All parties at a recent forum organised by The Star, were unanimous that young graduates who joined the workforce needed to engage and communicate in English if they wanted to move up in their careers.
EVER wondered why we put so much emphasis on English when countries like Japan and Germany seem to progress just fine without focusing on the language?
That mystery was unravelled at The Star’s free public forum on the importance of English in the workplace after lively talks by forum speakers and the Q&A session that followed.
The forum held in conjunction with The Star’s English For More Opportunities initiative, featured experts in English and those in the employment markets, and was moderated by former Education Ministry deputy director-general Datuk Noor Rezan Bapoo Hashim.
Forum speaker, Albukhary International University (AiU) deputy vice-chancellor Prof Emeritus Dr Omar Farouk Sheikh highlighted the peripheral role of English in certain progressive nations.
“I’ll begin my talk with a short story of a Malay College Kuala Kangsar boy who went to Japan for a month-long cultural exchange programme.
“The student was having an acute dilemma, he wondered why the Japanese knew so little English and yet could still be one of the most scientifically- and technologically-advanced countries on earth.
“So while he was there he posed this question to me, ‘Why do we have to learn Science and Mathematics in English back home?’,” he said.
Prof Omar, who had served at Hiroshima City University for 18 years, went on to describe how he had been travelling a lot and was not up-to-date with Malaysia’s education situation.
“So the only answer I could give him was, ‘that’s the Malaysian way’. In this instance the importance of English is contextual.
“English is not as vital in Japan as it is in Malaysia and even here we can argue that in certain situations, English is critical while in others, it may be trivial or even irrelevant.
“But since I’ve been out of the loop for awhile, I’m looking forward to learning a thing or two about the situation of English here in as much as I’m looking forward to contributing to discussion,” he added.
Prof Omar said it was not unreasonable to expect the importance of English to be debated upon continually in a variety of contexts.
“I think this is healthy because at best, the importance of English can only be relative. It’s difficult if not impossible to argue that the importance of English is absolute.
“More often than not, the argument for English is not just about English. We need to be aware of the political, psychological, social and cultural perspectives that influence our attitude towards the language,” he added.
Sharing the story of what he called “the AiU experiment” where a large number of international students were successful in mastering English through an intensive programme, Prof Omar proposed that there were five factors which affected language learning.
“Eighty percent of our students are foreigners and most of them struggle with English. Within months, those who were not able to speak even a few words of English became confident speakers thanks to our intensive programme,” he said.
He explained that the five factors behind the programme’s success include detailing the incentives of learning English to students, providing them with motivation to learn, having the proper facilities for language learning, properly planning and strategising the programme to have clear goals and offer positive recognition to those who excel.
The revelation of why English was key to our progress instead of following in the footsteps of the Japanese paradigm came from TalentCorp Malaysia CEO Johan Mahmood Merican.
“I often hear arguments that Japan and South Korea have managed to become developed nations without English, this is a very dangerous line of thought because it doesn’t look at the situation historically.
“Countries like Japan have always been developing their own indigenous technologies, so they do not rely as much as we do on foreign direct investment and innovation from outside.
“It would be easier for us to get our English sorted out than become a country that develops indigenous technonologies,” he said.
The four C’s
He added that with our reliance on trade and foreign investment, and historical ties with English, we should leverage on the language as a source of competitiveness.
Johan elaborated that apart from competitiveness, there are three other C’s related to the importance of English in the workplace and beyond.
“Convergence is another C. It’s cliche to say the world is flat, but it’s true. The world is coming together and its lingua franca is English. It is the language of trade and learning.
“It’s like Microsoft’s programs, they are so widespread that almost every computer uses them. Our education system will have to move beyond just teaching knowledge of English to teaching English for communication, which is the other C in the equation,” he said.
He questioned the nation’s readiness to teach its children the soft skill they will need in a globalised world.
“Do we necessarily have the platform to teach communication? Are we really doing that in schools?” he asked.
The final C is about the community, said Johan.
“If young Malaysians do not use English regularly, they will only have a limited proficiency in the langauge and cannot reap its full benefits.
“It is common for children in rural areas to be belittled and ridiculed for trying to speak English.
“This is counterproductive and has to change, the community must encourage the use of English and it must be promoted as a means of advancement in life,” he said.
He added that one of the key strengths of Malaysia is its ability to influence its wider society to accept new ideas through education.
A British applied linguist said proficiency in the English language would eventually become a generic learning skill acquired in all schools. British Council (BC) language services director Sam Ayton cited this research finding at the start of her talk.
The research commissioned by BC and published in 2006 by British linguist David Graddol, revealed that there was already a massive increase in the number of people learning global English, said Ayton.
Graddol projected that it was likely to reach a peak of around two billion in the next 10 to 15 years, added Ayton.
“He was talking about global English, English spoken by non-native speakers, that is ousting the language of Shakespeare and becoming as the world’s lingua franca.
In 2006, non-native speakers outnumbered native speakers by three to one,” she said.
She illustrated the changes through graphs which showed the projected proficiency age for education entry requirements will drop from 20 to 14 years (see charts).
The global norm
“Education systems worldwide are emphasising English and as a consequence, children are becoming proficient at a younger age, English proficiency will eventually become a global norm,” she said.
“To give future generations a competitive edge, it would require individuals to be proficient in English plus one or two more languages.”
She also spoke about work skills and mentioned the McKinsey report published on June 12 which, based on current trends, projects gaps in skills to drive 21st century economies.
She said that there was a need to address the imbalance in both advanced and developing economies through education and training.
She added that based on the interviews with more than 100 organisations, employers said many Malaysians lacked business English skills.
“About 57% of employers felt that English proficiency was important for employees, and 67% for the service industry,” she said.
This number is aligned with Jobstreet.com (a job portal) surveys that show 56% of employers viewed poor command of English as a reason for not hiring.
Surprisingly, only 23% of fresh graduates shared that view.
The Jobstreet.com findings was presented by Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Shamsuddin Bardan who said employers not only wanted staff who understood English but also communicated well in the universal language too.
“Knowledge of English is insufficient, the employee needs to be able to communicate well in both written and spoken English. Companies are reluctant to train for fear of their employees being poached by competitors.
“So they expect secondary schools and higher learning institutes to produce fresh graduates who are already proficient in communicative English and ready for the labour market,” he said.
He added that even if 90% of students score a minimum credit in SPM English (against Cambridge 1119 standards), as aimed by the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, it still would not meet the manpower needs of the workforce.
“A credit in SPM English doesn’t mean you can communicate well. Even if you increase the number of students who pass with a credit, only 30-40% of them would be able to communicate well and thus be employable,” Shamsuddin said.
He added that the perception among youth that English is unimportant in landing them a job needs to change because communicative English is one of the most sought after skills by employers.
“Fresh graduates need to know this fact and bridge the perception gap, so they can take up the initiative and build their English proficiency through retraining and other means,” he said.
At the end of his talk, Shamsuddin quoted Deputy Education Minister Dr Mohd Puad Zarkashi who said that: “It was agreed upon by education ministries of 54 Commonwealth countries at a recent conference in Mauritius that English should be the medium of communication not instruction.”
In her welcoming speech, The Star deputy group chief editor (II) Leanne Goh said the newspaper had always been at the forefront of championing English language learning.
“Over the years, we have publications such as Newspaper-in-Education, Stuff@School and the education pullout on Sunday which support English language learning,” she said.
Ayton said it was interesting to find out that, in recruitment processes, very few employers conducted any form of formal assessment of language skills.
“Assessment of language skills was generally based on one-to-one conversations with a good speaker within the company who is not necessarily a language specialist,” Ayton said.
She added that oral and written communication were the most sought-after skills in English language proficiency training.
Ayton added that 92% of Malaysian employers who provide English language courses conducted in-house training.
“Addressing proficiency issues in English require deep and wide innovation in teaching the language not just in education systems, but also in individual learning programmes and corporate recruitment and training,” she said.
English For More Opportunities
English is more than just the universal language of diplomacy, business, science and technology. It opens the door to more job opportunities, good universities, career advancements and increased earning power.
English for More Opportuni-ties is part of The Star’s on-going efforts to highlight the importance of the language in helping people get ahead in life.
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