Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Malaysian Way to Better English

The Malaysian Way to Better English
Kee Thuan Chye

I was recently invited by the Education Ministry to a discussion on "strengthening English" in schools, but from the way the proceedings went, it seemed like an exercise in futility.

The fact that it was being held in tandem with another discussion to "memartabatkan" (uphold) Bahasa Malaysia speaks volumes. As we all know, the standard statement that comes with any official announcement on the need to raise our standard of English must invariably contain the apologetic caveat: "but it must be carried out without threatening the position of the national language". This occasion was evidently no different.

Both the English and Malay groups congregated at the outset in the same conference room where everyone was briefed on the purpose of the event and then parted ways to deliberate on their respective language concerns. During this initial common briefing, it was made unequivocally clear that even though there were plans to "memperkukuh" English, this should not be seen as a challenge to Bahasa Malaysia.

As to be expected then, the meeting on the English side was characterised by guardedness and underdog ambition. Issues raised were mainly those that had been raised before – again and again ("I’m hearing comments I used to hear 20, 30 years ago," said a veteran educationist). Many of the participants had been embroiled in many a discussion past and were now wary of whether their current proposals would amount to anything. You could tell by the conversations outside of the meeting room that most were pessimistic.

Nothing has changed. Certainly not the political will of the government to truly revolutionise its attitude towards the teaching, learning and use of English in this country, which would call for a radical overturn of an official position that has been entrenched since 1970.

Who in the current administration would dare venture that way when their uppermost consideration is winning the next general election? Which is why the vision on English has been always short-term. And what the recent reversal of the teaching of science and mathematics in English was motivated by.

No one in power has dared to think of the long term, of the potential future of a Malaysia dragged down by its lack of proficiency in the global language, of the future of the rural populace who must continue to wallow in their lack of command of the language because they are not ardently advised otherwise. To get them out of their complacency with being monolinguistic would risk raising the ire of certain interest groups – and that could be disastrous for the ruling party.

Most of us at the meeting were too polite to bring this up, but an old hand in education did ask, "What is our language policy now? Monolingualism or bilingualism?".

So, by and large, we dutifully confined ourselves to discussing the areas of training, marketing and pedagogy. We gave suggestions on how to make the noble profession of teaching seem truly so to those going into it ("most students go into teaching English because they have no choice", observed a participant); on the need to take in only teacher-trainees who had an acceptable level of proficiency in English; on getting teachers to employ non-formal teaching methods that would be filled with fun for the learners and to organise out-of-class activities; on making more use of e-learning and ICT; on what to avoid if grammar were to be taught explicitly; on how to instil confidence in English teachers and give them the support they need when this is denied them by the school environment.

One of the best ideas – and possibly the only political one – was to urge the government to commit to promoting "coordinate bilingualism" rather than "subordinate bilingualism", such that no language would be eclipsed or even dominated by another. That kind of commitment is essential, especially in a school environment where the ustaz can have a powerful influence on the headmaster’s policy implementation.

At the meeting, no one suggested bringing back the English-medium school or making a pass in English compulsory for passing SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia). Most of us thought this would be pointless, anyway.

After all, Dr Mahathir floated the English-medium school idea briefly when he was prime minister and then backed off. And only recently, Deputy Prime Minister and new Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin sent up a test balloon regarding the compulsory pass but nothing has come out of it since.

To me, that meeting was a sad reflection of what we are – a people who are rich but are afraid to cultivate our wealth and let it blossom, and all because of our insecurities. We fear opening our minds so we deny our children access to our vaults. Each time a new education minister comes into office, there will be an attempt at some stock-taking and cursory spring-cleaning, but this is then followed by the same old business as usual. We pay lip service, we opt for eyewashes.

Will this time be different? I much doubt it. So, as has been happening over the years, those who have the means will find ways to improve their English, mostly outside of the school system, and those who don’t will lag behind. And when it comes time for university graduates to attend job interviews, that’s when the difference will be telling. Still, at the end of the day, these will just amount to being mere statistics. It’s the outcome at the elections that matters more.

It is, as we say, the Malaysian way.


Kee Thuan Chye, who retired from journalism in May, is an advocate of good English, having edited a column on the subject in a national paper for years. He also authored the book March 8: The Day Malaysia Woke Up, which has been translated into Chinese. Comment: letters@thesundaily.com.

Source: theSun, Thu, 13 Aug 2009

2 comments:

nisha said...

Thanks a lot for that extraordinarily high quality article.
mba

Anonymous said...

Parents should also help their kids in their lessons..

I was once very desperate, did indepth research how to go about helping my kids learn to read English from home.

@ http://where2-where2.blogspot.com/

GoodLuck