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Kiwi English is ‘wicked’ – but not ‘evil’ – to learn, say students

Dec 12th, 2008 | By | Category: Featured Article, News

SABRINA DANKEL’s first language is German, but she speaks and writes English as well as any of her classmates at Whitireia Journalism School. So she was the natural choice for a NewsWire assignment to find out how newcomers to NZ cope with learning our lingo:

PICTURE: Tutor Sue Wilde (front, left) with her students at the Whitireia advanced English course. Rear, from left – Ping Zhou (“Sally”) , Hiba Kadhim, Yoko Sato, Xiaomei Mao (“Pauline”), Abdullha Almrshuod, Hoda Nozari; and front, from left – Huda Kadhim, Melvin Manglicmst (“Miggy”), Mojgan Nozari. Absent – Fazeelat Saeed, Ma Xiao Qi (“Kitty”), Shi Yi (“Shirley”).

“Sally” Ping Zhou wants to be able to read a whole book in English, in fact “many English books. I want to understand them.”

Sally is one of 12 students enrolled in an advanced English-as-a-second-language course at Whitireia’s city campus, all of them keen to improve their individual language.

She says communicating and talking in English is not enough for her and she wants to be able to have conversations with the people in her new country in daily life.

“I want to get a good job and talk with the people when I do some shopping or go on the bus,” she says.

Her teacher at Whitireia, Sue Wilde, says at the beginning of the course, every student has a different level of speaking English and she tries to advance them individually.

“The students of the lowest level are able to have conversations in English when they join class, but they have to stop a few times and think about words or have to describe something,” she says.

Her students not only want to learn English but also understand Kiwi jargon and they often ask for the meaning of a word or an expression.

“The other day, one of them asked: ‘What does the word “wicked” mean?’

“I answered: ‘Evil’. But then they said: ‘Oh, but when these guys were talking about something and used that word, it sounded as if they liked it.’

“And then I explained that in another context, wicked is also some kind of slang for something you like.”

Questions like that enrich the lessons. Often, a student asks a question and somebody else is able to answer, so Sue does not even have to explain words or expressions.

They joined her course for a variety of reasons, such as wanting to go to university, or they need English for their careers, “and some of them just do it for their self-confidence.” 

She wants her students, who all come from different cultures and countries, to enjoy learning English together: “We’re having fun and we’re studying what the students want to learn.”

The lessons are completely in English and, according to Sue, a golden rule exists that says English is the only language spoken in the classroom.

If a student does not understand the meaning of a word, she tries to explain it with other words, and dictionaries are only used as a last resource.

In the mornings, students have theoretical lessons in class where they talk about their plans for the afternoon. After lunch-break, Sue and her students leave the classroom to practise their English outside.

She points out that the media, especially TV and internet, have a huge impact on the learning process of immigrants from countries of other languages: “They are more exposed to English when they get here.” 

Sally Ping Zhou originally joined an English class last year after she married a Kiwi and moved to New Zealand from her home country, China.

She believes the individual success of English students depends on whether they make the effort: “I think English is not as hard as other subjects. It just depends on how hard you work.”

Although Sally seems to enjoy learning English, she does not want to learn any more other languages: “English is enough.”

Just like her classmates, Yoko Sato wants to be able to use her English skills in daily life.

She and her husband decided to leave Japan and come to New Zealand to live: “I want to work here. I don’t like to work in Japan. That’s why we left.”

Learning English appears difficult to her because she wants to speak English as well as possible. 

“But of course, we can’t be native speakers,” she says. 

The differences in pronunciation and punctuation between English and Japanese are sometimes a problem for her, but she keeps on working hard to achieve her aims.

Although it may sometimes be difficult for the students to remember the vocabulary and the grammar, it helps that they hear native speakers every day.

Many more difficulties appear when people learn English in a multi-cultural melting pot where ethnicities and cultures from all over the world clash.

Fellow journalism student William Liando (left) learned English in the middle of Singapore where a mix of English and several Asian languages and dialects is spoken.

The official languages of Singapore are Malay, English, Chinese Mandarin and Tamil. Malay is the national language, while English is the commercial and administrative language of the city-state.

William’s mother tongue is Bahasa Indonesia, but he found it relatively easy to learn English because he was surrounded by English-speaking people since kindergarten and seriously started learning the language at the age of six.  

“I found it not really difficult to learn English because I was very young when I started speaking,” he says.

He found it more difficult to speak English fluently because spoken English in Singapore is strongly influenced by Asian accents and dialects.

“The spoken English in Singapore is not very proper. You hear many different dialects, but you are not used to hearing proper English like you hear it in a native speaking-country like New Zealand.”

He wants to improve his language skills here in New Zealand, where he is surrounded by native speakers.

“I want to prove that even as a non-native speaker I can still become a journalist who is reporting in English.”

Why English is learned by so many 

Alongside Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world and the number of non-native speakers increases constantly.

According to statistics, about 375 million people speak English as their first language, while the number of speakers with English as their second language is estimated between about 350 million and one billion.

English is spoken as first language in 53 countries of the so-called Anglosphere, and is the official language of the United Nations, the European Union and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Furthermore, English is the most commonly used language in science, and the language of several non-governmental organisations such as the Olympic Committee.

In many non-Anglophone countries, employers assume their applicants’ and staffers’ knowledge of at least one foreign language, preferably English, and international experience is an unavoidable component of every CV.

Nevertheless, the employers’ requirements are not necessarily of prime importance for those who decide to learn English as a foreign or even second language.

The website of the Wellington City Council lists eight language schools and institutions where international students and foreign nationals can learn general or business English. 

Talking about language proficiency, it is important to distinguish between the definition of first language, foreign language and second language.

The “first language” is also called mother tongue or native language and means the tongue a child learns from his or her parents and uses primarily in daily life.

It is the basis for learning other languages because it enables the learner to compare sentence structures and grammatical rules of the new language with his or her native tongue.

A “foreign language” is one a person speaks in addition to the mother tongue, but is not necessary for communication in daily life.

It can become speakers’ “second language” if they move to a country where their foreign language is spoken primarily and they are therefore bound to communicate in the foreign language in daily life.

As a matter of course, learning a language in a country where it is spoken is different from learning it in a classroom and many people opt for learning a language first-hand from native speakers.

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is a graduate from Whitireia Journalism School, now working for a rock magazine in London.
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  1. Ha! Folks in Boston, MA, in the States use “wicked” like that too. In the U.S. if someone uses “wicked” in that sense, it’s a dead giveaway that he or she is from Boston.

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