Saturday, July 25, 2009

How I Learnt English



As far as I can recall, my first experience with learning a second language was when I was four years old. A civil war was fiercely raging in the Philippines after the Second World War. The nationalist-socialist forces, made up of peasants and originally set up to fight the Japanese invaders, were now battling the government soldiers. One main reason was the restoration by the government of the pre-war status quo favourable to the landed elite. Many people were uprooted from villages affected by fighting. Some found their way in our village which was spared from the trauma of the civil war. These internal refugees spoke a different language or dialect. Among them was a family with two daughters in their teens who sought refuge in our house. These girls taught me how to speak in their language. I can still vividly recall their delight as I carried on conversation with them. About nine months, they returned to their village which had become peaceful again. I easily forgot what I had learned. That was my first experience of learning a second language. Since it was English which I have spent considerable time studying and learning, in this essay I will consider it as my second language. My experience of learning English was a long and varied process.

Review of Literature

Motivation is one of the issues affecting second language learning. In their book Attitudes and motivation in second-language learning, Gardner & Lambert (1972) identified two kinds of motivation in learning a second language: instrumental and integrative. They are not necessarily exclusive. As Littlewood (1985) claimed in his book Foreign and Second Language Learning, Language Acquisition Research and its Application for the Classroom, the two kinds of motivations could become actually inclusive as ‘most learners are motivated by a mixture of integrative and instrumental reasons’. He also pointed out that ‘instrumental motivation correlated best with their success in second language learning’ (p. 57). Tamba (1993) claimed in his work Motivation in Language Learning - The Case of Francophone Cameroonian Learners of English that a person with instrumental motivation in learning English as a second language was one whose purpose of studying English reflected a more utilitarian value of achieving fluency in that language such getting ahead or being promoted in his work. The utilitarian aspect was also picked up by Rahman (2005) who stated in the article Orientations and Motivations in English Language Learning that ‘the dominant and primary objective . . . to learn English is for its utilitarian value, [that is,] to get a good job, to go abroad for higher studies and to complete graduation successfully’ (p. 48).

Another factor deemed critical in the issue concerning learning a second is of biological nature. This has to do with critical period for successful language acquisition. Brown (2000) forwarded in his book Principles of Language Learning and Teaching that the critical period was the time ‘language can be acquired more easily and beyond which time language is increasingly difficult to acquire’ (p. 53). The neurological aspect of this critical factor was commented on by Ellis (1980) in his book Understanding Second Language Acquisition. It is within the critical period when ‘lateralization of the language function’ has not yet been completed ‘in the left hemisphere of the brain’. This seems to affect the pronunciation skill, but not the other aspects of the language (p. 107). Brown (2000, p. 55) suggested that the critical period has already taken place after puberty before which the plasticity of the brain in pre-pubescent children enables them ‘to acquire not only first but second language’. This suggestion points to the strong evidence that the completion of brain lateralization accounts in some way for the inability of adults ‘to acquire a second language with fluency’. Schumann (1978, p. 228) noted in his article Affective Factors and the Problem of Age in Second Language Acquisition that it was in this process of ‘biological maturation, [when] the flexibility necessary for mastery of a second language is lost’.

Another important issue to consider in learning a second language is the role of speech muscles when a person talks. These muscles in hundreds act in great co-ordination, unison and harmony as an individual speaks. According to Gilhotra & Callender (1985, p. 10), these muscles have well been developed in adults whose ‘phonation habits have become fixed’ in their own native language. Consequently, in SLA they may have lost the ‘necessary speech muscular control to achieve the fluency of a native speaker’ (Brown 2000, p. 58).

Introduction of an English-only Policy of Instruction

The English language was introduced to the Philippines by the American invaders in 1898 after Spain’s rule (1565-1898). The American President ordered that English should become the sole medium of instruction in the new colonial education system. Teachers from the United States started arriving in 1901 aboard the vessel USS Thomas so that they became known as the Thomasites. Such was the impact of these Thomasites, who were not only teachers but trainer-teachers as well, that 20 years afterwards, ‘91 per cent of all teachers were native-born Filipinos’ (Bolton & Bautista 2004, p. 3). Thus, ‘almost from the beginning, Filipinos learned English from Filipinos and the seed of what we now call Philippine English began’ (Gonzales cited by Bolton & Bautista 2004, p. 3).

All considerations for the English-only policy have been subsumed to the colonial government’s political and social agenda (Bernardo 2004, p. 18). The policy was flawed from the beginning as it was taught by teachers trained in the ‘grammar analysis method’ of teaching the language to native speakers of English. The English-only policy reflected a pedagogy that assumed that the Filipino students had English as their first language. In reality, they spoke in totally different languages or dialects as their first languages. Consequently, ‘the methods and the American based materials were not really suitable’ to the Filipino students (Gonzales 2004, p. 8). Memory work became a popular method of instruction with the belief that this was the only way English could be learnt by the Filipino students. Like their American counterparts, the natives would best learn English, not by means of reading, but by committing into memory the same dialogues memorized by the students in America. Eye movements were stressed in reading; grammar drills were carried out; and students recited memorized passages’ (Martin 2004, pp. 132-133). Students came to have a ‘reciting’ knowledge of English grammar more technical than most of their American counterparts. But no one really knew the degree to which this knowledge could really help them in speaking and writing English (Monroe cited in Martin 2004, p. 133).

The reading texts only consisted of works by Anglo-American authors. A detailed analysis of these texts and how they were taught showed how ‘the combined power of curriculum, canon and pedagogy’ successfully promoted ‘myths about colonial realities’. For the texts ‘made natural and legitimate the illusion that colonialism existed for the sake of the colonials and not the colonizers’ (Martin 2004, p. 131).

Failure of the English-only Policy

The failure of the English-only policy was made public in the 1904 and 1913 studies of the colonial education system with the revelation of ‘low levels of English language proficiency among the Filipino students’ (Bernardo 2004, p. 18). Proposals to introduce ‘native languages appropriate to the locality, as soon as the necessary textbooks [could] be provided’ and qualified teachers become available were rejected (Martin cited in Bernardo 2004, p. 18). In 1925 a national commission evaluated the education system with the finding that ‘no other single difficulty has been [as] great as that of overcoming the foreign language handicap’ (Monroe cited in Bernardo 2004, p. 18). Despite the identification of this handicap, however, the same commission reaffirmed the original tenets that motivated the English-only policy with the ironic recommendation that English be retained as the sole medium of instruction. This was despite the description of students speaking ‘with an accent described as “speaking like birds” and the acknowledgement that their reading standard ‘was two years behind their American counterparts based on the results of nationwide test’ (Gonzales 2004, p. 9).

Introduction of a Bilingual Policy of Instruction

The English-only policy lasted until 1939 when the first Filipino head of the Department of Education was appointed. Localized experiments were carried out with the use of some vernaculars as supplementary tools for instruction. After the war, local languages were used as the exclusive media of instruction in primary education in some localities. They clearly indicated a more effective learning by the students who could now apply better this learning on practical applications in their homes and communities. ‘The experiments provided empirical evidence on the pedagogical benefits of using local languages in education, or to state it negatively, on the pedagogical disadvantages of using English as [the sole] medium of instruction’ (Bernardo 2004, p. 19). English, however, still remained the official medium of instruction with the local vernacular as an auxiliary tool until 1974 when the education authorities mandated that English and Pilipino be the official media of instruction in both primary and secondary schools (Bernardo 2004, p. 20). The pedagogy now employed was ‘consistent with strategies for teaching English as a second language’ with instruction materials developed locally and with ‘Filipino authors writing English materials for Filipino readers’ (Bernardo 2004, p. 19). As the Filipinos learned English that enabled them to communicate with basic competence, there emerged a new variety of English with interesting characteristics. The Filipinos were now speaking the Philippine English,a variety of English transplanted and grown on local soil from its source, the American Midwest. It was accented English; with a smaller phonological inventory of contrasts of vowels and consonants, with a local intonation, with different accentual patterns of polysyllabic words, with syllable timed rhythm. (Gonzales 2004, pp. 9-10).

My Personal Experience in Learning English in Primary School

In 1952 I started my schooling, in the entire duration of which I had mostly Filipino teachers. Their training had been strongly influenced by the American system dominated by a behavioristic theory of language in which the first language acquisition process is viewed as consisting of rote practice, habit formation, shaping, overlearning, reinforcement, conditioning, association, stimulus and response, and [which] therefore assume[s] that the second language learnng process involves the same constructs (Brown, HD 1980, pp. 42-43).

In the primary school, English was the medium of instruction with Tagalog, on which the national language, Pilipino, was based, as an auxiliary medium. My memory of the first three years was a bit vague. At all times we were expected to listen to the teacher who dominated the teaching and learning processes. She was considered the sole repository of learning. We were empty vessels that needed to be filled up by teacher’s expertise (Freire 1970). We were taught the very basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. In a typical reading lesson, the teacher would first read the text. Then each pupil was to read a passage with any pronunciation error being immediately corrected. Comprehension was not emphasized. The most important thing was to be able to read. There was only one reading text used throughout the entire school year. Speaking lessons seemed more like singing lessons. Each word was pronounced distinctly. A sentence would be recited in a sing-song fashion. Drills, repetitions, and short passage memorizations were the order of the day. Learning to write was a big struggle. With no less than 50 children in a class, teaching writing was a much bigger struggle for the teacher. I enjoyed arithmetic the most as I seemed to be good in it. In my 4th grade, my most memorable experience was being made to stand before the class and to relate something I had done in English. I must have done it so well that the teacher recommended that I should join some sort of English speaking contest which I was able to avoid at all cost. It was also in the 4th grade when cursive writing was introduced.

The last two years of primary schooling seemed more daunting with the novel experience of having many teachers. Each subject was taught by a particular teacher. The teaching techniques were, however, the same – drills, repetitions and memorisations The English subject teacher was very knowledgeable, but the students spent less time in speaking except when certain passages or a poem assigned to be committed to memory were to be recited verbatim. The best student was one who had excellent memory skills. One thing I remembered very well was spending more time drawing and sketching during class times except in Mathematics.

My Personal Experience in Learning English in Secondary School

Secondary schooling looked very daunting. In the school run by Catholic nuns, there were two separate English classes for each level: English Grammar and Composition and English Literature. There were actually four language subjects: the 2 English subjects, Spanish and Filipino. All instructions were in English except in Filipino. The techniques were, however, the same -drills, repetitions and memory. We were introduced into a new way in learning English: a sentence diagram where the subject, verb, object, etc have their proper places. What sentence diagram could do to help in learning grammar I haven’t got the slightest clue. The diagram construction became more challenging when compound or complex sentences were introduced. The only occasion I enjoyed English Literature was when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline of Acadie was introduced. Perhaps the teacher gave as much background as possible which helped the students to understand the story. For the passages were difficult to read and the sentence constructions were not ‘normal’. I was, however, able to answer the teacher’s every question in relation to the story.

An important event took place when I was in Year 9. A foreign white missionary priest came to our school. He was an Australian, but he mostly spoke in heavily accented Pilipino. The following school year, I found myself with 15 young people from the different parts of the country with age ranging from 13 to 33 and education from Year 8 to university degrees. We were all looking forward to becoming Redemptorist missionaries in the future. The Redemptorist congregation, founded in Naples, Italy, made its way to the country through Ireland and Australia. The members in the Philippines were all native-English speaking members from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and England. My knowledge of English was very minimal even after 9 years of formal schooling. I could barely speak in an intelligible English sentence. One of the people who accompanied me to the monastery was an uncle diocesan priest. I became literally breathless listening to his fluent conversation with a young Redemptorist priest from New Zealand. I wondered if the time would come when I could do the same. I was now in an environment where speaking in English was the norm. It was a shock to my system. I always resorted to Filipino and there were many mates in the same condition as mine who would do this. In the meantime, we had to go to the Archdiocese of Manila’s minor seminary until our own was built. Another shock was forthcoming. The school was being run by European missionaries from Belgium and Netherlands who spoke a very heavily-accented European English. I did not matter initially, because I could barely understand nor speak English of any sort.

There were only 2 subjects being taught at this period – Religion and Intensive Latin with English as the medium of instruction. If I could not handle English, how in heaven would I be able to deal with Latin. For learning Latin depended on the knowledge one had in English. It would be all grammar with memory work heavily involved. The first months were very vital. Anyone who could not handle Latin was asked to leave. A very timely advice awakened me to exert the greatest effort. And I was surprised at myself. As I was learning Latin, I was also learning English and more. I must have gained more knowledge of English in five months than in my previous 9 years of schooling. This, however, was not enough because in the following semester, I had to join regular subjects in Year 8 where the students had the same level of Latin as I did. Among the regular subjects were English Grammar and English Literature. This was better than being asked to leave. And I was not the only one asked to stay down. What was very important was my motivation for learning English was becoming much clearer.

My motivation for learning English now included both types as Gardner & Lambert (1974) describes them. I was now typical among most learners of English in the Philippines with the purposes of language study that reflected the more utilitarian value of linguistic achievement (Gardner & Lambert 1972, Tamba 1993, Rahman 2005). That Filipino learners’ ‘instrumental motivation correlated best with their success in second language learning’ (Littlewood 1984, p. 57) strongly points to the great possibility of my mastery of English. I was also integratively motivated as I had the wish to integrate myself within the culture of the community I was living in and to become part of this group (Brown 1980, p. 114). The Redemptorist community was predominantly a native-English speaking one.

During this period, I fell under a certain classification of the Age Learner Variable (Yorio 1976, p. 61) with the important issues on critical period (Brown 2000) and brain lateralization (Ellis 1980) affecting learning or acquisition of a second language (Brown 2000). I was14 years old speaking in Philippine English with an accent heavily influenced by my native dialect and slightly by American English. The latter is the legacy of the United States occupation of, and its still pervading influence in, the Philippines. It was likely that I could still be able to speak with full Australian accent. It was in the area of pronunciation that concerns a person at my age then. At 14 years of age, I was still within the critical period when ‘lateralization of the language function’ has not yet been completed ‘in the left hemisphere of the brain’ (Ellis 1980, p. 107). I apparently still had the chance at that age of mine to gain mastery of the English language. There was also the issue of speech muscles when phonation habits have become fixed in one’s native language. Perhaps at the age of mine, they were not fixed yet so that I could still develop the ‘necessary speech muscular control to achieve the fluency of a[n English] native speaker’ (Brown 2000, p. 58). Perhaps at that age of mine (14 years old), the speech muscular rigidity and brain lateralization of the language function have not completely occurred yet.

The time came when we moved to our newly built seminary on the top of the hills outside Manila. English was spoken throughout the whole time. Various literary works by Anglo/Irish writers were introduced. All teachers were native English speakers except for the two local teachers, one of whom taught Pilipino subject. English lessons involved elocution and speaking. I was very nearly fluent in English but still in the interlanguage as Selinker (1972) describes it. My knowledge of English grammar was as good as that of Latin grammar. I also became an avid reader and a good writer.


After nearly five years of classical education in the seminary with good grounding in spoken and written English, I left and became a secondary teacher with major studies in Maths and submajor studies in English. Another five years passed and I came to Australia as a Maths teacher. In the first month, I was sent a letter in Italian by some government authorities with the advice to avail myself of free English lessons offered to newly arrived migrants. My surname ended in a vowel and I was mistaken for an Italian. When I reported to the authorities, after a short conversation they informed me not to bother with the free English lessons and to simply read a book on Australian Strine – ‘They’re a Weird Mob’ by Nino Culotta. It was a good grounding in fair dinkum Strine English.


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