Why is it that a schooled person, assisted by a professional teacher for many years, finds it difficult to speak English fluently? If the techniques of learning another language effectively in a multi-lingual society may be learned among rural multi-lingual speakers of our country, then we as professional teachers and educators need to make our way down to the rural villages to observe and learn about the facts of multilingualism. We can then bring those lessons back into our classrooms as we teach English to our multi-lingual students.
The multi-lingual nature of the Solomon Islands has been here long before English arrived. It is normal that many grow up speaking at least three languages, and many of us speak more. We are good and effective learners when it comes to learning another language. Languages are complex systems and it is not easy to learn another language. The fact that our people are able to learn another language quite apart from the lessons of the classroom can only mean that we are naturally intelligent and we figure out effective ways to learn another language. So why is it that we are not doing well when it comes to learning English in our multi-lingual society? I highlight the following points for further reflection.
Firstly, we need to reflect on multilingualism and our “Difficult Perception” of English. As a multi-lingual society, we have about 70 or 80 languages in the Solomon Islands. Against this multi-lingual situation, we often hear the complaint: “English is a difficult language.” On closer look, this statement reflects more “the difficult mentality” than the nature of the English language. The difficulty is in the mind, not in the nature of the English language. If Solomon Islanders are natural multi-lingual speakers, a piece of evidence that Solomon Islanders are naturally intelligent and good learners of another language, then why do we say that English is a difficult language? It sure is different, but it is just another language. The intelligence of multi-lingual Solomon Islanders in learning another language is obvious in our multi-lingual context. This means they can also learn another language like English.
Secondly, we need to reflect on multilingualism and our approach in teaching the English language. Two relevant questions may be asked in relation to teaching/learning English in the multilingualism context in our country.
First, why is it that village people or small children or anybody in the Solomon Islands, without the assistance of a trained teacher, can speak another language very well? There must be something working in the informal way of learning another language. As educators and teachers, this provides us an opportunity to observe and discover possible approaches that can equip us to teach another language. I have known so many people who have not gone through the formal education system but they have been able to speak several languages. I am amazed when I see little kids learning more than one language and they are not confused .by the second or third language they acquire. As teachers, perhaps we can learn what makes unschooled multi-lingual speakers become good and effective language learners and try to apply those lessons in our teaching or modeling of English.
Second, why is it that our school students, primary, secondary and university students, with the assistance of a professional and trained teacher for many years, cannot speak English fluently? Considering this question, against the way an unschooled person learns another language in our multi-lingual context, might give us ideas as to how to teach English in our multi-lingual society. It is obvious that those who go to the classroom do not pick up English so easily as a spoken language. Why is it? This question also puts teachers, schools and the education authorities at the center of responsibility. Also, the classroom teaching approaches may need to be reviewed and improved. Is the freedom of learning another language in the real world limited by classroom-boxed learning?. Somehow the world must be brought into the classroom if we expect our learners to function in the world out there.
Thirdly, we need to reflect on multilingualism and our formal language learning/teaching styles. Knowing how we learn another language out there in the real world might help us design appropriate styles to employ in the classroom or in a school setting. It is a known and obvious fact that we all learn another language by speaking it first. We mimick the speaker, we make a lot of mistakes, we persist in doing it, and we correct ourselves. Everyone does this including children. We never laugh at ourselves, we take our efforts seriously, and we are not afraid to ask for corrections. We know how to speak a language before we even know how to write it. That being the truth, it should not come as a surprise to us that providing a free and conducive environment for English to be spoken is crucially important.
Learning English in a multi-lingual society like the Solomon Islands may be difficult but not impossible. Our perception that English is a difficult language due to the multi-lingual nature of our country indicates a lack of acceptance of our multi-lingual existence and it does not help us learn English well. Multilingualism is not an obstacle; it is a higher starting point in learning another language like English. We can start with the basic truth that as multi-lingual speakers, we are already demonstrating our intelligence and ability to learn another language. We just need to devise appropriate and relevant approaches in teaching English properly taking into account multilingualism in Solomon Islands.
Dr. Alpheaus Graham Zobule
Executive Director Kulu Language Institute