Is Grammar Actually Important?

As a former educator, I often ponder why the concept of “grammar” has become one of those slightly less debated grey-areas.

While I do understand that grammar can be subjective in the sense that different types of English use different types of syntax, it does breed the question “how far is too far” in terms of change? If you were schooled in East Asia, English grammar is one of those unavoidable subjects that most spend fifteen years trying to escape. It is true that many native English schools don’t stress the importance of grammar the same way second-language schools do, and have come to believe that over-emphasis on grammar is useless.

I’ve explored these areas both as a student and as an educator, and in my “research” I have found the statement to be simultaneously true and false. Yes, over-emphasis on anything is generally seen as pointless, but the argument I’ve heard from a few well-experienced Asian instructors is that “English is a second language in most parts of Asia, so we don’t often get the chance to use it daily. That’s why we need to drill grammar.” Is this true? Does drilling grammar truly help people’s standards?

Yes and no.

Yes, because while the spoken English might be somewhat lacking in confidence, secondary level English writing has shown significant improvement in the last few years. Surprisingly, university level English has been reported to be decreasing. So drilling grammar is limited to being beneficial in writing. Literally.

The “no”, however, is when I personally think about my own English learning process. Yes, I went to an Asian school for my formative years, which meant that I, too, underwent a decade of grammar drills that lets face it, can be done with your eyes closed once you get the hang of the first two or three questions. Most grammar drills were fill-in-the-blanks, choose the correct tenses; English that could be easily grasped with the right balance of reading novels and watching cartoons.

But is the drilling of grammar absolutely useless? Also, no. I’ve had friends who speak other language assess how they were taught English in their schools, versus how they were taught their native languages. As it turns out, languages that have more rigid structure such as Chinese, German, or elementary French, would actually benefit from a rote-learning tense-drilling grammar learning style. However, languages like English, Spanish, or general French are somewhat more free-flowing, and these are best learned through application and interaction.

So why do some systems choose to drill English grammar and other systems seemingly ignore grammar, entirely? Is grammar important?

Traditionally, many European schools had various types of “grammar schools” where students learned the rigid, structured way of English. It was the post-structuralist era in the twentieth century that created a general industrial system that prepared students for factories and industrial work; there were also many chances to join military positions due to the globe’s political situation in this century. However, in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, education took on a type of “reform” where a lot of the traditional structures were removed and replaced with more modernized education. Students were told to prepare for the future, but it was a future for which no one was truly braced.

One of the more prominent aspects that were removed from Western education was the emphasis on grammar; however, still retained heavily in Asian education. Though the twenty-first century has advanced most of the world, including parts of the Third World, Asia is still reliant on the West when it seeks English language education. Since most communication in today’s world is done online, I personally think it is vital to bring back grammar education in schools.

Yes, grammar has become so very subjective in that we are now to accept two types of spelling: American and British. It has become stylistic in that American favors active voice and British favours passive voice. It has become discrepant in that American television now refers to humans as “that” instead of “who” such as the person that spelt this wrong, vs the person who spelt this wrong.

So how do we generate a universally understood set of English? We don’t. We break it down instead.

Traveling around Asia and hearing stories from friends who’ve traveled South America have taught me one thing about universal English. It was a secret that I will happily share here:

Simple tenses will save your life.

Simple present, past, or future tenses are generally understood by most second language speakers. I’ve presented a few real-life examples where I’ve personally seen native English being misunderstood, and have found ways to rephrase it into second language English. Simple tenses.

Native English speaker:
We wouldn’t be arriving until around midnight, would it be possible to check in a tad late?

What I “translated” to the hotel staff:
We will arrive at midnight. Can we check-in late? Is it ok?

Native English speaker:
Could you possibly add a dash of salt and pepper to the salad, please?

My translation:
Can I have salt and pepper, please?

Native English speaker:
Do you think you could possibly get me a copy next week?

What I re-wrote:
Can you please send me a copy next week? Thank you!

Yes, English takes a few different forms, and there are dozens of ways to communicate exactly the same message. In grammar words, it is up to the subject to convey the predicate with accuracy. Sometimes we get so caught up in how we talk or ramble that we forget to adjust our syntax to be better understood by the audience.

My friendly advice from personal experience, is that if you like to travel, to write, to meet people, take a short course in Second Language English. Of course, the common one for millennials these days is TEFL, but there are a few more that are not limited to teaching. Taking the course functions as a simple reminder that different cultures speak English differently, and there is no model answer. There are only results, and the result is simply “to be understood”.



Colonialism in The Mask of Globalisation


In this era, colonialism is understood as a historical paradigm, almost non-existent today. Or is it?

By definition, colonialism is the the increase, imposition and support of one country (predominantly Western – in history) that influences culture and language. Globalisation, however, is defined as having the spread and assimilation of combined cultures and languages. By these definitions, colonialism may not be seen in principle, but if one culture has leverage and advantage over another – measured by scales which are understood by the modern world, such as economic power, military strength and academic advancement – does this entail an underlying essence of colonialism?

One example would be that of Hong Kong, a former British colony, handed over to China in 1997. Near the end of the twentieth century, many foreigners still remained in Hong Kong, which evidentially influenced the city’s international relations as well as English (language) education. In this globalised era and society, English is undoubtedly a vital language to learn, but the method of enforcing its education in Hong Kong can – and in many ways, has – lead to the following social and psychological dilemma.

The method of teaching often requires students to use only English during NET (Native English Teacher) lessons, and students (or even teachers) are penalized for speaking Chinese during these classes. Though immersion is necessary when learning a second language, this is only effective if the student is immersed for at least a few hours a day, every day of the week. However, granted that in local Chinese schools NETs are floaters with no fixed class, students don’t experience the immersion necessary to bring their English to a standard demanded by parents and required by companies.

The mentality and methodology provokes the following predicament: having no Chinese (or their mother tongue) in the classroom psychologically eradicates students’ sense of identity as their feel that during those lessons, their own native language is inferior.

This underlying psychological embellishment results in the following:

  1. Kids, especially young learners, form the impression that NETs feel their own language – English – is more important than the students’
  2.  This ideology is supported by the majority of Hong Kong parents  who push and drill their kids to learn English fluently, which gives children the impression that everyone believes the English language is more important
  3. This impression then carries into adulthood: the formation of society and continuation of “traditional values”
  4. As follows, parents of forthcoming generations will perpetuate this mentality
  5. The example is evidenced by learning centres and educational companies in Hong Kong that refuse to include or use Chinese in their notes as parents believe it looks “cheap” and “tarnishes the companies’ reputation.” Bilingual textbooks – which is more productive for young learners and those with a weaker English background – are sold at a much lower cost, sometimes up to ten times less than English-only textbooks

Thus, is it necessary for students under the age of ten – without immersion- to use ONLY English during lessons?

By definition and historical examples, this form of Western domination is still controlling former colonies, both First World and Third World. Though the sociological argument can be made that the spread of the English language is a stepping stone towards globalisation, the psychological impact slowly abolishing students’ perception of the West is essentially a form of cultural suppression through linguistics: is this not cultural colonialism wearing the mask of globalisation?

Teacher Me

Being Human

We tell ourselves a lie and ignore every truth contradicting it.
~Lloyd Lowry~

* side note: This is a continuation of my previous blog Becoming Human and Society

The whole idea and habit (culture) of not asking for help on the premise that everyone around is too busy to make time, handle or even make an effort comes from a society and culture that is almost unable to balance their lifestyles.

Whether it’s the competitive Asian market; whether it’s the strive to be the best; whether they are traditionalist values passed down from generations of conservatives and fundamentalists; whether it’s having to catch up to standards of an ever-changing world. There are many elements which factor in to this strange culture.

Strange, because it defies human nature. Strange, because it eradicates our innate abilities. Strange, because it is a culture of suppression rather than suppression.

Strange, because every face I see is not the face of a friend or foe – it is the mask of a robot so heavily constructed and guarded that the real them is lost amidst a magnitude of hidden debris; concealed imperfections for the sake of face and reputation.

Truth is accordingly defined as nothing more than concrete explications: black and white, no grey areas. Which, again, defies human nature.

Humans are ambiguous and volatile, ever-changing and sometimes progressing. The fact that humans need to regress in order to progress is part of the process inevitably necessary to catapult into something stronger. Something bigger.

Something that will take you closer to being the best that you can be.

But no, being a real human is tedious and painful. It is also beautiful and challenging. Yet I live in a society that doesn’t have time to take measures to contribute to a world with so much potential and capacity. The suppression of expression – as evidenced realistically by the Umbrella Revolution or (OCLP Movement) – shows the need for humans to break free. Truth be told, the only reason 2% of this city stood up to and against the government was the liberal education they underwent starting from 2007 onwards. An education which promoted internationalism and globalization; an education which encouraged expression; an education which enabled and activated part of their humanity.

And they broke free from the constraints and shackles of a conservative government – of a fascist regime so archaic no other nation in the modern First World follows owing to an internationalized world that happens to recognize that financial power is not the only way to progress.

Success is not defined by the money we make: it is defined by our choices.

To break free from a constraining regime that they are completely unaware they are submerged in – a regime so strong and secure that it keeps this society in that bubble, that comfort zone they find so protective. That safety net in which they use precautions to stay afloat and stay “alive”.

No. They are not living. They are not being. They merely exist. This is not called being alive. This is called drifting. This is getting from Point A to Point B as unequivocally as possible without accounting for the Point Cs and Ds – unexpected turn of events, however emotionally intense – which would ultimately mould a real human.

A human. Not a person. Not a robot.
A human.

No. This is a society of safety measures, of rule-abiding citizens afraid to challenge stereotypes. Afraid to put in the effort to build a reality of their own choosing. Living in fear of change (or in the actual, non-falsified world), and accepting the sad, imbalanced, stressful life as their reality.

No. This is not reality. This is a construct. This is man-made. This is a defiance of human nature.

This is a defiance of our selves.

And this, all this, is one of the greatest detriments to society – that we tell ourselves a lie and ignore all the truths contradicting it. Those who expose the truth are penalized for it – challenged, critiqued and commented on by those simply can’t handle, for whatever excuse, the unravelled truth of their own insecurities.

National Day at The Umbrella Revolution

Walking on the Gloucester Road flyover

Spent the afternoon walking around the Hong Kong Island scene today. Here are some highlights of what the Internet can’t really show you. Parts of the protest you simply have to be there to experience.

The atmosphere was peaceful and calm, quite surreal in the sense that there was so much energy and passion, yet people were so relaxed and driven at the same time. It was inspiring to see, and made me very, very proud to be a part of this. There was even section where student were sorting through recycling and openly collecting rubbish. Others were handing out food and cooling pads.

The activists stood with bullhorns, but everyone had their own section so it wasn’t just a bunch of noise. The activists spoke passionately and convincingly, using relatable analogies and metaphors that are a heavy structure of the Chinese language. Much of what was said can’t be translated literally into English, but most were along the lines of “Universal Suffrage does not mean you give us options, it means we choose our own.

A young ten-year old boy was trying to understand how GoPro Drones work by explaining it to those around him.
A young ten-year old boy was trying to understand how GoPro Drones work by explaining it to those around him.

This little boy was trying to understand how a Go Pro works, so he listened to his father and then relayed the information (in English) to others around him to ensure he understood. Kudos to this kid for his curiosity!

On the left (in Chinese) – Occupy with love and peace On the right (English) – The world is watching

Motivational signs hung all over the protest arena, to remind Hong Kong citizens to keep doing what they’re doing because many are becoming inspired.

Tents set up for overnight protesters

Overnight protesters set up tents to rest and also shelter themselves from the tear gas, should there be another outbreak.

MK Monday
Taken at the Mong Kok protest scene at lunchtime on Monday.

This one was taken on Monday, at the Mong Kok protest, during my lunchbreak.

Hong Kong Rubbish
Rubbish collection – half of which were collected by students and protesters who even stayed behind to sort through recycling. Hong Kong, you’re doing it right!

Not only have government cleaners and the Environmental Protection Department offered their help, but also students and young children were seen actively cleaning and collecting rubbish. Furthermore, dedicated students also sorted through recycling.

Your arrogance keeps us here Solidarity will see us through.

One of the mantras to motivate activists: Your arrogance keeps us here. Solidarity will see us through. Taken with the symbol for the Legislative Council in the top right corner (Chinese Symbol for LegCo, but also means “To Stand For.”)

  fascist democracy damage

View of the crowd from the Admiralty side. Around 18h00
View of the crowd from the Admiralty side. Around 18h00

Stay strong, Hong Kong.