English as the medium of instruction

My old school friend, Kee Thuan Chye, wrote an interesting piece below on English proficiency that had appeared in the Free Malaysia Today news portal. I am in agreement with his point of view but I would also like to add my own two cents’ worth of comment.

In my opinion, teaching science and mathematics in English alone will not be the solution to become proficient in English and bring our nation forward. But I suppose it is the next best thing to making English the medium of instruction in school.

I had also voiced my opinion a long time ago to people like Dr Toh Kin Woon when he was still an Executive Councillor in the Penang government pre-GE12 that as an experiment, we should press for English to be re-introduced as the medium of instruction for designated schools around the country.

Do it and then gauge its response before expanding the move to more schools. However, looking at the political situation in this country, I wouldn’t hold my breath to see this becoming a reality any time soon.

Thuan Chye’s article continues:

It may be only three years away, but a short deadline can sometimes be as effective as a longer one, if not more so. It’s all about having the will to do it. And speaking of will, students are more likely to find the will to improve their English when they are pushed to do it than when they are led to believe that English is irrelevant to their daily lives or even harmful to their own culture and identity.

Even so, supporters of English are sceptical, and understandably so.

Uppermost on their minds is whether standards might not be compromised to ensure that the percentage of students who fail is kept to a minimum. We have heard stories of the passing mark for difficult subjects like Additional Mathematics being pushed down to as low as 15 or so; would this not be done for English as well? And if it were, what would be the point of the must-pass exercise then?

“If too many students fail, the Malaysian Examinations Board lowers the passing mark as a matter of course,” my friend, a retired English-language teacher, assures me. “Our SPM certificate is now not worth the paper it is printed on.”

She says if we were to look at a sample of the SPM English paper, we would realise that a pass counts for less than nothing by international standards. “That is why candidates with distinctions in English who turn up for job interviews cannot answer simple questions in English.”

Another friend attributes the malaise to what he calls the “rottenness” of our education system. He says it has become rotten because it has been made subservient to political agendas.

“The entire Education Ministry is filled with ‘yes men’ who merely implement policy,” he explains. “One day, I was at a meeting in the ministry and it was suddenly called off because the officers and heads of department had to put in place the machinery to implement a policy that they had read in the morning papers being announced by the minister.

“They were learning about it for the first time and already they had to work out the policy’s implementation! No research, no study, no academic rigour goes into it. No statistics, no projections did they quote to support this latest move. Zero. That’s how things work in our country!”

He fears this may be the modus operandi for implementing the English must-pass policy.

Yet another educator-friend feels the government is rushing things to start the policy in 2016. He thinks everyone will not be ready by then because many teachers are not equipped to teach English – and certainly not properly. This is simply because they themselves are not proficient in the language. Many who graduated with a Teaching of English as a Second Language (TESL) degree can’t even get the basics of the language right.

Learning grammar

Last month, a parent complained to me that her son spelt the word “heavy” correctly but his English-language teacher marked it wrong and insisted it should be spelt “h-e-a-v-e”!

When I was editing the page ‘Mind Our English’ for the newspaper The Star, one of the most unforgettably hilarious – and most depressing – letters I received was from a parent telling about an English-language teacher saying to the class, “Chindilella very pooth thing.” Try and figure out what that teacher meant, and think of the scary prospect of having someone like that teach your children English. If your children don’t know better, they are likely to end up with half-past-six English.

Of course English-language teachers need to be well selected. But for a long while now, it seems that many people do not want to study to become English-language teachers. Most people mark other fields of study in their applications for university entrance; it is mainly those who can’t get into courses of their choice who end up studying TESL.

At one time, our universities were accepting TESL candidates who obtained as low as Band 3 (signifying a modest grade) for their Malaysian Universities English Test (MUET). The highest is Band 6. One would think that TESL candidates should get no lower than Band 5. In fact, this should be the measure for applicants from now on to ensure that standards are maintained. We cannot simply accept students for TESL because they don’t know what else to study or are unable to get into other courses.

I think part of the problem with our current generation’s lack of proficiency in English is due to the emphasis being given to teaching English primarily for communication, as opposed to the traditional method of teaching grammar and vocabulary. This has been going on for at least three decades, and it has produced learners who don’t know the basic building blocks of the language. Without such knowledge, they often can’t string correct sentences together.

At a writing workshop I conducted recently, I was appalled, although not surprised, to discover that Malaysians in their forties and younger were not sure what an adjective or an adverb was. Don’t ask them what a phrasal verb is; they didn’t even know the basic sentence structure comprising subject, verb and object.

I admit that learning grammar may be dry and boring to some, but there is no substitute for learning the language well. How else would they be able to understand, say, the confounding, confounded past perfect tense?

My Canadian friend disagrees, however. “In a perfect world, teaching grammar may be the right thing to do,” she says. “But in this country, at this time, with these people in power, with these demographics, I believe that the communication skills needed in most workplaces today – clarity, organisation of thought, collaborative problem-solving, clarification-seeking, concise e-mail writing, etc – are not as dependent on grammar and rich vocabulary as many believe. Confidence and a sense of the language as a mere tool to be used are much, much more valuable.”

Right implementation

And how would they gain this confidence?

“When they are exposed to and motivated by the power of what language is supposed to be: a vehicle to exchange important, interesting and useful ideas,” she says.

I suppose if this is to be accomplished, the Education Ministry must think of innovative and creative ways of immersing our students in English.

It will certainly take more than the number of classroom hours allotted to the subject. It should also include promoting the habit of reading English texts. And what better than texts culled from the rich storehouses of literature written in English – not just from England but also from other parts of the world, including Malaysia?

When I was in lower secondary school, my classmates and I were introduced to literary works in English. I recall reading, as part of our syllabus, abridged texts of novels and poems from the anthology entitled Poems for Pleasure.

Many of us derived pleasure indeed from reading these, and I for one improved my English while doing so.

Much, then, has to be done to improve Malaysians’ standard of English proficiency, and that does not stop with just passing the subject at SPM. But I still maintain that we’re on to a good start by making that compulsory.

It’s important for the government to finally show that it recognises the importance of English, because in a society like ours which is feudalistic, such recognition must come from the top before the minions will accept it.

Now comes the hard work of implementing it right.

Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the new book The Elections Bullshit, now available in bookstores. This article first appeared in November 2013 issue of Penang Monthly

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