The writer gives his take on what a rounded contemporary English undergraduate curriculum for Malaysian learners should be.
CAMPAIGNS are everywhere constantly reminding Malaysians that “English is a global language and it pays to learn it well”.
Yet, it is surprising how many working adults and even fresh school-leavers simply do not know how to go about pursuing English at tertiary level, or what studying English really means.
This article is a rough guide to English tertiary pathways and a sketch of what I would deem an ideal English undergraduate curriculum for contemporary Malaysia.
English is not TESL (Teaching of English as a Second Language). In the years that I have taught and managed English programmes, I have come across a fair share of public misconceptions about what it means to study English.
Interestingly, the most persistent misunderstanding in this country has to do with the popular equation of English with TESL. Many people erroneously assume that doing English means doing TESL.
TESL is a fine subject of study that enables learners to acquire knowledge and skills for teaching English. But English is irreducible to TESL.
The flawed equation of English with TESL has unfortunately led to many misinformed career choices.
There have been cases of individuals with a keen passion for English who chose to do TESL, not because they wanted to teach, but because it appeared to them to be the only way of pursuing their passion for English.
There are also those who are interested in English and teaching but pursue a degree in TESL because, in their minds, teaching English language is just about the only viable career available to English graduates (notwithstanding the fact that TESL graduates have thrived in a whole array of non-teaching careers).
If English is not TESL, how, then, might it be understood? What does it really mean to do English at tertiary level today?
Traditional vs new ways
Depending on the curriculum of the offering institution, a degree programme in English may or may not include (a substantial number of) advanced courses in English language proficiency.
In any case, pursuing English at tertiary level entails more than taking up courses that directly help augment one’s command of the language.
Traditionally, pursuing English has meant opting to study one discreet branch of English over another. This commonly means deciding between studying linguistics or literature.
Choosing the linguistics branch, for example, means studying such subfields as phonetics and phonology (sounds and organisation of human speech), sociolinguistics (relationship between language and society) and psycholinguistics (relationship between language and the mind).
By comparison, choosing literature over other branches of English has traditionally meant studying the typical three genres (prose, poetry, drama) across time, space and theme.
There is merit in doing English in this traditionally “pure” way — then, now, and for a long time to come.
At the same time, however, it is important to realise that English itself is a continually evolving discipline.
Like other disciplines, it is today evolving more into an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary study.
An interdisciplinary approach dissolves the boundaries within a conventional discipline, while a multidisciplinary approach involves the study of two or more conventional disciplines in parallel.
A modern way of doing English today does not force the choice of studying either literature or linguistics. Instead it draws on essentials from both branches (as well as adjacent disciplines).
Before drawing from the literature branch, though, it pays to be mindful that it too has evolved, almost beyond recognition compared to how it was in the past.
Reading literature once essentially meant studying “classics” by mostly “dead white European males”.
It then evolved to become much more globally inclusive in its scope of texts and genres, and critically conscious of the ideological nature of the acts of reading and writing.
“Literature” has now evolved further to encompass not just the conventional text on a page but all texts, including filmic, visual and cultural, that signify with their own “language”.
Ideal English curriculum
My idea of a rounded contemporary English undergraduate curriculum for Malaysian learners would feature essential courses from the linguistics and “literature” components.
On top of that, it would have a foundational component consisting of courses that help learners acquire advanced English language literacy skills.
This is to ensure learners would be better equipped to engage with subsequent more advanced courses, language, ideas and concepts.
My ideal curriculum would also feature, as fourth and final component, courses that provide opportunities for learners to put their new language skills and knowledge to work.
This component might consist of such courses as Management Communication, and Professional Writing: Writing Across Fields, and Advanced Writing: Argument and Persuasion.
In a nutshell, my ideal English curriculum would be interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, a synergy of four components: advanced literacy, linguistics, literary-cultural studies, and applied communication.
Knowledge, skills, careers
What can learners expect to get out of doing English at tertiary level?
To begin with, learners can expect to see marked improvement in their command of the language.
They can look forward to an intellectually stimulating experience, and the acquisition of a range of transferable subject-specific knowledge and skills, as well as high-order conceptual, analytic and communication skills.
This range of knowledge and skills is of immense value in the diverse professional fields open to English graduates: advertising, teaching, training, journalism, professional writing, creative writing, management, research, editorial, media, public relations, academia, theatre, consultancy, and more.
Lastly, learners can expect to find in English a door that opens to worlds of opportunities and rewards.