Whither the standard of English? — Stephen Doss
JUNE 13 — Recently I had the good fortune of attending the launch of the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association’s (MELTA) 21st International Conference with the theme “Reframing English Language Education: New Environments, New Needs , New Solutions”.
The keynote address was delivered by their royal patron DYMM Raja Zarith Sofiah Binti Almarhum Sultan Idris Shah. She, in her usual forthright manner, was of the view that the decline of English proficiency in Malaysia was a serious issue and she did not expect conferences such as the one she was in, to be able to solve the issue any time soon.
There was a time when Malaysians were respected for their command of the language wherever they went in the world. Our ambassadors, civil servants, businessmen were not only visible because they were seen but because they were heard loud and clear and were easily understood.
When and how exactly did Malaysians start losing their ability to be proficient in the English language?
Proficiency in English is vital in today’s world and Malaysia needs to arrest the decline urgently if it wants to remain competitive. The declining standard of English among the young in Malaysia has been well documented.
For many years, many concerned stakeholders — from employers, educationists and linguists to parents — have voiced their concern. However, with English being an important language of knowledge and global competition now, the need to arrest this decline has never been more urgent.
The veteran politicians among us give Anwar Ibrahim too much credit when they point their finger at him for being the catalyst that led to the downward spiral.
They say it was a young Anwar Ibrahim — who, as a student leader, took to the streets to deface Chinese and English signboards in the name of Malay nationalism before being co-opted into government and becoming education minister — who went about reconstructing the country’s education policy according to his understanding.
In my humble opinion, it was not Anwar who started the fire; the seeds of nationalism having been planted much earlier. But if there is one thing we can credit Anwar for, it is his ability to ride on popular sentiment,
The late Dr Hyacinth Gaudart, in her article “English Language Teaching in Malaysia: A Historical Account”, traced the declining standards of English to the introduction in 1956 of our first educational report: The Razak Report.
The Razak Report (1956: No. 20: p.14) recommended a number of positive and negative measures that were later adopted by the Ministry of Education and other government departments of independent Malaysia. Briefly, these included:
• making the Malay language a qualification at the various levels of entry into the government service;
• using the Malay language as a factor for selection for secondary education;
• making the Malay language compulsory in all government departments;
• making the Malay language a requirement for anyone aspiring to a scholarship from public funds;
• providing bonuses in government service to encourage a more rapid acquisition of the language;
• varying grants to schools depending in part on the successful learning of Malay as and when adequate facilities could be provided;
• making the Malay language a compulsory part of teacher training courses and examinations;
The encouragement of the use of the national language in teacher training and the caution regarding adequate facilities were important because at Independence and long afterwards, there were insufficient teachers of the national language.
Accordingly, directives were given to the Director of Education, asking that Malay or Bahasa Melayu be made a “principal subject” in the Higher School Certificate, that special bursaries for the study of Malay be provided at the university and that specialized courses in Malay be introduced into teacher training colleges (Razak Report, 1956: No. 20: p.5).
In 1960, the next educational report, the Rahman Talib Report, further recommended that inducements should be offered to qualified teachers already in school to study the national language. The reason why there was such a heavy emphasis on the learning of Malay was to make Malay the national language of the newly independent country that, until that time, had no common language among its very diverse population.
There was a belief that a common language would create a common culture and so create a new national identity. The reason given for studying English was economic. “No secondary school pupil shall be at a disadvantage in the matter either of employment or of higher education in Malaya or overseas as long as it is necessary to use the English language for these purposes” (Razak Report, 1956:1 2).
The Rahman Talib Report of 1960, although reiterating the nation’s stand for bilingual education, was more explicit as to the type and features of bilingual education it considered desirable. The guiding feature was national unity through making the Malay language the national language.
In May 1969, the country witnessed the most serious race riots in its history. In July, while the country was still in shock from these riots, the then Minister of Education, Haji Abdul Rahman Ya’akub announced in January 1970, all English medium schools would be converted into Malay medium schools, starting from Standard 1 and moving up the education system with that group until 1983 or 1984 when conversion would be complete.
The English educated of all communities were greatly concerned with this new development. Education policy had stated that Malay was to be made the main medium of instruction and somehow it had been assumed that English would remain as a secondary medium of instruction.
Teachers in the English medium schools were hit the hardest by the conversion of the medium of instruction to Malay. Although language courses had been offered to non-Malay teachers, three months’ exposure to Bahasa Malaysia was less than adequate to equip teachers to teach their subjects in Malay. Teachers also found the translation of terminologies, especially scientific terminology, inadequate for their needs.
This situation resulted in stimulating an exodus of Malaysian teachers, an emigration that had really begun soon after Independence by Western-orientated professionals. The preference was for Singapore and, on a smaller scale, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, and Brunei.
The downward spiral was now unstoppable.
Fast forward to 2012 and the Malaysian government is trying in earnest to arrest this ever-declining standard of English, with good reason. We have come full circle to acknowledge that we have to do so for purely economic reasons, the very same reasons that the Razak Report gave to maintain English as a second language then.
The following are other data relating to the use of English in different situations:
(1) 380 million speak English as a second language;
(2) one billion speak English as a foreign language;
(3) there are an estimated 1.7 billion users of the language. English dominates the Internet, the print media, business, aviation, conferences, other international events, etc;
(4) approximately one billion are learning English worldwide;
(5) over the Internet, about 80 per cent of home pages and 60 per cent of e-mail are in English;
(6) English is the medium of higher education in many countries, eg India, the Netherlands, Oman, South Africa, Sweden and Turkey;
(6) 85 per cent of the world’s knowledge is in English; and
(7) 98 per cent of scientific papers are written in English.
In his book The Future of English (2000), Graddol said: “Worldwide, there are 1,400 million people living in countries where English has official status. One out of five of the world’s population speaks English to some level of competence. English is the main language of books, newspapers, airports and air-traffic control, international businesses and academic conferences, science, technology, diplomacy, sport, international competitions, pop music and advertising.”
Look at India today, through the days of independent India, many there saw English as a language of the imperialists and did everything possible to marginalise the tongue. This included attempts to make Hindi the sole national language, and restricting or banning outright the teaching of English in state schools.
But once outsourcing made English the entry ticket into a global economy and higher incomes, the language rapidly became a popular aspiration. As a result state governments across the country are now reversing historically anti-English policies; even in places where Hindi language nationalism was trenchant. Such is the power of changing ideas.
We will still have the naysayers among us who will claim there is no need for an official second language, and would prefer if Malaysians by and large remain mono-lingual, the same people who will ensure that their own children receive the best of education overseas and are at least bi-lingual.
I suppose the fewer people who are bi-lingual, the less competition they see for themselves and their family.
But this is no longer a matter of pride, admirable as it may be, pride does not feed hungry stomachs, and 50 years after independence we need to rethink what we mean by nationalism.
Nationalism, for me, is when we put the citizens of this country before meaningless pride.
* Stephen Doss reads The Malaysian Insider.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.