PICKING UP THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

English languageI was brought up in a Malay society and obviously the Malay language was the only language I spoke and understood. Although at seven years old I started to learn the English language and began to write and speak the language, it was only done in school. The Sekolah Ismail School Two was an English medium situated about four miles from where I lived. My Standard One teacher was a young Chinese lady I remember only as Miss Lim. It was only after a week when things began to fall into place that we only begun to write and speak in the English language. There were very few subjects; Nature Study, Arithmetic, Geography, English, Malay, Art and Singing. The year was 1957.

When Miss Lim started her class, she conducted everything in the English language and that made all of us hardly understood every word she spoke. So whenever she asked any one of us in the English language, we could only smile with some showing off their missing front teeth. She needed to translate some of her questions in the Malay language for us to understand. Most of the students were Malays, some Chinese and very few Indian students. Because of the breakdown in communication, we mingled around only with our kind. But most Chinese and Indian students could speak in the Malay language and they would talk to the Malay students in Malay. By the middle of the year, we began to understand some simple English words and we would communicate with our Chinese and Indian friends in English but we still spoke the Malay language among our Malay friends.

The subject I liked most was Nature Study. It would always begin with Today is Sunday. (The first day for the state of Johor). The sun is shining. It is a sunny day. Then we had to draw that sunny day. In most cases, there would be a mountain at the background and the sun just above the mountain. There would be two or three coconut trees and some birds with a V signs. Beneath the mountain would be the river. The sun would be a round ball with orange colour and surrounded by its rays. The next day we learned another sentence; Today is Monday.

Obviously if it was raining, it would be Today is a rainy day. And if we noticed the sun was blocked by the clouds it would be Today is a cloudy day. Of course we had to draw a rainy and a cloudy day. At home I would tell grandma and our maid-servant what I learned in school.

Counting numbers wasn’t that difficult but when we had to do it in the English language, that made the Arithmetic a difficult subject. First we had to count the numbers from one to ten followed by the “teens’ up to twenty. Adding, subtracting, multiplication and division sometimes confused us. Those days we used the phrase “take away” and not “minus” for subtracting, perhaps it was descriptive. And for multiplication we used the word “times”. The most difficult was dividing numbers making most of us blinked for few seconds. Miss Lim was a very patient teacher and she would always give us a helping hand whenever we got stuck somewhere.

Our English teacher was a middle-aged Chinese man I remember only as Mr. Yap. A very tolerant person, he would always give us time to think before giving any answer. Whenever we gave wrong answers, he would encourage us to think again saying the answer was not right and requested that we took our time before answering. In most cases we never managed to correct our wrong answers simply because we knew not. So Mr. Yap would correct it for us.

Suleiman was a frail boy with such an innocent face. Timid and very quiet, he would only talk when asked. One day in one of our English classes, he was asked by Mr. Yap about his father, his occupation and how old was he? Suleiman was suffering from speech impediment and would remain silent whenever he found so difficult to begin a sentence. Another of his problem was the pronunciation; he could not pronounce words that began with “F” and words that used “th“.

“Suleiman, what is your father’s name, and what is his occupation?” asked Mr. Yap pointing his index finger at Suleiman giving him a shock like a thunderbolt passing through his nervous system.

Suleiman stood and looked at Mr. Yap meekly, then slowly answered, “My pader name Mahmood.” Mr. Yap smiled at Suleiman and walked slowly towards him and said, “Father, not Pader”. Can you try now?”

“Pader”, answered Suleiman again and this time he was visibly shaken. It was very natural for boys of seven years old to tremble whenever faced with an English teacher. He looked at his teacher with fright but Mr. Yap being such a nice person consoled him amicably and finally said it was alright for Suleiman to pronounce father as pader, but emphasized on the apostrophe “s” after the word father.  At seven years old, the word occupation was very alien to us and so Mr. Yap had to explain what it meant. Suleiman told the class that his father was working in a very big building situated right besides the Muar River..My pader go opes…opes besar kat laut.

Chinese students too found difficulty to grasp the language at an early age. While Malay students could not pronounce any word beginning with an “F” replacing with a “P”, most Chinese students pronounced any word beginning with an “R” glaringly different replacing it with an “L”.  So Muar River would be Muar Liber.

“Kok Chai”, where is the central market of our town?”, Mr. Yap had once asked Chong Kok Chai in one of our English classes. Lanky and quite tall for a seven year old boy, Kok Chai stood up confidently and answered, “Near de liber”(Near the river). No matter how glaringly wronged was the pronunciation, we never laughed because we were no better.

Indian students somehow had a better grip of the English language. Some say because the Tamil language is quite difficult that learning other languages is easier. But most Indian students of my early schooling days had their share of different pronunciation; they could not pronounce “V” which they would pronounce as “W”. Thus ‘vehicle‘ became ‘wehicle‘.

By the time we were in Standard Three, our English improved but not tremendously. In class we would converse in English only with our non-Malay friends and maintained talking with our mother tongue with those of our kind. We spoke broken English but understood pretty well by our listeners. Our vocabulary improved and we learned new words everyday.

It was in 1959 when I was in Standard Three that I joined a group of students to watch a religious epic movie called “The Ten Commandments”. It was organized by our school and the movie was screened at the newly built cinema called The Cathay Cinema. Each one of us had to pay sixty cents and not many students could afford it at that time. When I told grandpa about it, he encouraged me to watch the movie because it was about a prophet named Musa (Moses) and so he gladly gave me the money. We watched the movie on a Saturday morning and was attended by some other students from other schools as well. In spite of watching a movie on a Saturday morning which was a holiday, our school insisted that we wore our school uniform and likewise we noticed other students from other schools wore their own school uniform too.

We were so excited to watch an English movie because most of the movies we watched were Malay movies where we could understand every word spoken. And it was more interesting because it was a coloured movie while most Malay movies were in black and white. Going to a movie was a real treat in those days. We had no television then, in fact we had never heard of anything like a television. It was unthinkable for a square box to produce pictures that could move like in a movie.

The show started at around 9am and when the credits were rolling, all of us watched the screen with great excitement. We knew not a word what they were talking about but we enjoyed watching how Moses built the pyramid and the most intriguing part was when Moses parted the Red Sea. All of us had our mouth wide open enjoying many exciting scenes and when the Pharoah’s men were drowned, all of us were so happy because these bad people were finally defeated.

At home I told the story to my cousins of my own version and with so many exaggeration. The next day at school during our English lesson, Mr. Yap questioned us about the movie.

“Tan Swee Kang, tell us which part of the movie you liked best?” asked Mr. Yap to Tan who sat at the front row. Confidently he stood up and said, “I like the one when he make the sea open”. Then he continued, “I think he got magic one because he can also make the liber red colour.” And all of us agreed.

When we were in Standard Six, we could converse quite well although still used  some broken English but our listeners always understood what we said. We could even write short essays and our grammar was much better. Although our written grammar was quite alright, we still spoke the English language with many wrong grammar. When we watched English movies at the cinema, we still could not grasp what they were talking about and after the show we would always speculate what the movie was all about and how the hero ended being victorious.

For me I was beginning to learn more of the language. At home I would read the daily newspaper The Straits Times. As I liked reading stories, I spent quite sometime at home reading all the readable books and many were those written by Enid Blyton especially about the Famous Five.

It was in Standard Six that I befriended a Chinese boy my age who became my close friend. Eddie lived along Jalan Majidee quite near the Muar High School and he would cycle to my house everyday and from here we both cycled to our school of approximately four miles. We conversed in the English language and perhaps this made my spoken English quite fluent as months passed by. Apparently he was my classmate and we would go to the tuck shop together and sometime when I brought some food from home, I would share the food with him eating under a tall tree besides the football field of our school. So every moment I was with him, I would speak in the English language and whether some of our spoken English had some grammatical error was not much of a concern to both of us for as long as we understood each other. Eddie is still my very close friend till today.

In 1963 I was admitted to Form One of the Muar High School. Our class teacher was a chubby Chinese man I remember only as Mr. Quek. Whenever he was not around, I would always invite some friends to sing a famous P. Ramlee’s song Quek Mambo. One day as I was singing the song, Mr. Quek suddenly entered the class as he had forgotten something. As he entered the class, he saw me dancing and singing the song and just stood and observed me. When I turned towards him, I was shocked to see Mr. Quek smiling at me and requested me to go to the front of the class. Then he asked me, “I heard my name being mentioned in the song. Are you making fun of my name?” All the students in the class laughed at me. I explained to him I was only singing a famous P. Ramlee’s song that happened to have his name…Quek Mambo. Then he asked the class whether I was telling the truth and the whole class said, “yes”. He just smiled at me and said, “I never knew my name would be in a P.Ramlee’s song.

Our English teacher was an Indian man named Mr. Subramaniam. He wore a very thick glasses and taught us the English language until we reached Form Three. He taught us how to use the correct grammar and how to construct a good sentence. One day he asked us to read any book as long as it was in English as he had to go to the toilet for a while. I read my history book while some others read the geography books and some other English books. There was one boy whose name was Othman Sinapon who read a dictionary. When Mr. Subramaniam returned, he was quite pleased to notice all of us reading until he noticed Othman reading a dictionary. He went besides Othman and said to all of us, “Boys, our friend here is reading a dictionary.” Othman was shocked and closed the dictionary immediately. Mr. Subramaniam took the dictionary only to find a comic in the middle of the dictionary and Othman had to pay a price attending a detention class the following Saturday.

Mr. Subramaniam was a fine English teacher who taught us many English phrases and how to use them in our essay. He encouraged us to read a lot of English novels, literature books and suggested that we get all these books from the town library. I took heed of his encouragement and began to read a few English books that I borrowed from the town library. From these books I learned many words by referring to the dictionary. By and by my English improved tremendously and since then I never failed in my English examination.

When I was in Form Four our English teacher was a Chinese lady I remember only as Miss Wong. She was another teacher that contributed greatly to my improvement and I began to read more books recommended by her. Once she suggested that we read books written by William Shakespear and when I caught hold of some of the books written by him, I was not too keen to continue. It was like reading a poem, something that I did not quite like. So I continued reading novels and by this time I read novels about love, intriguing tales of mysterious happenings and even some ghost stories. My favourite author was Harold Robbins.

Miss Wong continued teaching us in Form Five and by then my spoken English was considered good and she always commended on some of my essays to the other students and I was extremely proud. But I did not do well in other subjects especially Physics simply because our teacher was an American Peace Corp who spoke like John Wayne. His American accent was too deep that at the end of every Physics lesson I understood not a word of what he had been talking about. As a result I failed miserably in this subject.

Looking back, I am grateful to all these teachers who had contributed greatly to my achievement. All these teachers taught me one common factor that I follow till this day. Do not write to impress others, write to entertain your readers and in doing so your readers will eventually appreciate your works. There is no point in using difficult words just to show off because there may be some of these words used do not fit in correctly to the sentence.

I am glad I took heed of their advice. My first book “Pages From My Past” published in 2013 was well received and most of the readers that I met told me how much they loved reading my book; so simple and easy to understand. Learning is never an ending story, for as long as we live, we have to keep on learning. But my book would not have been better if not because of my editor who happened to be my cousin; Zuraidah Omar. She has a better grasp of the English language and in fact I learned quite a lot as a result of her editing.

Memories are always wonderful moments to be shared as we grow older. I have so many wonderful memories and I thank God for giving me such a good memory because from all these memories stored in my mind, it gives me great pleasure to share them with you.

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