【明報專訊】I AM SURE people proficient in the use of English would realise there is something inherently weird in the title of this article. Those who do not know what I mean should read on and be reminded that English is a very difficult language. Just for the sake of younger learners, the two sentences, "Let's eat Grandpa" and "Let's eat, Grandpa", are telling two totally different stories, the former, without the little comma, probably belonging to the gruesome Walking Dead television series, the latter, with the tiny pause, being in the script of a heart‑warming family scene.
Indeed, English is one of the most difficult languages given its ability to assimilate new words or alternative meanings for existing words into its vocabulary every day. Some claim that there are at least 1.5 million English words in use. My latest consultation of the Oxford English Dictionary web page has opened my eyes to new words like bae, yeesh, hasbian and puggle. All very interesting, the trained users or scrabble experts may think. But for beginners learning the language, it's a nightmare! I can still remember my junior secondary days when a big show‑off, the so called "Grammar King" in the class, told us the letter combinations "ough" can have six pronunciations and went through the motion of reading us the following words: 1) though (like o in go); 2) through (like oo in too); 3) cough (like off in offer); 4) rough (like uff in suffer); 5) plough (like ow in flower) and 6) ought (like aw in saw). In fact, I have found out in my adult life that there are at least four more: 7) bough (like a in above); 8) hiccough (like cup); 9) hough (like lock) and 10) lough (like "lokh"). By then, I realised memorising these language oddities does not help me a bit in the daily use of English.
It's exactly because English is such a "tricky" language, and adults who are helping young learners should do so properly. In an article for Ming Pao last year ('Apple and English'), I alluded to the importance of phonic awareness and syllabic awareness. Strategies to help students to build these up are clearly pivotal so that they do not stumble at the first hurdle — spelling. With proper mastery of these, students could spell even long albeit silly words like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious when they could spell the component parts like super (as in superman), cali (as in California), etc. Put simply, English is a phonological language learners should understand via its "sound logic". An approach adopted by many parents ignores this fact and insists students begin by writing the letters repeatedly, capital and small — until the letters are picture‑perfect. The pain then starts making the young ones spell words letter by letter. Of course, writing is essential in learning Chinese, a logographical language whose characters are usually concatenations of smaller "logos". Take for instance the words "安", "家" and "富". Under the house ("宀") prefix the meanings of these characters are respectively as follows: with a woman in the house, you could feel at ease; with a pig in the house, you have the economic means to run a home; with one plot of land under your household, you are rich. However, the relationship between a Chinese character with its actual pronunciation is weak. Take a trivial example, there are many, many Chinese words sounding like the word "中", e.g. "終", "盅", "鍾" and "忠". Hence, learning English like the way we learn Chinese is doomed to fail.
So, please, please, Moms and Dads and Grandpas, don't force your children to spell English words letter by letter over breakfast, lunch or dinner. Your efforts could largely be counter‑productive and breed wrong habits of learning the language. English is so difficult that you have to let the properly trained experts in schools do it!
■By Anthony Tong 湯啟康
Mr Tong is a former deputy director of education and once served as the principal of a Sheng Kung Hui secondary school.