Catch them young: developing young Yemeni learners into proficient bilinguals

Published on 13 March 2017 in Essays
Dr. Ramakanta Sahu (author)

Dr. Ramakanta Sahu


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Communication is one of the most complex of all human functions. Efficiency in handling the process of communication is the single most strategic factor that determines all human relations at the personal, regional, national, and international levels.

Communication is not a unitary process, but rather is the result of a proper coordination among a number of factors as sensory, perceptual, cognitive, motor and linguistic functions.

If an individual has access to the systems of one language only for discharging all the complex communicative tasks, he more often than not, suffers from a sever limitation, which is eased out if he has the advantage of knowing another language to lend support to him when the first language fails to stand him in good stead to adequately express his ideas in certain fields.

As a matter of fact, there are certain areas or domains where the second language can perform the communicative functions more competently than the first language. It would then seem clear that in matters of communication knowing two languages is decidedly better than one.

In Yemen, the presence of members of several language communities like Indians, Russians, French, Dutch, Germans, as well as English speaking communities all of whom play a vital role in the country's progress in strategic areas such as education, health, telecommunication, multinational business and investment, tourism, and the hospitality trade and so fort.

There is an ardent need of an efficient link language, which can undeniably be English. The network of education in the fitness of things, produce young men and women who are proficient in at least two languages - Arabic and English so as not to be handicapped by the lack of knowledge of an appropriate medium of communication while working in these fields. As such, there is no denying the fact that it richly pays to be an efficient bilingual.

Arabic-English bilinguals?

The question, then that naturally crops up is: what constrains our young generation to become Arabic-English bilinguals? Why should they be hapless victims of a deplorable deficiency in one of the most basic prerequisites of being a world citizen, namely, communicative proficiency in English?

What in other words, has so far thwarted all our effort in the direction of the Yemeni learners' acquisition of proficiency English, forcing them to be 'monolinguals'?

The obstacles could conceivably be one of the following:

a) Yemeni children may have an inherent biological deficit that inhibits their acquisition of a foreign language

b) The grammatical system of their mother tongue Arabic may be militating against and inhibiting their acquisition of another language system; or

c) The situation could be the natural consequence of the shortcomings inherent in the language teaching scenario in Yemen.

Let us first consider the validity of the 'deficit' hypothesis. Leading psycholinguistic studies have given convincing and conclusive evidence that many people have in fact acquired 'threshold level' competence in their mother tongue. Hence, the system of the mother tongue is most likely to play a positive or supportive role in acquiring the system of the other tongue. As a matter of fact, when one has two language systems, the system of one is enriched by the other.

So learning Arabic cannot be supposed to retard the process of learning English by Yemeni children. Rather it could potentially give further impetus to accelerate the pace of their learning English.

This brings us to the third possible aspect, which is that the bulk of the Yemeni learners' deficiency in English could be result of our failure to provide them with

i) the right kind of instrumental motivation to learn English

ii) the right kind and amount of comprehensible input in the classroom as well as

iii) an adequate exposure to English in the social setting.

The following are some suggested measures to remedy the situation.

For most Yemeni learners, the first and only source of exposure to English is the classroom and the teacher is the sole role model for English use. The textbook is the only medium to trigger the use of the language.

Enriching the school environment

In view of the strategic importance of the school and the classroom for building up the levels of learners' proficiency in English, we have to thoughtfully devise ways of enriching the school environment in such a manner as to provide a total 'immersion' experience for the learners as is done for the immigrant children in the USA, Canada and many other countries.

In order to achieve this we have to create a 'linguistic swimming pool' in the school, which augments the foreign language acquisition. In classroom, in view of its paramount importance should be the primary target of an academic empowerment mission.

The classroom as the microcosm of the universe of the child has to play the vital and multifaceted role of a springboard for language development. As such, the classroom ought to bristle with a number of fascinating wall posters with epigrammatic expressions such as 'Like the stream, the beginning of all great things in small'.

While the attractive picture arrests children's attention, the antenna of their language processing mechanism unconsciously and involuntarily absorbs the language.

There should be a class library or a school library with stimulating storybooks and retold classic to foster in children pleasures of reading.

Children should be made familiar with simple conventions of 'phatic communion' (greetings) in English and be made to recite rhymes, simple, short lyrics, short dialogues, etc. in the class regularly. But for achieving all this, teachers own pronunciation and his/her awareness of stress, rhythm and intonation in English becomes an essential prerequisite.

Obligatory English

The school should have a regular slot for organizing classroom discussion, debates and group dissension in English or simple, familiar themes to promote a healthy competitive foreign language use.

There should be a school magazine and a wall magazine embodying the creative pursuits of students. These would go a long way in encouraging and sustaining creative self expression among them. There should be provision for the recognition of and reward for all such endeavors on the part of students.

The school authorities should make, through regulation if necessary, the use of English in school obligatory in all interpersonal communication among learners themselves and that between the learners vis-a-vis the teachers and the principal, etc.

Notices, circulars, timetables etc. meant for information of students should be done in Arabic and English which would enable students to perceive the link between the content of the information and the two language codes expressing the specific content.

Students, especially of higher grades, should be encouraged to regularly listen to BBC broadcasts, particularly the English teaching programs since listening skill percolates easily and substantially helps develop other language skills.

Cassettes accompanying texts, books, should be fully utilized in the classroom for providing vital aural input to learners which would eventually lead to the promotion of oral output. More importantly, the electronic media should be suitably revamped to play a major and decisive role for promotion of English-Arabic bilingualism.

The local radio station should embark upon a regular series of programs for school children where subject lessons, including English lessons can be delivered through interesting techniques of dramatization by competent and experienced teachers who are capable of properly articulating Arabic and English.

The television should also join hands in this endeavor by producing and presenting lessons through a 'country wide classroom' network. The visual forum can fruitfully be utilized to produce and present short plays in English and panel discussion etc. on relevant themes. For the professionals working organizations involving a lot of public contact, there should be crash courses to acquaint them with the idiom of conversational English.

Nothing succeeds like success

Parents and conscious guardians can play a crucial role in encouraging the young learners use English in a variety of contexts and give a positive feedback to their words.

Nothing succeeds like success. The first taste of success of being able to communicate in English would certainly produce a snow-ball effect on the children and they would never look back.

The social set up can play a complementary role if road maps, traffic signals, sign boards, hoarding and various public awareness raising slogans are written in English as well as in Arabic. This would help create an appropriate English saturated environment, paving the way for promoting societal bilingualism.

So let us enrich the FL learning environment in Yemen for young learners when their minds are highly receptive and they are bubbling with enthusiasm to try out new arenas and channels of communication.

Let us catch them young to inculcate in them a healthy language sense from the early childhood so that the posterity, the architects of tomorrow, feels gratified for our taking timely steps towards building up their competencies in English alongside Arabic thereby making them efficient bilinguals. This can put them firmly on the highway of success for a highly fruitful and richly rewarding academic life and professional career.