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Saturday June 8, 2013

The real value of English

WONG Chun Wai is spot-on in his call to bring back English medium schools as a means to improve the standard of English in our country.

I was raised under similar linguistic circumstances as Wong, where both my parents were English educated. However, I was fortunate enough that we spoke Cantonese at home as a family.

My mother never believed in speaking Malaysianised English, or Manglish as we call it. I grew up watching Hong Kong dramas but spoke and wrote little Chinese, except during the once-a-week POL classes that were available at my primary school, which was quite elementary.

Because I went to the national school at both primary and secondary levels, I could speak more fluently in Bahasa Malaysia than in Mandarin.

However, when I was in secondary school, I started to write to pen pals in Mandarin, despite my very limited skill in the language.

My Mandarin skills were largely self-taught. If I see some Chinese characters or words which I could not recognise I would ask the next person if he knew anything about it.

Then I picked it up further by conversing with China students in Mandarin when I was at university.

At present, despite being “Malay-educated”, I can send text and write letters in Chinese, and carry out business presentations in English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Malay. I enjoy Jerry Seinfeld as much as I do Stephen Chow.

That said, I still think of English as being the most important language in the business world.

To me, history plays an important role as to why this is so. Britain conquered one third of the world in the past two centuries and America had the richest people – and still do.

Countless books have been written about the successes of people from these two countries, and if our level of English is not up to the mark, we are then depriving ourselves of lessons that can be learned from people of great endeavour, be they scientists, politicians, inventors, athletes and business people from Britain and the United States.

As mentioned in Wong’s article, some of the foreign workers making a living here are proving themselves to be extremely multilingual.

A good number of them can speak better Chinese than many Chinese Malaysians. It goes without saying that being multilingual puts us in a good position in business in this country.

I find that many Chinese youths of Western influence, i.e. “English-educated”, have an inclination to pick up more exotic European languages such as French and German, while their “Chinese-educated” counterparts, perhaps due to the K-Pop or J-Pop influence, are learning Korean or Japanese.

But why?

Many English-educated Chinese Malaysians cannot converse in or read or write Chinese to communicate satisfactorily, and the opposite is also often true with the Chinese-educated youths.

No doubt it could be an advantage and maybe an ego boost to know some other less common foreign tongues, but this is Malaysia, and to be able to “cari makan” with an advantage here, it is best we make sure the main languages of the country – Malay, English, Chinese, Tamil, take your pick, are mastered – before we move on to the others.

If the foreigners can do it, why can’t we?

I have not come across these foreign workers trying to speak French or Korean in Malaysia. We made a huge “fuss”, rightly it has to be said, about foreigners voting in this country a few weeks back.

Should we then make a more positive fuss about foreigners who are taking the big effort to learn the languages of our own country and emulate them?

KEITH HIEW
Kuala Lumpur

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