English medium is no small matter


The Ruler of Johor is advocating the return of English-medium schools. It’s a call that should be heeded.

IT was an innocuous enough question. “If you had the opportunity to move to another part of Malaysia, where would you choose to live?”

Simple, right?

There are many places in Malaysia one could choose to stay – in parts of Johor, Penang, Melaka, Perak, even Kuala Lumpur, if you like the hustle and bustle.

Yet, it seems that some SPM students, who were asked the question as part of their English exam, failed to understand it. They confused the question to mean some place outside the country.

The question clearly said another part of Malaysia, not another part of the world. So, how did they get it wrong?

I find it hard to sympathise with the students who misread the question but it does raise a question about the level of English understanding in the country – and the teaching of the language in our schools.

It’s a sad fact that the language has been on a steep downhill path for years. Our schools, our teachers, and even those in tertiary education seem to have abandoned the language. Remember “Scissor’s Salad”? Or “clothes that poke the eye”?

Recently, we in The Star designed a test for would-be sub-editors and drew up some homonyms – words like defuse/diffuse, aural/oral, cannon/canon, lightening/lightning, even the ever-so-common stationary/stationery – and asked interviewees to write sentences that would highlight the difference in meaning.

Many were left stumped. These were degree holders in English or English literature.

For those of us who drew up the test, it was an eye-opener. And very saddening.

We grew up in an age when English was spoken as comfortably as was Bahasa Malaysia and our mother tongues. We could switch from one to the other without the slightest hitch. Even the Hokkien dialect was part of the retinue.

Which is why I believe that the Sultan of Johor is right in his call to bring back the English medium of schooling.

Soon after his call, a survey found that 82% 10 Johoreans agreed to the return of the English-medium government schools. That’s more than eight out of 10!

The Ruler told The Star that the level of English among the people was deteriorating and something needed to be done to stop the rot.

The support has not only been from the Johoreans.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan has picked up the cudgel in the matter.

He says English-medium schools should be set up to help the younger generation master the language.

Being fluent in English, the world’s lingua franca, will allow young Malaysians to compete in the global job market, he says.

Employability is now a big thing. Mastery of the language gives the young ones a competitive edge over others.

Let me make one thing clear. No one is advocating the relegation of the national language. That would be wrong.

Every Malaysian must be fluent in Bahasa Malaysia.

The national language is the glue that binds us all as one people, under one flag. Our mother tongue gives us our identities and reminds us of our roots. But English is the tool that will take us out into the global village and allow us to stand tall.

That global village is getting smaller by the day. Soon, there will be no place to hide.

Many groups like the Parent Action Group for Education have urged for the return of the English-medium schools. If fact, they have been doing it for some time, now. But it will be easier said than done.

Most of the teachers in our schools are themselves products of an education system that gave scant regard to English. They first need to be retrained to teach the language – and in the language.

An English-medium school will see many subjects being taught in English. Having spent my formative years in an English-medium school, I can vouch for them. They produce well-rounded students. At least they did, thanks to the teachers then.

There will be a dire need for teachers of the old school, the type who dedicate their lives to the education of the young. Those were teachers who spent countless hours making sure their charges were well-equipped to take on the world, the type of teachers who are remembered by their students even after a lifetime.

The job of finding such teachers has to begin in a hurry, if the Sultan’s call is to be heeded.

The writer, who can be reached at raj@star.com.my remembers teachers who taught that kids were goats and that even fish ended up in schools. So, there was no reason we shouldn’t. Those were indeed English-medium schools.

DRaj

Dorairaj Nadason

Dorairaj Nadason is The Star’s Executive Editor.