How to teach English in Brunei.

What did you do in the holidays?

It was a simple writing task designed to ease the students back into school life after the holidays.

“I go shopping,” she wrote.

“I buy beg, shoe and cloth.”

Vocabulary and grammar are an issue. We’ll have to work on that.

Next one.

“I go to the shops,” he wrote. “I buy beg, shoe and cloth. I’m very happy.”

And so it continued. Nearly every student in this year 9 class spent their holidays shopping, and nearly all of them bought beg, shoe and cloth.

What are beg, shoe and cloth?

Shoe is supposed to be shoes. Beg is supposed to be bag, and cloth is supposed to be clothes.

I now had a decision to make. Either I find a way to start selling beg, shoe and cloth to Bruneians, or I find a way to teach the students how to finally write these words correctly.

I consulted my Scottish colleague, Sheila, with whom I shared the class, and we decided we had to do something to finally teach the students how to use these simple words correctly. We knew why they made the mistakes. Malay speakers do not use plural forms of nouns, instead use the noun twice to show two or more of a thing. Eye is mata in Malay, so eyes are mata-mata. Person is orang, so people are orang-orang. Cloth was partly the result of a difficulty with plural forms, and English words ending in ‘s’.

As for beg, this is a case of phonetic spelling. Malay is a largely phonetic language, and Malay speakers adopt this habit when using English. They pronounce bag like ‘beg’, so spell the word this way.

We arrived at the next class well armed. Then we began.

I stood in front of the class, waited for their undivided attention, then sat on the cracked concrete floor. I dropped my head and held up my hands, ready to receive something. I pretended to be sad, downtrodden and hungry. Students called out some terms in Malay and collectively realised that I was pretending to be a beggar asking for money or food.

“That is what beg means,” I explained. “It is a verb meaning to ask for something in a certain way. A person who begs is called a beggar, and the act is called begging.”

Done.

Now for part 2.

I called forward one of the female students.

“You’re my mother,” I told her “…and I’m your young son,” and this elicited laughter from the class.

“We’re in a supermarket shopping for groceries, and we’ve just arrived at the chocolates.”

“Mummy, mummy,” I pretended to plead. “I want a chocolate.”

Students laughed and the student understood her role.

“No, I’m not buying you chocolate son. Too much sugar.”

“Mummy, pleeeeaaaseee, give me chocolate,” I continued, with increasing desperation.

“Don’t you love me mummy,” and I started to sob either out of commitment to my performance, or from flashbacks of the endless mistakes in the writing tasks.

“That is another example of beg. But, the thing you use to carry other things is called a bag, and spelt b.a.g. – just like this one,” and I pointed to a student’s school bag.

Once the laughter subsided, we practiced the pronunciation of bag and beg, and revised the difference between the two.

Next, we had to tackle the word cloth.

Sheila stepped up.

She called two boys to the front of the class. Two cocky, arrogant boys with an unjustified confidence in their English language ability, even though they couldn’t spell bag. She complimented them on their appearance; their fancy Nike sports shoes, their immaculately gelled hair. They enjoyed the compliments.

Sheila produced a number of cleaning cloths, the type used to wipe up stains from a kitchen bench. She draped them over the boys shoulders, pinned a few to their sports uniforms and even draped some over their heads. The class burst into more rapturous laughter at the boys’ expense, as the style masters were reduced to mere mannequins for cleaning products.

“Is this how you dress when you go out?” Sheila asked.

“Is this what you wear when you go to a party? Do you wear blue cloth, red cloth, orange cloth. Do you mix and match the colours or just make one bold statement? Do people buy you cloth for your birthday presents?

And their classmates submitted to fits of laughter.

“At least it doesn’t matter if you spill something on yourself.”

Sheila then explained.

“This,” holding up a cleaning cloth, “…is a cloth.”

“Shirts, trousers, jeans, dresses, skirts, socks and jackets are clothes.” She then wrote the two words on the board, explained the difference again and had the students practice the pronunciation of each.

The boys were soon put out of their misery and we arrived at word number three.

This was a combined effort.

“Take off one shoe,” we ordered the students.

“Everyone take off one shoe. It doesn’t matter which one, just take off a shoe and leave it by your desk.”

Once the students stopped laughing and accusing each other of foot odour, we gave the next command.

“Now hop around the classroom on one foot.”

What?

“Hurry up, start hopping.”

They weren’t sure at first as to why they should hop around a classroom during an English lesson, but a few students realised it was more fun than endless grammar drills, so they started hopping, and soon the whole class was stumbling and laughing their way around the room. We continued this until we both stopped laughing, and then justified the activity.

“How many feet do you have?” we asked one student.

“Two”

“How many feet do you have?” we asked another.

“Two”

and so on around the room.

“So, everyone in this room has two feet, but apparently you only need one shoe. Most of you told us you bought one shoe at the shops, so you must only have one foot.”

Most students groaned at our Dad joke and the subsequent order to hop around the room, and then we practiced making the plural form of shoe.

Before the lesson ended, we revised the correct form and use of each word. Sheila and I left the classroom confident that we had finally corrected this glaring, simple and frustratingly common mistake in our students.

A week later, we sat down with confidence to review another writing task we had set our year 9 class. A task which taught us that most of our students love to go shopping

“…for beg, shoe and cloth.”

It’s Australia, so speak English.

You’ve heard this phrase before. You might even agree with it. But before you admonish someone in Australia for speaking a language other than English, consider this – English is not the official language of Australia.

That’s right. Australia has no official language, despite the fact that English has been the language of government, education and communication in the country since colonisation about 250 years ago.

This might surprise a lot of people – including Australians. It might also disappoint a lot of Australians, especially the bigots. Intolerant Australians love to remind migrants, international students, tourists and anyone else speaking a language other than English that everyone must speak English – or leave.

These people launch into verbal, or even physical, attacks on public transport when they overhear someone speaking a language other than English. They flood social media and internet forums with posts demanding the use of English to the exclusion of any other language. They even get elected to parliament. They forget, however, that they themselves have failed to master the Queen’s English.

We could remind them that English is only the lingua franca – but lingua franca is a ‘foreign’ phrase. We could remind them that English is the de facto language, but de facto is also a ‘foreign’ phrase.

Please explain…

We could explain why English is not the official language. In most part because one of the 200 or so indigenous languages would also have to be installed as an official language, and that is far too many to choose from. Aussie racists wouldn’t stand for an Aboriginal language being an official language, because their racism is directed most vehemently at Aboriginal people.

Ironically, English is also not the official language of the United Kingdom, which includes England. Thus, English is not the official language in the land of its birth. It does not hold this status because Welsh is the official language of Wales, which is part of the UK. How would Brits feel about Welsh being installed as the official language of the UK?

Furthermore, English is not the official language of the United States. If one country does bigotry well, it’s the US of A. They elected a serial racist to the White House because he promised to build a wall to keep out Spanish speakers and to ban Muslims from entering the country. How would they react if they knew that English is not their official language? How would they grapple with terms like lingua franca and de facto?

Staunch nationalists from Australia, as well as their counterparts in the USA and the UK, might also frown at the news that English itself is a mongrel language, which blends Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Germanic, Latin, Gaelic and Scandinavian influences into one lingua franca.

Image: http://www.worldatlas.com