May 24, 2019.
Recollections & Reflections – A commentary by Aziz Hassan
THE National Union of the Teaching Profession recently called on the Education Ministry to conduct a study on the decline in English proficiency among students. While nothing unusual, it’s a call that’s way, way too late because this is a problem that has its roots in 1970, with almost everyone agreeing that’s basically why the country has been facing this problem since.
The lack of teachers proficient in the language, the lack of hours devoted to learning English in schools and everything else are all subsequent to that historic decision to switch the medium of instruction in schools and for most courses in the universities, from English to Malay.
The switch was widely seen as a result of nationalistic fervour and 13 years after its implementation, the entire education system went into full Bahasa Melayu mode. Nothing essentially wrong with that, had we not treated English as just another subject but that’s what we did.
Over the years we hear the so-called defenders of the Malay language insisting that the system must continue, without realising that around us in the region countries that previously had little or no time for English were making a strong push for their people to learn English, certainly among the middle class and the elites.
Much of this shift in thinking was due to the realisation that having a good grasp of English would do your job prospects much good, opening up the opportunities otherwise closed to you. It was also the way to job prospects offshore. Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, Vietnam and Japan, for example, took to English mainly for this reason – better employment opportunities and studies have proven this to be true in the countries mentioned above. These countries did this while Malaysia remained stagnant – or as some believe, backwards, whereas it was for the same reasons that parents during the time of Malaya and Malaysia’s English-medium education sent their kids to English schools.
The thinking of parents who had children in Malay primary schools went through a change after seeing the better jobs that awaited the English educated, but those days students from Malay schools had to undergo a year or two of remove class or the special Malay class to first learn basic English.
While being dead set on continuing with the national language is not really an issue, someone should tell the detractors of a return to English medium education that the realities of life are there for all to see. Be good only in one language and it restricts the options available to you.
Being bi-lingual opens more doors
And having English as your language of choice does not necessarily mean you are not nationalistic or less nationalistic. Malay students who went through the English medium all the way to university are still able to write and speak decent Malay. In the press, for example, the bilingual can find a job in both the Malay and English press while those conversant only in Malay can only look for work in the Malay press. The latter too can’t hope to be given a senior position in a multi-national corporation, for example. As an office boy maybe.
If despite having English taught as a subject still doesn’t help make a student proficient in the language, the NUTP should know fully well the reasons and after all these years a comprehensive study isn’t really necessary because the answers will be the same – limited learning hours a week, lack of practice outside of these classes, teachers themselves lacking proficiency.
A friend once related a story his son had told him after returning home from school, a story both he and I found so embarrassing but at the same time we felt pity for the female teacher who was made fun of by the kids. There she was being corrected twice by her students when she completely mispronounced two words, after which she told them they could not blame her because the principal simply instructed her to take the class although she wasn’t trained to teach English.
It’s all about practice
Some languages are easy to learn while others may take years to study and master but everywhere in the world it’s agreed that it’s all about practice.
A Singapore journalist once told a group of us on assignment in Brussels in the early 80s that it took her only all of six months to be able to speak French well. She was sent to a small village in France where no one was known to speak English or any other foreign language.
I have a niece in Perlis where people mostly speak Malay but she is an exception, with her appetite for books a plus. There she was, a student in an Islamic school but with superb proficiency in English, to the extent that she was the only Malaysian girl to be in the top 30 of an international essay competition some years ago.
Now there is a grand-nephew who will be five this July and has been in an English language nursery/pre-school since about three years ago. Outside of school everyone in the family makes sure that English remains his main language and there are instances when he manages a full sentence, despite his age.
But you also know you are heading for doom and gloom when after knowing where you work a sweet young thing of a flight attendant asks you “At The Sun your work is as a what?”!!!
That’s how bad a road we have taken since 1971…..