English language proficiency: A major cause for concern for students

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By Salachi Naidoo

ONE general requirement for admission into any college or university is for a student to possess a minimum grade ‘C’ or better in English. Grade ‘C’ is meant to denote that the responsible examining body is satisfied with the student’s proficiency. That same proficiency is, however, not being reflected in the essays being written and submitted by the same student. Perhaps authorities need to relook at the grading system particularly in examining bodies, where an ‘A’ is not always at 75 percent and a ‘C’ is not always at 50 percent. Resultantly, a ‘C’ can also be at 40 percent depending on the peak of student performances in a respective year. The fact that a student with 40 percent is passed by default, or for any other reason, means that students are being passed before their competency and proficiency problems have been ironed out. This also means that universities and colleges are forced to inherit these problems and make do with them. Even in institutions where there are communication skill modules and courses, it is assumed that issues such as spelling and grammar have been addressed, assessed and passed as adequate by previous examining bodies. This presents a challenge then for the student and for proficiency levels in the country. Students fail to express themselves adequately due to errors and hence fail to score good marks. Although it is believed to be difficult, by any measure, for one to be 100 percent proficient in English as either a first or second language, the extent of errors and mistakes reflected in essays written by college and university students leaves one wondering how the student made it past ZIMSEC or Cambridge for that matter. Most universities and post high-school colleges rely on ZIMSEC and other previous examining bodies for their crop of students. By extension, it is assumed that a student with a Grade ‘C’ or better in English language is proficient. This is regrettably far from the truth. The experience of a college or university lecturer marking an essay supposedly written in English is truly daunting. The most evident in students’ assignments are errors that reflect that the student does not have the knowhow of either the language or subject at all. A mistake is technical, the speaker is assumed to be linguistically competent and has ability in a language. However, for certain technical or environmental problems he/she fails to articulate or write efficiently or as expected. A typical example is in an essay where a spelling may appear correct at first then wrongly spelt at the end or mixed up. If the student is unable to edit and correct own paper spellings and they remain wrongly spelt even after he/she edits his/her essay this then qualifies to be an error. An error denotes that the speaker has no knowledge of how certain linguistic items are handled, i.e. constructed and used. There is a slim line between competence and proficiency, just as there is between literacy and proficiency. Whereas competence denotes the degree of a speaker’s command of a language, proficiency has to do with language usage either in writing or as spoken. The student who subscribes to errors and the one who is defined by mistakes are both lacking in terms of proficiency save for the fact that their points of departure are different. The ‘mistake student’ has command for the language, but is somehow affected by social and cultural variables, while the ‘error student’ is affected by linguistic ability. Perhaps it is necessary for ZIMSEC, the nation’s main examining body, and other examining bodies to be less forgiving of students who do not deserve to pass, be stricter and uphold the value of proficiency. Parents too have a role to play in this. Parents should encourage students to practise their language skills in English. This is not to say that students should abandon their indigenous languages or fail to see value in them. It is a painful reality for Zimbabwe as a post colony that although we were freed from colonialism, English remains the language of global communication and is hence the language of instruction in education, particularly in Zimbabwe.

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