THE faltering standards of the English language in Malaysia has been cause for concern among parents for the past decade or so.
Back when I was in school, and clearly I am old enough to speak fondly of the times gone past, the standards of English were pretty high.
Most urban Malaysians spoke English well, regardless of our ethnic background, and I think my generation pretty much took it for granted that things could only get better.
However, a few decades on from the 1980s (which was when I was in school), things have decidedly taken a turn for the worse.
It is not just parents who are concerned about this deterioration but the business sector as well.
In the competitive globalised economy we are part of, businesses need to be in a position to communicate effectively on the international stage.
Regardless of the country’s national language, businesses that have the most success throughout the world tend to originate from countries that have a strong command of English as a second language.
English is, after all, the international lingua franca.
For Malaysian graduates fresh out of local universities, they are finding it harder and harder to find employment in the marketplace as employers are looking for staff with a reasonably high level of competency in English.
This naturally trickles down to parents, who worry about their children’s future.
Employability is a huge factor in the future liveability of our children. And if we are part of an ecosystem that places a premium on a good command of English, then those without it are bound to suffer the consequences of not being able to get the better, higher-paying jobs, because of their poor mastery of the language.
We have gone through a plethora of policies on the English language, but none of them has succeeded in the ways we hoped they would.
Issues such as the use of English in the teaching of Mathematics and Science are just part of the bigger picture that we need to boost English standards in Malaysia.
It goes to logical reason, that the more opportunities students have to practise English on a daily basis, the better their grasp of the language will be.
We now have a dichotomy in Malaysia where students in private and international schools have a better command of English than students in government schools. Conversely, students in government schools have a better command of Bahasa Malaysia than students in private and international schools.
Whether or not parents send their children to a government or private/international school is pretty much dependent on how much money they can part with for their children’s education.
This language divide is getting more and more pronounced over time.
And if we don’t grab the bull by the horns and deal with the issue, we are going to find ourselves in a society where employment success is solely determined by which school parents sent their children to.
This does not bode well for Malaysia as a developing country.
As it is, a study by the Government’s Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) found that more than 400,000 graduates are unemployed primarily because they cannot speak English fluently.
Hence, the positive response from parents, educationists and businesses to an announcement earlier this year to introduce the dual-language programme (DLP) as an added educational component to the Government’s high-immersion programme initiative (HIP).
It was a bold move indeed.
At the moment, only 300 schools are involved in the programme but the numbers are expected to increase over time.
Everyone is looking forward to the success of this programme.
However, the optimism is countered by a cautious wariness brought on by lessons from our past experiences with policies of the use of English language.
More than anything, we need to show the staying power and stick to this, the newest of all the English language initiatives thus far.
Policies can only work if you give them a chance to work and that requires time for the efforts to spread out far and wide to the intended beneficiaries. So let’s stick to it.
Let’s not continue with stop-gap policies and instead focus on one overarching policy, which all people; schoolchildren, educationists, parents and businesses can focus on and contribute towards.
Sheila Stanley is a writer, TV producer and PR/media consultant based in Kuala Lumpur. She would like us all to stick to a policy that increases the levels of English proficiency among our young. You can get in touch with her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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