TEACHING English using Bahasa Malaysia is not something new. It has been going on for about 40 years. In Chinese and Tamil schools, it is taught in those languages. But why is this happening?
Firstly, policy decisions by those at the helm. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were a few Malay teachers teaching English. They had a good command of the language.
But the candidates taken in from the 1970s could hardly speak or write English.
Overall, entry requirements into teacher training colleges were lowered so that students who could not get into any other educational institution after Form 5 were taken into teacher training colleges to be trained as primary school teachers.
Lecturers in colleges were not happy with this but could not do anything.
In one college, the principal reasoned that as the colleges were training teachers for primary schools, it was not important that the trainees should have a good command of the English language, such as a credit in the Senior Cambridge English language paper of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Teacher Training Division's stance was that colleges were training grounds, so it should be possible to train candidates even if they were weak.
To see that this worked, it was made difficult for lecturers to fail anyone.
If lecturers failed students, they were required to write a report explaining why the students could not be trained so that they could pass.
They were told the government was spending thousands to train one teacher and the money should not go to waste.
So the lecturers began to pass everyone.
Even if the worst student was passed, life would be easy as no one would ask questions and no reports would have to be written.
There was one lecturer who failed a student during practical teaching.
Despite counselling and guidance, the student showed no interest in his work. He was going into classroom without preparation. This lecturer's head of department went to assess the student (second opinion). He passed him.
When the lecturer asked him if the student deserved to pass, the answer was: "That is his rice bowl."
When the lecturer asked him whether he would want his child or grandchild to be in this teacher's class, he got a blank stare.
Then there was another lecturer who gave As to the whole class, and no eyebrows were raised by the principal or anyone else.
One amusing or embarrassing episode was when a trainee teacher on teaching practice gave an exercise on tenses. Children were asked to change sentences from the present to the past tense.
One sentence was: "The hunter shoots the tiger." The child wrote: "The hunter shot the tiger."
The trainee teacher corrected this by cancelling the word "shot" and writing "shooted".
Importing native English Language speakers to raise the standard of English has also been a dismal failure.
This started in the 1970s with American Peace Corps teachers. Other groups have been brought in after that.
Millions might have been spent over the past four decades on this fruitless effort.
All this has done is to give Malaysians the perception that the government is taking steps to improve the standard of English.
Are there statistics to show that students who were taught English by these imported native English language speakers did improve their English?
How many per cent of the students taught by these teachers did improve, and by how much?
If the government is serious and sincere in wanting to recognise that English is an important international language and, therefore, wants Malaysians to be good at it (in the 1950s and 1960s, they were the best Asians at it, next only to the Indians), then it must take action in a different direction.
It should designate at least three of the teacher training institutions as English Language Teacher Training Institutions. Only those with good grades in English should be taken in.
As the good of today is far below the good of the 1950s and 1960s, these trainees should be put through an intensive English language course for the full duration of their training.
If they fail any semester's English language paper, they should have to repeat that semester, or else be taken out of the institution.
The minimum standard they should have to achieve should be the equivalent of a credit in the Senior Cambridge of the 1950s.
Find the best English teachers to teach English in these colleges.
Firstly, look for senior or retired good local English language teachers.
If there are not enough, look elsewhere, even India.
Not all Indians speak English with a heavy accent.
This depends on which part of India they are from. Similarly, not all Englishmen, Americans or Australians speak English in a way that is clear to our ears.
English language teachers must be trained never to use the translation method. This is suitable for adults, but not for children, particularly those in the primary school.
The immersion method is the best for teaching language at this age, that is, 100 per cent classroom use of the language that children need to learn.
This was the method used to teach in Special Malay (SM) classes in the 1950s.
SM classes were for Malay children moving on to English schools after completing Standard 3 in Malay schools.
They had been learning only in Malay for three years. Without knowing a word of English, they entered English schools. The English teachers did not use a single Malay word.
Yet Malay children picked up English well. They were bilingual and it is this group that provided the leaders and administrators of the 1960s and 1970s.
If the mastering of the English language by Malay students of the 1950s in SM classes can be considered a phenomena, that phenomena can be repeated if only the correct steps are taken by experts in today's education system.
It is immaterial whether children enter school knowing basic English.
If the teachers are fluent in English, if they are competent to teach in English, if they are confident in what they are doing, if they are dedicated to the job and if they teach with compassion, the children will learn the language without problems.
Malay children who went to the English schools of the 1950s are testimony to this.
Education is not something that should be experimented with.
For example, we are proud of having introduced the 3M system (the 3R system in English: reading, writing, 'rithmatic).
Scots have been using this system for more than 200 years. The 3R system was in use in Malaysia in the 1950s. It was discarded and then re-introduced as the 3M system.
It turned out to be another flop. Children can now go to secondary school even if they cannot read and write or do simple arithmetic.
Let's bring back sanity and honesty to the education system.
Education should never be made a political arena.
Ravinder Singh, Penang New Straits Times Online Letters to the Editor 22 January 2013