English as a Second Language

Manila Bulletin, June 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

English as a Second Language


FROM my vantage point as a trained linguist by profession, I would like to share with my colleagues in higher education the current findings on the importance of language as an instrument of thought. The psychologists of langauge tell us that to be able to carry on higher order cognitive activities especially of such functions as analysis, synthesis and evaluation, we need language. It is still a disputed question whether or not one can think without language, but it is by now a consensus that for higher order cognitive activity one needs a system of signs or a code to carry on these activities as a kind of tool for hgiher order thinking.

The language could be any language, preferably ones mother tongue because experientially it is easier to do so; however, for thinking at the highest level, such as one carries on even in secondary school and certainly in tertiary education, one needs a language which has been developed sufficiently as a medium of scholarly discourse in its terminologies, its rhetorical structures, and its continuing use for subject matter discourse. Because of historical and social circumstances, some languages seem to lend themselves more easily for use largely because these languages have built up a library of reading resources in special areas and have now what the British linguists call a scholarly register.

The experience with minority students in Scandinavia is such that many of them do not learn enough of their own language (Lapp) and the standard language of the country (Swedish ), so that they become disadvantaged in school and become semilinguals.

According to psycholinguists, which language does not matter; it is necessary however that one learns a language thoroughly enough to be able to think in it and to do higher order activities.

Planning language curricula

In order to be able to avoid the problem of semilingualism which can exist even among university students, we need to insure that there are enough competencies in both the native language and a Language of Wider Communication to ensure academic excellence. Psycholinguists likewise make the suggestion that it is easier to carry on higher order cognitive activity in a second language if one already knows the first language well enough to think in it.

Let me now focus on the special problems of language and communication in a post-colonial society. My knowledge of specific language situations in different ASEAN countries arises from my work in the past at the Regional Language Center in Singapore where we tried to deal with problems of different ASEAN countries with regard to their language problems.

My most important suggestion for any developing country is that a premium should be placed on reading and writing in a language, preferably the national language, or a Language of Wider Communications, at the preuniversity and at the university level, on how to express oneself in writing in the language and how to carry on critical reading. We need to spend time in using a language for critical thinking much more than in the linguistic study of the language as a language, for while such study is good for a linguist, it is not necessarily the best way of using the time for language study at the upper levels. What should be done is to have the students read and write at the more advanced levels and to produce graded materials, properly sequenced, so that reading can go on at the highest intellectualized level of the language being used.

Much more problematic is the Language of Wider Communication which is needed since few countries are self-sufficient in contemporary science. While we must continue to use the national language as eventually a language of mathematics, science, engineering and computer science, there must be a critical mass of university professors and graduate students who are comfortable enough in the university to read the highest technical literature in science written in a Language of Wider Communication. …

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