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Oral English

Paul Geraghty, Usp, Suva
Saturday, February 03, 2018

I agree with the points made about teaching English by your correspondent Fergus Garrett (29/1).

It is true that oral English is important (as well as reading and writing) and that it is neglected in our schools.

A symptom of this neglect is indeed that speakers of Fiji English — which means most speakers of English in Fiji, including teachers and students and language professionals such as journalists — pronounce the vowels in "work", "walk" (and "wok") the same and reduce the complex sound system of English to one that consists of six vowels and twenty consonants.

But the problem is one that we have brought upon ourselves and there is now no easy solution.

The problem began when educational authorities in the 1930s replaced the largely mission-run and vernacular-based education system with one that was run largely by New Zealand trained teachers who introduced the English-based system they were familiar with.

They not only stopped using the mother tongues as media of instruction, they also tried to eradicate them by punishing children for using them, and encouraged students to speak "English" among themselves — a useless practice, akin to the blind leading the blind, still found in some schools today.

One of the results was that children, to avoid punishment, developed a highly simplified language using English words (Pidgin Fiji English) which has become one of the vernaculars of Fiji, so pervasive that almost every urban child will already speak it to some extent before they start school.

It will be very difficult to improve oral English in Fiji while this situation persists.

It will require a major change in attitudes, including acknowledging that English is a foreign language and requires highly trained teachers to teach it correctly.

The way things are at the moment, teaching of phonics will fail because most English teachers make the same mistakes they are supposed to correct, and the students are already used to speaking Pidgin even before they start school.

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