The English Proficiency Index 2015 ranked Malaysia at 14th position out of 70 countries. Even India is at 20th.
However, over the last week there have been lots of discussion in the media and ‘teh tarik’ joints about our command of the English language, whether written or spoken. Despite being a former British colony, there are still challenges to getting Malaysians, especially students to converse confidently in the language.
The government is serious about this problem and had allocated funds for a Dual Language Programme in the 2016 budget.
Let me quote some examples on the state of affairs quoted in an article in November 2015: prize mistaken for “price”; Technicians struggling to explain to their superiors; Some 1,000 medical graduates forced to abandon their dream of becoming doctors due to their poor command of English; “rojak English” has been the lingua franca of many sectors and industries; the Malaysian Employers Federation pointed out that the declining standard of English is prevalent across industries; it is hampering Malaysia’s economic development.
Given the above, being fluent in English is an essential skill and a strength that employers seek. There are instances where companies opt for foreign talent. A Jobstreet.com survey in 2013 found that 55% of senior managers and companies interviewed said that a poor command of the English language is the main reason that undergraduates are unemployed.
It also has been said that if we are to excel in any chosen field especially in any international level of studies where the resources are in English, then we would need to achieve a certain level of prowess in the language. We need to be good in the English language to be global players. Data from the Malaysian Examination Board showed the failure rate for English in the SPM exams since 2011 had been above 20%.
What do we need to do now?
We need a strategy to make it natural for students to learn the language, help graduates to become more marketable and Malaysians as a whole to be more equipped as citizens of of a developed nation. Radical changes have to be made. We cannot afford to say we are ‘baffled’ by Malaysians’ poor grasp of English. We have to inculcate the habit of using the English language as a second medium of communication.
The English language is a tool and not a stand-alone subject. Students should be encouraged to help each other, and teachers to facilitate. The issue here is many of the English teachers themselves are weak in the language. Teacher training colleges should be given due recognition through review of salary scales and syllabuses to give added emphasis to the English language.
Society, too, has to play its part. Grammatical inaccuracy should not be ridiculed as that will deter progress. We should instill the attitude and habit to help improve and correct what is not proper. In the present digital world, students are not taught to discipline themselves on the use of gadgets. Parents have a big role to play here.
It can be seen that in most schools students may range from linguistically illiterate, ‘native speaker’ (mother tongue) competency to linguistically proficient in the English language.
To speed up the process, we may need to to appoint Specialist Coaches to coach teachers in schools.
Wait a minute…
We should not point our fingers to the younger generation only. It is also prevalent among the older generation including our political representatives.
The apparent low levels of academic qualifications for some, expose a progressively worse state of oratorical skills especially in English and Bahasa Melayu too. This is evident during parliamentary debates where someone commented it to be of a level best suited at mamak stalls.
It is a dangerous trend when parliamentarians are actually debating motions which will be passed as laws to govern our country. Since we pride ourselves in following the Westminster system, we should be able to express our views in a more dignified and eloquent manner.
Tun Dr Mahathir had warned that Malaysia would be a nation of non-creators.
Having said the above, we must never lose track of the need to be proficient in Bahasa Melayu too. Sometimes, it is hard to comprehend how Bangladeshis, Nepalese, Burmese and other immigrants can pick up Bahasa Melayu within a few months after landing on our shores.
If we want a united Malaysia and the need for inclusiveness, we must also give prominence to Bahasa Melayu.
In closing, Malaysian English needs life support. It goes back as to who calls the shots at Putrajaya. What say you?
Saleh Mohammed@FMT Reporters Online