This post originally appeared on an old blog on 2011-03-31. It’s part of a series of posts which I’m “recovering” from the archives.
I was not the biggest fan of English class at school. Past me goes on a very negative rant. I must have been annoyed at this.
[edited lede 2020]
Learning English Sucks
or “I Hate English!”
First: What is a Rant? Well, A rant is a “speech” or comment that is overly lengthy whose aim is to change the ideas of those who hear or read it to theirs or, at least, to make them understand your views.
So what will i rant about now? This: The State of English language education in schools in Scotland.
Firstly, Why do i need to take exams to prove that i can understand English. The fact that i can be in an English speaking school suggests that i can already. Why do i you need a piece of paper that says you can understand and speak English when you applied for the job using an English application form? it defies logic. If you are from another country then you may want to improve your skills, or if you want to be a teacher, fine. But why should everyone else have to?
Also, the way it is taught. At SQA INT2 level [which is what I’m studying] the main body of the course is either:
- Critical Essay Writing
- Close Reading & Analysis 2010 Papers (link is dead in 2020)
Only a small part of the course is actually about being creative and creating your own stuff. this seems reasonable to you does it? Perhaps you need to know the whole story before you understand.
Well, First i will deal with Critical Essay Writing.
What does it involve? It involves taking a wonderful piece of literature [either a play, a novel or a poem] and deconstructing it to form its basic components which are then, in turn, torn apart to show miniscule bits of data which are then re-built in such a way that it can be analysed to show something completely different that the author/poet/playwright probably did not intend. The worst part is that all we study are texts whose creators are dead so there is no way of confirming the true meaning.
We [my class] have all told our teacher our views, yet despite this, she still refuses to change her tactics on the grounds that “that is what you’re being tested on”. I don’t understand. the famous writers that you read about all have these qualifications yet they are the ones being creative. what we do is the opposite. Yet somehow this is supposed to get us to be good writers. “Logic Fail”, severe “logic fail”.
Also, the general consensus from my class is that after having analysed any piece of work in class, by the time we finish they all hate it. Currently we are working on “ A view from the bridge”, a play by Arthur Miller. Having gone to see it in production we all loved it and couldn’t wait to get started in class. a month passes. We all hate it now. even the mention of it brings tears to our eyes.
Critical essays therefore, rather than teach us English, make us hate it. Very counter-intuitive.
Now i will deal with the monstrosity known as Close Reading
This is split into 2 parts:
- Close Reading [questions on newspaper articles]
- Textual analysis [like essays but short answer questions]
This is even worse. it allows the less able pupils to scrutinize perfectly good pieces of literature and reporting. Yes, admittedly for some of us it advances our vocabulary but for the general student all it does is ensure that they will read next to nothing else in life. our teacher encourages us to “read newspaper articles”. All doing these close readings is that it makes us want to avoid newspapers at all costs.
And textual analysis teaches us no more than the critical essays do. All you are doing is giving short answers, not essays. No imagination here. And teachers wonder why pupils don’t want to learn.
Lastly, i would like to add how disappointed i am in the option choices for my next years study. this Example[link is dead in 2020] should indicate what I’m talking about. what you see may be different to my choice form, but essentially what I’m upset about is that the choice form has only English as a subject i can take in one of the columns. i would much rather have taken computing.
If anyone from GHS is reading this, then heed what I’m saying. you will have to deal with it at some point. We all do. The lack of funding will only make things worse.
p.s. good luck with any upcoming exams and have a nice Easter break.
In my country we study our own language as well. The point is obvious, you aren’t requested to be able to speak, read and write, you must OWN the language. It is like in sports, you train to become the best you can possibly be. I also studied English, which of course is not my native language. Compared to my own, English has got a very simple grammar but it is relatively difficult to pronounce, because, besides the accent, there are basic sounds that don’t exist in my language and vice versa. Plus, English is very irregular, so that you need to know the “spelling”, how each word is written and this is unknown in my language that is very regular so every sound matches exactly the way you write it, good for the youngest.
About essays, they have another goal, you must demonstrate that you understand the concepts by reading any text, even the most difficult one and, on the opposite direction, you can express the most difficult concepts in your language. You achieve this ability by reading increasingly difficult texts and writing down difficult ideas.
Back in my days, high schools came in three kinds, those who gave you a degree for some job, those who gave you a mix education on classical literature, mostly latin, philosophy, etc, and science, maths and physics, those who gave you an education mostly based on classical literature, greek and latin and philosophy. So, mind you, besides english, I also studied latin for five years and I had to read and write it. It was somehow easier because my native language is rooted on latin but the grammar is quite different and complicated. It was interesting then.
Last thing: if you don’t own you language, you can’t think.
This is very true. But I’m still not convinced about how effective the English classes I had at school were. I originally wrote this article a long time ago, and since then I’ve also started to study Japanese and do computer programming. I have 2 insights from that.
1. I think I’ve actually learned more about the English language structure through learning Japanese (a totally different language) than I ever did at school.
2. In computer programming, tools called “static analysers” show the correct way to “master” your language. When I realised these existed I started using them when writing in English and again, they’ve been more helpful than English classes ever were.
I’m sure there was a lot of benefit that I got at school that I’m unawares of, but in terms of how I feel that I’ve improved, I’ve made far more progress outside of school.
And you’re right, English is very strange. I am lucky that I’ve been using it from birth as I would hate to have to learn as an adult.
Of course programming gives you some perspective on spoken languages, it works also in reverse, if you study spoken languages you improve your programming. But I is more than that. Language is the tool you use to make order over the universe, when you think “rational” ideas they always come “ordered” in a language. That is the reason only “rational” ideas can be communicated. In reverse, when you don’t have the language you can’t communicate but before that you cannot think “rationally”.
English is not that strange, it mirrors the history of “english speaking” people. In my own country we had a great civilization whose language was latin and greek for “scholars”. When that civilization collapsed, strangers of any kind came from all around but none of them had a culture that could compare with the old one, most did not even have a written language, so their own languages and customs adapted to old ones, instead of overwriting them. After many centuries we are still speaking a sort of latin dialect, with a simplified grammar. Besides, this is the “national official language” but almost nobody spoke it before the country was unified under the rule of the king of Piemonte (a region in the north). Again, they did not pick the language spoken by the king back then, they picked on purpose the “local language” among the many that was still closer to latin and had the biggest literature available.
To give you an example, it was like the king of England conquers all the different nations of Britain but instead of imposing english to everybody he decides to pick the dialect spoken in Scotland because it is the closest to the language spoken by ancient Britons 1500 years before. That happened in my country about 150 years ago. In WWI the Army still needed interpreters to translate for illiterate soldiers who came from different regions of the country, because they did not spoke the “national language”.
Back to english, it became very irregular because of he influence of old french. Originally “english speakers” used a germanic dialect but you know history of invasions and changes on the top-ruling classes. Plus, “english culture” back then was very dependent from continental Europe, everything was imported. So germanic words that originally had germanic pronounce got a sort of “continental pronounce” that did not match the written letters. In english there are MANY latin words but they don’t come from the Romans, they come from french. In short, you get same sequences of letters that sound different depending on each single word and different sequences of letters that sound the same. As result, a bit like japanese kanji, you need to memorize each single word because you don’t know how to write it correctly. On the plus side, english grammar is very very basic and allows to communicate effectively even when you have just a little knowledge of the language. You make mistakes, you sound strange but the communication is possible. Maybe you aren’t aware of it but it becomes obvious when “non-english speakers” from distant countries speak to each other. They don’t actually speak true english but a sort of basic-conventional-english, that includes the less irregularities and less verb tenses as possible.
You aren’t lucky because of english, you are lucky because after WWII America became the new dominating civilization/culture and imposed “english” as conventional language everywhere. Before WWII it was french. And before it, it was latin, in the modern version used by the catholic church. This means you can expect to meet somebody who knows at least some english everywhere you go. Newton the scientist-alchimist had to write all his studies in latin because at his time that was the language for international communication so if he wanted to be recognized as a “scientist” and also to write to some colleague somewhere, latin was the only option.
Learning english ad “adult” is not that difficult. Besides, in my country you start at the elementary school, it is mandatory. The real issue is you learn to express basic concepts, like computers and such but english is inadequate as a language for more complicated tasks. In fact, it sounds strange but people who study philosophy as a job, need to learn “modern” german and sometimes “ancient” greek, because those are the original languages of philosophers and whatever translation doesn’t cover 100% of the meaning.
Fun fact: you know in my country, despite most people know some english, ALL movies and TV shows are dubbed. There aren’t the subtitles like in some other countries, local actors superimpose their voice over the original ones. Again, when you get used to listen to the original actors you don’t like the dubbed version any more, because there are many “shades” that get lost in the translation (for example, jokes do not translate) and many other “shades” that aren’t present in the original version are added by translation and the other actors. It si a bit like two different movies.
These are some nice insights and a different perspective. Thanks for sharing them.
See, another example. I don’t know if “english speakers” are aware that the problem of not knowing how to read and write words doesn’t exist in other languages.
In my own language anybody out of elementary school knows how to pronounce ANY word they can read and vice versa. Of course there are some exceptions and maybe you aren’t interested but I am telling you. Ancient latin did have one single sound for the “c” letter, that was like your “k”. Like “Caesar”, it sounded much like “kaiser” in german (that means emperor). During centuries the “c” letter got two different pronounces, like “cheese” and “kate”. So in my own language we have some words where “c” sounds “k”, like “casa” (home) and some where it sounds like your “ch”, like “cinema” (which you say like our “s” instead). Ironically, our “k” is written “c” in some words and “ch” in other words, like “chiesa” (church).
I was watching a youtube video about old rifles and the guy, who is american, said “moschetto” with the “ch” like “cheese” and it sounded so strange to my ears because it is the same as “musket” and it sounds the same, “ch” like “k”.
So children in my country need to learn those exceptions, there are a few like “g” that in english has one sound like “giga” but here it also gets two more sounds, “gl” and “gn”, which did not existed in latin either and don’t have any corresponding sound in english.
Another notable fact is that english has got some “generic expressions” that cover multiple meanings/situations, think of combinations with “get” plus something like “get up, get on, get down, get over” and so on. Those don’t exist in my own language so we use more words to express the same concept. We use a word for “get up” and a completely different word for “get down”. Usually the same sentence is much shorter in english than in my language and that comes handy in modern songs. It is another issue for non-native english speakers because we know more or less the meaning of the said above “short/generic” expressions but they aren’t “precise” enough, probably because we can’t “inherit” from the context of the sentence.
I don’t know when to stop. 🙂