That English is currently the world language is a fact that even the die-hard nationalists in the country cannot argue with. So if we aspire to be more proficient in the language we are only trying to be better citizens of the world.
This desire and need to be more proficient in the English language does not lessen the need to maintain and promote the use of the national language. It is not a question of choosing one over the other. It is the need of promoting proficiency in both languages that is the issue before us now.
For those of us born before the Second World War who had their early primary education either in the Malay or English or Chinese or Tamil medium, if we were fortunate enough to continue our education at the secondary level, we would have done it in the medium of English because in the pre-war years or in the immediate post-war years secondary education was available only in the English medium.
Automatic promotion from primary to secondary schools was not heard of then. In order to proceed to secondary school one had to pass the secondary entrance examination. This secondary entrance examination was the first level filter in the school system those days.
Those from the Malay-medium primary schools who did not qualify to go to secondary school would terminate their education at the end of Grade or Standard 6 of primary school. Some were selected to continue for another year at Grade 7 after which they would sit for another examination which would qualify them to be primary school teachers in Malay-medium schools or for some other clerical or such jobs that did not require proficiency in English.
Those who qualified to go to the secondary English-medium schools were mostly from the English-medium primary schools since these were the schools with better teachers and better facilities as a whole. Those from the Malay-medium primary schools who showed promise after four years of primary education were selected to sit for a special qualifying examination that would enable them to continue their education at these English-medium secondary schools.
But before they could do so they were required to do two years of preparatory English language study known those days as Special Malay Class I (SMC I) and Special Malay Class II (SMC II). After this two-year semi-immersion in the English language these students were allowed to join the mainstream English medium.
Many Malays who joined the civil service or became teachers in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s were educated through this pathway while the others came up through the English medium all the way from primary through secondary schools. Some who did well in their Senior Cambridge/MCE examinations at the end of secondary school were selected to study in the only ‘local’ university then: the University of Malaya in Singapore. Only the top scholars were offered scholarships to study overseas.
The above is the special breed that we often compare our recent school leavers with when we talk of standards of English in the country, which is in effect a very unfair comparison.
Why do we say it is unfair? Firstly these early students were entirely or almost entirely educated in the medium of English all the way from primary to secondary schools. They would have gone through more than 620,000 minutes of education in the medium of English during their entire schooling from primary through secondary schools.
Whereas those who attended school after the conversion of these English medium schools to Malay medium only studied the English language during the English periods which after 11 years of primary and secondary schooling would total up to just a little above 120,000 minutes, not to mention the differentials in teacher quality and the respective environments they hail from.
It needs to be pointed out that the children of post-merdeka years come from all walks of life, from the remotest kampongs in Sabah, Sarawak and the east coast states of the peninsula, whereas the children who went to the English medium schools during pre-merdeka years were more from the urban or semi-urban areas, as most of the secondary schools were situated there.
Comparing rambutans with apples
The introduction just given above is essential background to appreciate the differences in the situation between those early pre-merdeka years and now. So to say that the standard of English in our schools has deteriorated is in fact a gross over-statement because it is like comparing rambutans with apples.
First of all we should be aware of the differentials in the two situations we are comparing. Having developed this awareness we should not be moaning and blaming the policy-makers.
It was a democratic decision made by our leaders and representatives in Parliament to accept and implement the findings of the Razak Report of 1956 and the Abdul Rahman Talib Report of 1961, whereby the national language became a mandatory subject to be learnt in all schools and Malay medium education was introduced alongside the English medium and later, from the early 70s, it slowly replaced the English medium as the main medium of instruction in schools.
What we should be concerned about now is how to raise the level of proficiency of the English language in this country to as high a level as possible maybe to even a higher level than during the days of the English medium.
It should be pointed out however that it would not be humanly possible to get EVERYONE to the same level whatever we define the high level to be. As such we need to develop very realistic multi-level programmes whereby schools can choose the level(s) suitable for their students.
Improving proficiency in English language merely through a subject called ‘English’ in the school curriculum is insufficient as educational planners at the Education Ministry and teachers in schools have realised over the years.
As pointed out earlier with a mere contact time of around 270 minutes a week (totalling about a little over 120,000 minutes contact time in the student’s whole school career) with the teacher doing most of the talking during those minutes, the result would be what we are getting now.
In the days when oral English was part of the SPM English examination, we used to hear ‘horror’ stories of how most students could not even utter a complete sentence in English to the examiner, let alone uttering a complete correct sentence.
On top of trying to upgrade pedagogical strategies in teaching the language what we believe to be more effective would be to teach certain subjects in the curriculum in the medium of English. In fact the ministry had already blazed this trail in the early years of this new millennium.
However, the decision made in 2003 by the government of the day to teach Science and Mathematics in English (the project known as PPSMI) was so hurriedly done with the result that there was insufficient time to plan and prepare for the change especially the teacher retraining aspects.
Project aborted in stages
Hence it was not surprising that initial formative evaluation of the project showed that the programme was not meeting the targets set. This was picked up by the ‘nationalists’ and those in the system who had been unhappy that they had to undergo this massive change. The ministry decided to take an ‘about turn’ and aborted the project in stages.
With the need to bolster performance in the English language becoming a hot concern again, we strongly feel that it is time to reconsider bringing back the idea of teaching the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects in English.
There are signs that if we do not take this bold step now we may be lagging behind countries that did not show much interest in learning the language up to a few years ago. For example we learn that Japan’s Honda has decided to adopt English as their official language obviously for their continued survival in the very competitive auto industry.
Of course the Indians and the Filipinos never parted with the English language as they decided to retain the English medium for their Sciences and Mathematics. That is one of the reasons why India has become one of the world’s leaders in the IT industry and the Philippine economy is on the rise again.
In Malaysia we hear endless stories of how the technical staff in our digital/electronic/electrical outlets face problems when they have to go through those copious wordy instructions in English on the leaflets that come with the merchandise they have to market. Even English-educated customers like us oftentimes find difficulty in trying to comprehend these instructions that come with our electrical goods or the digital/technical gadgets that we purchase!
In yesteryears when we purchased a new electrical/electronic product the dealer or his representative would gladly demonstrate or brief us clients as to how to operate the gadget. Nowadays they may just remind us to read the accompanying brochure/leaflet, for the simple reason that they themselves are not familiar with the highly technical language in these documents!
Recently a cooperative training programme was mounted between local universities and a few multi-national companies like Shell, IBM, HSBC, AIA and AIG, coordinated and managed by Setia Haruman Sdn Bhd in Cyberjaya. The aim of the project was to ensure that selected final year students from these universities would be assured of jobs in those companies upon their graduation.
Lack of proficiency and communication skills
It was discovered that the main problem faced by these students was the lack of proficiency and communication skills and therefore confidence in operating in the English language.
Our new English curricula for these STEM subjects need to be mindful of this type of situation. The curriculum planners need to stay abreast of content and approaches like English for Special Purposes, because our employees in these industries and multi-national companies need to be not only proficient in the English language but familiar with the special terminologies and language register associated with the business of these industries.
There is already quite a well-developed body of knowledge and strategies in this field of English for Special Purposes as English language experts in the ministry are well aware of.
Special attention should be paid to teacher training and pedagogical strategies. We should not take the teachers’ English proficiency for granted. They were completely educated in the Malay medium, even the teachers teaching English as a subject! There has to be a massive retraining programme because this change involves a new medium of instruction for the STEM subjects.
In the earlier PPSMI exercise very expensive state-of-the-art CDs were produced alongside printed materials, requiring the use of laptops, LCDs and installation of special screens in the classrooms, most of which was foreign to the teachers.
If more efforts are spent on teacher retraining and production of relevant teaching/learning materials (preferably involving the teachers themselves as they are the ones who will be using them) that do not necessarily involve the production of expensive software like CD-ROMs, and if these strategies and materials are tried out first before they are put to general use, there would be greater promise of success.
Noble as our aim is in wanting to raise our students’ proficiency in the English language, we have to accept the fact that not everybody will achieve the same level if everybody is given the same dosage in the same manner throughout the entire nation. Local conditions, teacher differentials, children’s ability and many other factors will determine the actual level of achievement.
This is certainly true for English as well as for every other component of the curriculum. As such it would be unrealistic to expect every child to reach the level of BBC or Oxford English.
But Malaysia does need a considerable number of her citizens to be able to communicate at that level of English in order to be on par or on top of our trading partners in cross-border trade negotiations; to be successful diplomats; to be teachers and lecturers using the English language; to man our big corporations and industries (ala the Japanese Honda example referred to earlier); to be successful in the service industry and to operate with distinction in many other spheres of the job sector.
Beyond teaching the STEM subjects in the medium of English and employing special methodologies to improve the teaching of the English language itself we need to mount special immersion programmes in English for those who are being prepared for these vocations or for those who show interest or inclination to pursue to that BBC/Oxford level.
Such immersion programmes could be conducted at the university level, in specially equipped training institutes, residential schools, or special institutions set up for this purpose. It should be open to all Malaysians who qualify and special financial help given to the needy.
There will definitely be parties and sectors of the Malaysian community who will not be favourable to these suggestions - understandably so. The government, or rather the ministry, cannot undertake all these moves without similar moves to raise the proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia.
Although this is the subject of another discussion, suffice to say here that the ministry needs to consider establishing a credible centre of research and pedagogy in Bahasa Malaysia just as Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka has been set up to research and develop Bahasa Malaysia itself.
The Language Institute in Lembah Pantai (now known by another name) which was originally set up to be a centre for pedagogical research and teaching/learning strategies for Bahasa Malaysia unfortunately has become just another teacher training institute.
Unless the ministry is seen to be attentive to the needs of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language, whatever steps taken to upgrade English language proficiency in this country will always be opposed by the die-hard nationalists. However, these same nationalists too need to be proficient in the English language for them to succeed in their respective careers in the wider world.