12 October 2016

Linguistic misunderstanding and cultural space

By Dr Ho Chye Kok

In educating non-native English-speaking adult learners, it is necessary to accept students as they are and not make false assumptions about their interests, knowledge and aptitudes. In the case of an inaugural cohort of the Master of Human Resource Management (MHRM) at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus, the students were state government sponsored adult learners who are non-native English speakers.

The students “returned to school” after an absence of 15 years or more of college education from diverse academic disciplines at Malaysian universities. Several students commuted from other cities and towns to the capital city of Kuching to attend classes on weekends. Over two-years, they had to balance work commitments and family matters, and navigate technical and academic landscapes demanded by the course.

Teaching depends on linguistic exchanges. For teaching to be effective, the quality of information and of communication between teachers and students must be channelled efficiently. Communication is deemed pedagogical when every effort is made to eliminate the noise inherent in the transmission channels.  According to French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, teaching is at its most effective not when it succeeds in transmitting the greatest quantity of information in the shortest time (and at the least cost), but rather when most of the information conveyed by the teacher is actually received.  The student’s ability to relay a message back to the teacher (for correction or confirmation) defines the success of the action of forming ideas and of transforming knowledge, he adds. Linguistic misunderstanding occurs when pedagogical communication is neither effective nor efficient.

In government departments and agencies in Malaysia, Bahasa Melayu has predominantly been the working language. Thinking is silent speech. Thought and language are lost in translation when non-native English-speaking adult learners think in native languages and communicate in mother tongues socially and at the workplace. In addition, the cultural space that presents itself as ethnic and organisation dimensions across communities pose challenges. Trust and respect in the democratisation of individual relationships in classroom settings were hampered by coercive power and authoritative influence amongst students of different levels of seniority and social status, and teachers of diverse ethnicity and cultural backgrounds.

To achieve the pedagogical intentions of minimising information loss to maximise communication effectiveness, and to meet the intellectual demands of the adult learners, a 10-week English program was embed into the bespoke course. In collaboration with the Faculty of Language and Communication, the intensive English program was developed to jumpstart the teaching and learning of the adult learners. Together with the MHRM content experts, English language training and coaching were provided by language teachers to students working on MHRM study unit assignments and throughout the entire course.

The teaching team were able to calibrate the different levels of linguistic understanding of the adult learners; to provide relevancy on philosophical and technical jargons situated in context, and to inculcate critical thinking, analysis, and reflective learning actions.

At the workplace, four of the students were promoted to the next grade of their careers while two were assigned to special duties. The lead student won the Malaysian Quality Control Circle Mentor award, and led a team to win the Malaysian Productivity Championship. A recent social media survey on their learning experience revealed feelings of transformed lives; priceless networking; unforgettable experience; determination to succeed; persistence in accomplishing insurmountable tasks; unstoppable assignments; emotional rollercoaster; and learning is fun.

The first cohort will be awarded a Master of Human Resource Management degree later this month.

What was learnt from the MHRM course also transformed our thinking on the teaching and learning pedagogy of non-native English-speaking adult learners. In minimising linguistic misunderstanding and bridging cultural space, the English program embedded in the course was catalytic in the adult learning process. Though their English has not become perfect, the students felt that the English program appears to have removed the fear of using English in public presentations, and instilled confidence in them in using academic English.

As one size fits one, a dedicated course tutor was essential in bootstrapping and scaffolding the learning infrastructure when and where necessary. Curriculum design and development of study units to cater to non-native English-speaking adult learners are pivotal in student engagement. While blended learning is institutionalised and learning technologies exploited, students residing in rural Sarawak face challenges in internet connectivity and sluggish data transfer rates. For the adult learners, digital learning technologies are affective learning and may be reframed as a social process. In addition, study tours may widen their perspectives on the organisational functioning of state governments in different jurisdictions.

Based on student engagement and in consultation with the Leadership Institute of Sarawak Civil Service, a rejuvenated curriculum was developed with the English language program seamlessly integrated into the bespoke MHRM course. The university secured another contract from the Sarawak government to educate additional civil service leaders on managing people, and the second cohort began their studies in April this year.

Dr Ho Chye Kok is the Associate Dean for Postgraduate Education at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He is contactable at ckho@swinburne.edu.my