Recently, the deputy prime minister, who is also education minister, suggested the English language curriculum used in schools be reviewed as students' mastery of the language was deemed unsatisfactory, even after learning it for 13 years.
The DPM's claim has triggered comments from various individuals. National Union of the Teaching Profession president Hashim Adnan argued that the reason for poor mastery level lies not in the curriculum but with the teachers ("Lack of trained English teachers the cause" -- NST, Aug 8).
He stated that many English teachers were not proficient enough and this had a domino effect on the students.
According to him, the new generation of English language teachers was the product of Malay-medium education and their proficiency level is apparently not up to par with their older counterparts, who had an English-medium education.
While decisions have been made with regard to the medium of instruction in Malaysian schools, his comment about teachers' level of proficiency has its merit.
As educators who teach future English teachers, my colleagues and I sometimes have to deal with undergraduates whose proficiency level does not befit their status as future English teachers.
When students join a Teaching of English as a Second Language (TESL) programme, their command of English should be above average and throughout their three or four years of study, their proficiency would be harnessed and enhanced which, in turn, may make them good English teachers.
As such, there is a need to carefully select only those with a high level of proficiency and who have a very positive attitude about becoming teachers for all TESL programmes.
This may require additional time and effort but if we do not want the deteriorating standard of English to prolong, there is no other choice but to be selective over the choice of English teachers in the future.
Hiring native speakers may not solve the problem of low English proficiency among students in the long run. However, the aim of our English language curriculum is "intelligibility", not native-like production. What we need is not native speakers but proficient English language users who can teach the language effectively.
Good English teachers are not always native speakers. Despite a low proficiency level among some English language teachers, our local universities and teacher training institutes have produced proficient and committed teachers.
In Malaysia, English is supposed to be taught communicatively, in line with the principles embraced by the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach adopted in the curriculum. One of the basic elements of CLT is opportunities for communication and to provide our students with enough opportunities to use English.
English teachers have a daunting task of dealing with students who come from various backgrounds with different needs for the language.
The fact that there are too many students in the class may make it impossible for teachers to ensure that each student has an equal opportunity to use the language. Many activities suggested in the syllabus and textbooks may not be implemented.
It is important to note that for many students, the only time they have exposure to English is when they are in their English classes.
Thus, it is essential that the limited time is put to good use. This may be achieved if the number of students in a class is small, thus enabling teachers to focus their attention on the students' individual needs, monitor their progress and plan suitable activities to support their language development.
Improving the standard of English in Malaysia has to be a continuous effort. It needs the support of various parties, ranging from the ministry to parents and the society at large.
I believe that being proficient in English does not in any way jeopardise the sovereignty of Bahasa Malaysia as our national language.
A good command of English helps our students to keep abreast with the fast-moving world we live in today.
DR MAIZATULLIZA MUHAMAD, English Language and Literature Department Faculty of Languages and Communication Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, Tanjung Malim, Perak email@example.com 2011/09/19
Source: The NST Home Letters to Editors 2011/09/19