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Are real English beginners a diminishing breed?
In parts of the world, such as Europe, I think real beginners are less common, given the prevalence of English language movies, the internet and other contact people have with the English language. However, it seems that some pockets of the world still have very limited contact with English.
In Malaysia, there is a growing number of students appearing from other Islamic countries who have had very limited English schooling. The central Asian region is a dynamic area and these countries are embracing English more and more. I have been teaching beginner classes at a university in Kuala Lumpur. Beginner students are appearing from China, Mongolia and the Middle East. However, more and more, there are students appearing from lesser known countries such as Yemen, Jordan, Palestine to name a few. Also, students are emerging from the former soviet countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The challenge is exciting, as not only have these students not had much contact with English. They are often unfamiliar with Western styles of education. The education systems of these countries vary dramatically. So in a class of 16 or so students, the challenge for the teacher is not only to convey meaning and encourage communication in English. Additionally, teachers need to teach students how to think conceptually, how to take turns in speaking and learn how to listen to others in a classroom context. This is also not to mention reading and writing skills. For Russian speakers, these skills are fast to develop. However, for the speakers of Arabic and Chinese, these can be challenging and (understandably) slow to develop.
Access to such students is wonderful for a teacher, as in many cases they are a clean slate upon which language can develop. However, the challenge is very real to include activities in class which encourage critical thinking, as opposed to language repetition without logically thinking and analysis.
There are still many real beginners in English. They are emerging from countries which previously had little contact with the Western world. However, with globalisation, they are entering the English language classroom. They are very excited to learn English and it is exciting to have the opportunity to see their progress from first contact to fluency.
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