The emplacement of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language and medium of instruction in national schools has resulted in its steady growth as the language of official and academic communication.
Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) has played an outstanding role in standardising the linguistic structures of the language, viz its syntax, morphology, phonetics and phonology, as well as coordinating its vocabulary, viz semantics, lexicology and terminology.
DBP has ensured that Bahasa Melayu has grown from its role as the lingua franca in pre-independence Malaya to being a veritable modern language with formal systems, structures and rules to govern its use.
The growth of a language with a large community of users who use the language for different purposes will produce regional dialects and socio-cultural varieties each with its own registers and conventions.
DBP is playing a key role in monitoring the standard variety of Bahasa Malaysia and ensuring that its development upholds the most sound linguistic principles and theories as well as the most urgent national needs and aspirations. Bahasa Malaysia is now firmly entrenched as Malaysia's official language and as the medium of instruction in the national schools (Sekolah Kebangsaan).
In the second half century of Malaysia's development, when the country is committed to becoming a global player in technology and innovation, commerce and industry, there has to be a firm commitment to a national education system where English, the global language, is positioned as the natural complement to Bahasa Malaysia.
The discourse on education has seen countless cries for the reinstatement of English as a strong second language in which Malaysians should acquire knowledge and skills. There is no doubt that English will equip the nation's young with better prospects for employment, both locally and internationally.
What the country urgently needs to move forward is a transforming bilingual education system supported by a sound bilingual education philosophy or policy that governs teaching and learning in the public schools.
To circumvent the continuous bargaining between the country's three major ethnic groups in their bid to assume linguistic and cultural superiority, the English language must resurface as a peace and pacemaker. Whether they study in the Sekolah Kebangsaan or Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan, Malaysian students must be equalised in getting the same access to English.
Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason (PCORE) recommends that the Education Ministry define the integration of the various streams entrenched in the national education system in a clear policy statement on bilingualism, where English can be used to unite the schools, teachers and students who are growing further apart as they operate within their own linguistic and cultural silos.
If Bahasa Malaysia is positioned as the language which fosters national integration, English can be positioned as the language which promotes national and international networking for pragmatic purposes.
To be seriously implemented on the ground, bilingualism must manifest itself in a clear policy statement such as: The national education system upholds and promotes bilingualism (Malay and English) in the curriculum of national schools and higher institutions of learning in order to produce students who will acquire knowledge and skills through their mastery of both languages. Malaysians who go through the national education system will enter the employment market with a high level of proficiency in both languages, where Malay will optimise their work and career opportunities at the local level, and English at the global level.
The teaching and learning of the English language in schools must be structured to produce a higher level of proficiency in the following ways:
STREAM students according to the different levels of proficiency or group them based on their skill level. This allows for the use of materials and methodologies that are suited to the needs of each level or group. Students who meet the target determined for each level or group can move to the higher level. This can be implemented within the year or the class;
RECRUIT teachers (local or foreign) from among those with a high level of proficiency in English and who are trained in the relevant methodologies. One cannot assume that because they are native speakers recruited from abroad they are necessarily well-trained or good models of spoken or written English. In-service training must be conducted regularly to enable them to be retrained and to share experiences and expertise;
PREPARE and select teaching materials carefully to ensure they are context-relevant and effective. External consultants, programme providers and contractors must, therefore, be selected with the greatest care and scrutiny to ensure they meet the local needs and requirements of Malaysian teachers and students;
PLEDGE a firm commitment to using alternative teaching and learning methodologies and methods which have proven to be very effective in the international arena. This includes the use of computer-aided learning, language labs and tapes to provide opportunities for immersion into the language. Distance learning through radio, audio and video is another area that needs to be fully exploited and developed in language learning and teaching. Films can be used effectively to augment teacher-talk. This will greatly help to circumvent the recurring problem of poor teacher quality and inadequate access to materials in English, especially in the remote areas;
INCREASE exposure to English in the curriculum in order to simulate an environment of total immersion by making English the language of instruction for subjects such as Moral Education, Civics and History where students will get more opportunities to use the language receptively and productively; and
INCORPORATE English reading and references for the subjects taught in Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin and Tamil to enable teachers and students to operate in both or all the languages. This will increase their range of vocabulary and terminology besides improving their interpretation and translation skills.
DEVELOP Literature/Readings in English as an integral section of the greater English Language curriculum to be assessed as part of the English Language paper and not as a stand-alone subject. In this, the books and materials must be grouped and graded in terms of different levels of complexity or word lists. Schools can select the materials that are suitable for their students' levels of proficiency.
With the Education Blueprint, the government is taking a giant step forward in formulating an expansive set of proposals to transform the national education system. It must be scrutinised with the greatest care to ensure the resources are properly utilised to produce optimum results.
If the democratisation of education and the equalising of educational opportunities, facilities and infrastructure for Malaysians is the outstanding battle cry, this must be formalised in a well-stated education philosophy and policy. It is time for bilingualism to take on this role.
By Datin Halimah Mohd Said,PCORE Education Committee, Kuala Lumpur | email@example.com | New Straits Times Letters to the Editor 14 December 2012 |