Poor English affects college students

While it is heartening to note the dimensions and resolutions highlighted for consideration by the (Melta) National Colloquium on the Role of English Language in Nation-Building (StarEducation, April 27), like Dr Kuldip, I’m concerned that “more needs to be done” and must be seen done or all efforts will once again come to naught. Malaysian English language educators will agree that in practice English needs to be redeemed before it can be rightly deemed as a second language, a status accorded to it in principle.  

Among the resolutions adopted for schools I applaud the resolve to make learning English fun as I’ve long been one such advocate. Making English fun to learn is not as simplistic as it sounds. It is an informed, challenging and creative endeavour for teachers to make it stimulating for learners. Teachers long steeped in conventional teaching modalities need help and convincing to see that learning can and does happily happen through fun activities that are thoughtfully conceived.  

Another favoured resolution is for an increased emphasis on oral communication. A recent foreign language study survey conducted overseas rated speaking, listening and self-confidence as the three top goals of students learning a language. Many local college students also list speaking as a major pursuit in their quest to master English.  

To master spoken English includes the ability to listen well for meaningful communication to take place. The reality is that listening and speaking skills have received scant attention in schools as teachers often race to teach an exam-oriented syllabus. Consequently, we have reaped what we have sown – students with a pass in SPM English but who can neither speak nor write English. Such is the scenario that looms large in the colleges. 

Many school leavers seeking college education, and their anxious parents, do so without actually giving serious thought to the English proficiency they bring with them. They seem oblivious to the implications of undertaking demanding academic programmes taught entirely in English when they have a poor showing in English. The results can be disastrous. In recognition of this problem, most established and quality conscious education institutions often have in place semester-long intensive English preparatory programmes of different levels to equip these students with at least a satisfactory level of performance in the skills and structures of English to help them cope with the linguistic demands of their academic study programmes.  

Unfortunately, this proposal is often met with resistance from potential students and parents alike. While there are parents and students who understand and see the need for a smooth transition (from B.M to English medium of instruction), many feel it is a waste of time and money and insist on enrolling directly into the study programme.  

Such insistence has not served students well as many end up feeling frustrated midway through the course because of their inability to cope and are obliged to request to be enrolled in the intensive English programme. This backward step could have been avoided had they been willing to be counselled in the first place. There are also students who shift the blame onto the lecturers when their own lack of proficiency leaves them feeling incapacitated. These students need a rude awakening to reality.The point is, English has been so far removed from their lives that they are unable even to see when they most need it, and worse, they continue to reject the offer of help.  

This negative stance towards English has been reaped through years of neglect that English has suffered in the schoolroom. Serving students with a diet fit-for-exam-only has resulted in this overall casual attitude towards English. 

Taking corrective measures is going to be a painful process – the entire community must be involved to nurture a newborn love for the language if it is to play a role in nation-building. Discerning teachers can help inject interest by making it fun to learn English.  

In my experience, putting some fun into learning English appeals to all age groups and levels, teachers included. It is an excellent way to reach students. The challenge for teachers is to “reach to teach”. This helps break down barriers to learning English. Try the fun way for a start.  


Lucille Dass 

Head, Centre for English Language 

KDU College, Penang 

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