I was among the top scorers for Bahasa Malaysia in Year 6, which was quite an achievement as my class comprised many who had completed Malay primary school, and had to start from Year 5 when switching to an English school.
Because Malay is a phonetic language, I could pronounce and spell the words correctly. While Mandarin may be concise and much information could be communicated using a few words, Chinese characters are difficult to remember and write. In 1962, although I had obtained Grade A in the secondary school entrance examination, my English was weak as no one at home or in my neighbourhood spoke English, and television had yet to be introduced to our country.
I remember that in Form 1, a teacher asked me to explain why fishermen in the east coast placed barriers to shield their houses from monsoon winds. I could only say “touch here, touch there, no force” meaning the wind’s force would be absorbed by the barriers and reduced by the time it reached the houses.
The teacher told me to start reading books. I was over-ambitious and picked up a thick novel from the library but read only a few pages. When in Form 4 and 5, I subscribed to Time and Life magazines, and learnt much about what was happening in the world from them. I was also reading Reader’s Digest and picked up good values.
But I was too undisciplined to study and obtained a third grade for my Malaysia Certificate of Education and barely passed English. I took up a correspondence course and, within a few months, had obtained a diploma in automobile engineering from a British institute.
However, my Malay and Chinese remained undeveloped. I could hardly converse with my parents and avoided talking to relatives who didn’t speak English. While I could excel in the workplace using English, I hardly communicated with those who didn’t.
After working in the automobile and insurance industries for four years, I switched to the travel line and worked as a tourist guide. It took me only two days to observe how city tours were conducted before guiding on my own, as licensing of tourist guides was introduced only two years later in 1975.
Initially, tour leaders of American and Australian groups were impressed with my sincerity as they did not realise that I had just started guiding.
From 1990 to 2000, I was engaged to be a lecturer and examiner for tourist guide courses, and had organised training in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Langkawi.
Proficiency in English had allowed me to serve as general manager for seven travel, tour, training, leasing and car rental companies.
In the process, I had interviewed thousands of job applicants and recruited hundreds of staff based mainly on their ability to communicate well in English.
It is sad to learn that 1,000 medical graduates had given up becoming doctors after completing the two-year housemanship due to their poor command of English.
If this could happen to our brightest students, then the future is indeed bleak for other graduates who are weak in English in this globalised era.
The switch from English in schools to Bahasa Malaysia started in 1970. There is no denying that Bahasa Malaysia should be our national language, but English should not have been relegated.
Other countries are proud of their native language but have also promoted and given due importance to English. Where we are today was caused by three factors.
The first is our education system and it is more than just lack of teaching hours in English. Students must practise speaking and writing in front of the class, and mistakes must be corrected so that everyone learns. If not, they go through school and university unable to speak or write properly.
It is common to find graduates unable to string a sentence correctly in English, and to my horror, many could not write thirty-six billion in figures, which I could in primary school.
The second factor has to do with their friends. Unlike my schooldays, when students and friends spoke to each other in English, it is now a rarity.
The third factor has often been overlooked and that is the power of television, which I learnt from my granddaughter. For the first two years, she did not speak a word except to call out her parents and others.
We tried teaching her words in various languages and dialects, but she remained silent. But when she started to speak, she amazed us with her vocabulary and pronunciation.
For example, the last letter “k” in “look” could be heard distinctly. She learnt to speak, sing and dance by watching children’s programmes in English.
When she was less than 3 years old, she had the confidence to engage with foreign adults while waiting in airports and hotels overseas.
Children are not handicapped to learn if they have access to English programmes. But most are denied them by selfish adults, who prioritise their own entertainment over children’s education. Y.S. CHAN, Kuala Lumpur NST Home News Opinion You Write Sunday, 15 November 2015, 8:11 PM