THE call for a new policy to make English a compulsory subject, in addition to Bahasa Malaysia, for students to pass at Malaysia's public universities by Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also Education Minister, will be received with mixed reactions.
Those who have been bemoaning the state of English language proficiency among graduates from Malaysian universities will welcome it while others who will be involved in implementing this policy could be sceptical, even cynical.
There are many implications on both students and university administrators if this policy is to be implemented effectively and there is a political will to see it through and not waver as has been the case in other policies related to English language education in the country.
DECIDING WHO NEEDS TO TAKE THE ENGLISH COURSE
One of the main issues on implementing this policy will be on deciding who will be required to undergo this course. Will all students be expected to undergo this course? Will MUET (Malaysian University English Test) scores be used as the basis as it is the highest English language test students would have taken? The current concern for the poor language ability seems to suggest that those who had received high scores for MUET are also unable to communicate effectively in the English language.
ENGLISH ENTRY POINT INTO MALAYSIAN PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES
Students enter the various programmes with different levels of MUET scores depending on the entry requirements set by the respective universities. Therefore, we already have a major concern on what is the level of English proficiency we expect from students when we say that students must have a pass in English before they graduate.
What will be the realistic expectation for students with MUET Band 2 grade to achieve within a three to four-year period of further English language education? After at least 11 years of English language education, the students have only managed this level of proficiency.
A PASS THAT IS WORTHY
The notion of passing an examination is being ridiculed as seen in the present state of English language proficiency among our school-leavers and university graduates. A distinction grade serves no purpose when students and graduates cannot communicate in the workplace. Our examinations must be reliable and valid, and must carry worth and recognition.
The question then is, what English language skills and competencies are students expected to have to pass the new English language examination? The main concern is to have the graduates ready for the workplace. Many students are already struggling with academic English courses and they will now be expected to develop language skills required in the workplace.
The Education Minister accurately states that basic English is insufficient and that students must be able to communicate in English. Communicating in English would include expressing ideas, holding an argument and being creative in the English language. These skills take time to be mastered.
Expecting our students to be employable and global players in English does seem a tall order. There is little in the current school and university English language curricula that prepare students for communication in the workplace.
And there is realistically only so much that can be achieved during university study when again English is just one course among the many that students will be studying.
EMPHASIS ON ORAL COMMUNICATION
The emphasis on reading and writing in schools, driven by the various public examinations, has resulted in the neglect of developing speaking and listening skills. Upon graduating from tertiary institutions, many students have neither the confidence nor the ability to hold a conversation in formal English to get through their job interviews.
In view of this, not only should the teaching focus shift towards oral communication, it must be assessed in an appropriate manner to ensure that when students are said to have passed this new university English test, they will clearly exhibit communicative competencies in the four language skills.
The focus should be beyond conversational English to using formal English that can be understood in both local and international contexts.
IMPLICATION ON GRADUATION
Will universities be willing to hold students’ graduation based on this criterion? My past experience suggests that the pressure from parents and other sponsors might be too great to bear and the administrators might buckle.
If at all this new policy is to succeed, it must be carefully thought through from the point of curriculum development, teaching methodologies to be employed, implementation of the course in universities and the follow-up monitoring of the implementation. DR MALACHI EDWIN VETHAMANI is a professor at the School of Education, Taylor's University - NST Learning Curve 7 SEPTEMBER 2014 @ 10:51 AM