By Danton Remoto

Whether the learning is face-to-face, blended, or online, the basic principles of learning English remain. You have to be engaged with the text (printed, visual, auditory) and with the teacher (real or virtual).  How to learn English well, in the Age of COVID 19?

Listen to the teacher. When the teacher repeats a point two times or puts it in capital letters in her PowerPoint, red flag it and take notes. That means what she is saying is important, that is why it is repeated twice, not that she already has Alzheimer’s.

Read everything thrice. The first is to scan the text, like an eagle surveying the field, before it swoops down for the kill. The second is to read slowly, marking important points on the margins, or underlining key words in the text. The third is to summarize the points in your head, in your notebook, or on the last page of the text. I tell my students: unless you have summarized the text in three sentences, in your own words, then you haven’t gotten it right.

Master the four skills. Being a teacher of the old school, I tell my students the four skills of language learning are still important. The four skills are reading, writing, listening and speaking. But because of the four so-called skills I enumerated earlier, some students no longer want to read. “Why pa did you go to school if you don’t want to read?” I ask my students in mock horror. Writing well, of course, means reading and rereading The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White.

Listening, with the headphones of your iPod off, works best. And speaking, of course. When one day, I asked a student for his insights into Guy de Maupassant’s “The Jewels,” he answered, “Wala lang! (I have nothing)” I said, “That is good. Therefore, your oral recitation grade is also wala lang!” Then he immediately cobbled together an answer that somewhat mollified his English teacher.

Manage your time. You are a student, right? Therefore, your job is to study. When I was taking graduate school in the US and we were reading 600 pages of text every week, I asked my classmates, “How do we survive this?” “Read the darned pages,” Boho from Harlem said, “then go to the gym three times a week – and dance in the clubs on Saturday nights!” And so we did. We read tomes on Islamic Mystical Literature, the Nineteenth-Century Novel, and Literary Criticism, then did the treadmill and danced at Splash in New York every Saturday night. In short, you study hard – and then you play just as hard.

Consult with the teacher. Your teacher has placed her e-mail address and consultation hours in the syllabus. Go and make use of these. If you get low marks in Composition class, or just cannot get it why the old man Iona Potapov, who has just lost his son, begins talking to his horse at the end of Anton Chekhov’s melancholy story, then talk to the teacher.

With the patience of Job, I am sure she will explain why that sentence is a fragment, and you do not mix your tenses, and “occasion” is not spelled with two c’s, that is why you got an F. And I am quite sure that your teacher will also enlighten you on the way Chekhov writes fiction as revelation, where the unsaid words and the absent gestures are as important than what is said and shown.

Use the library. I taught for 30 years at Ateneo, which happens to have an excellent multimedia library. During the first weeks of class, I require my students to attend the Rizal Library orientation, so they will know how to dig in that fabulous archive of knowledge. I also tell them that the library subscribes to Time, Newsweek, The Economist, The Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune – the last two papers because I badgered the library to do so, 20 years ago. In short, the most incisive analysis and the crispest writing in accessible formats can be had, right there at their fingertips. And now that we have social media, why, YouTube can also be a rich source of documentaries, Audiobooks, and even films that deal with the subject matter being discussed in the classroom.

Use your imagination. When studying literature, let your minds fly! Ravyi Sunico, my teacher in Philosophy, once said in class that the imagination has no boundaries. Therefore, let the wings of your mind and heart touch the sky when you read. When the French master wrote, “Monsieur Lantin was caught in the web of love,” do not tell the teacher that this means life is complicated.

First, you answer that “web of love” is a metaphor that means falling in love is like being caught in a spider web. It reminds you of that time when that “fat dimpled spider” (in Walt Whitman’s wicked poem) comes charging along to eat the unwitting fly. In short, I add, my lips curving in a smile, it is called falling in love because “at first, you are in love, and then you fall.”

Open your minds. You go to school to have a liberal education, especially in the Humanities. In the Jesuit Fr. Roque Ferriol’s book, that means “magpakatao” –  to be fully human. That means never being afraid of ideas. Freshmen jump out of their skin when they hear the word “Communism” or the name of the dirty, old man “Sigmund Freud” discussed in their Literature classes. You are telling me that we will discuss Ninotchka Rosca’s  novel, State of War, without talking about the class contradictions in society? Or talk about Little Red Riding Hood seducing the wolf in Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves,” without discussing Freud as well as the Gothic tradition? Time now to forget your high-school class in Literature, where Sister Marionette always pinned a moral lesson to every poem, play, story and essays taught in class, reducing the beauty of words to dead butterflies pinned on the wall.

In short, enjoy your English and Literature classes. Have fun in the world of words. Read everything as if it is a love letter, which means reading between the lines. Or better yet, as one of my unforgettable professors would put it, read not only with your eyes and with your heart, but read with your genitals!

Which means reading everything at the level of the groin where, as the poet Rainier Maria Rilke once put it in “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the vital seeds of life begin.

(Prof. Danton Remoto is the Head of School at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia. He can be reached at [email protected])

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