IT was not uncommon in the kampung those days that you would get teased by your friends if you picked up an English storybook or spoke in English.
No one would dare converse in English or risk being labelled as “action” (showing off).
Malaysian students are exposed to the English language from primary school. We may need to change the way English is taught to ensure that our students are competent in the language.
Things have changed somewhat, partly due to the advent of the Internet, but people still feel some ambivalence towards learning the English language, especially in the Malaysian context.
No doubt English is an important second language and it is widely spoken in the country. From being seen as a language of a colonial power, English is now a language for modern science and business, and a new window to the world.
Excluding pre-school, the minimum formal learning period of the English language for Malaysian school students is 11 years, and they continue learning it at the tertiary level. What is alarming then, as pointed out by the education minister last week, is the deficiency in English competence among undergraduates. It has become a major concern to education policymakers.
Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also the deputy prime minister, said he was baffled as to why Malaysian students, after completing pre-school, primary, secondary and tertiary education, still could not converse in English, meaning they could not speak the language well after going through the entire education system.
There must be something wrong somewhere, he figured.
“They start learning English at pre-schools, and then, they move on to primary and secondary schools... they should have the basic knowledge and they continue learning the language in universities... that is another four to five years... there should not be a problem,” Muhyiddin was quoted as saying.
“I don’t think the number of hours is insufficient if you take into account the 18 to 19 years of learning process.
“Something is not right.”
Even more worrying is that a good command of English is a prerequisite for getting a good job. Apparently, that was why 55 per cent of fresh graduates failed to secure a job.
What are the reasons for the current abysmal standard of English in the Malaysian school system?
One factor may be the quality of teachers. Muhyiddin said the prevalent usage of Bahasa Melayu in learning other subjects could also be a factor.
“But I don’t think we should blame Bahasa Melayu for affecting the standard of English in this country,” he said.
Scholars point to another underlying factor — the learning anxiety. Learning a foreign language is a complex task susceptible to human anxiety.
Negative attitudes in learning a foreign language are associated with anxious feelings, such as uneasiness, frustration, self-doubt and apprehension, resulting in undue stress on students.
One scholar notes that the factors of anxiety among Malaysian students learning English are personal, school instructional practices as well as social and cultural influences that make them “linguistically and psychologically isolated from the English language use”.
The scholars conclude that it is pertinent for our students and undergraduates to overcome this “language anxiety” to be competent in English.
Even in Beijing and other major Chinese cities, students and office workers make a beeline for English language centres, some housed in leading shopping malls, to learn English.
Unlike China, Malaysian students are exposed to English since primary school. Maybe we need to change the way English is taught at schools to ensure that our students are more competent in the language, both verbal and written.