interested, and so on.

One thing we can do to help our students improve their English, then, is to encourage them to make friends with foreigners. A Chinese student who strikes up a conversation with a stranger who is obviously not Chinese may not get much of a chance to practice vocabulary items or syntactic structures that s/he has learned in class, but will gain something that may in the long run be much more valuable: a sense of confidence, a sense that “I can do this!” A student who strikes up a single conversation a foreigner and realises that it’s not that scary may be motivated to try it a second time. And a third. And before long that student will be going to the movies with foreigners, going out to eat with them, and so on. And that communicative lifestyle will blossom.

The other thing we can do to help our students improve their English is to be “lifestyle learners” ourselves. (This is as true of us foreigners learning Cantonese as it is of Hong Kong Chinese learning English or other languages.) If we live our own lives as learners, willing to enter into conversations where we don’t feel entirely at home, willing to try and make mistakes and be laughed at, we will unconsciously model that attitude for our students—and our students will benefit.




Back to The BUddy Post February 2013
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