We are all too familiar with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad's lament over the deteriorating standard of English proficiency among Malaysians.
Recent efforts by the Education Ministry have been geared towards not only arresting the decline but also improving the mastery of the language among students at all levels.
Billions of ringgit have been allocated for the building of compter labs, the production of software for the teaching of Maths and Science in English, and supply of laptops and computers to schools.
Unless the Education Ministry takes cognisance of the fact that quality English teachers are identified (in-service teachers) or recruited (trainees), no amount of high-tech equipment or impressive teaching methodology will do the trick.
Even if every subject is taught in English, the primary objective of improving English proficiency will not be achieved if teachers themselves are not proficient.
However, one thing is certain. There will be more Malaysians, including teachers and students, speaking poor English confidently. It is a classic case of “He who knows not that he knows not.”
The mastery of the English language cannot be possible if the teaching of grammar is not emphasised.
But the problem is that many of our teachers and lecturers are the products of the English Communicative syllabus of the late 70s and 80s, which frowned upon the explicit teaching of the English grammar, thanks to the so-called theories of language learning fashionable then.
I am a very experienced teacher of the English language. I have had arguments with lecturers who send their trainees to my school with instructions not to teach the rules of grammar explicitly.
However, one must remember that without grammar rules, one simply cannot function effectively in any language, especially if one is not a native speaker of the target language.
One must differentiate between language acquisition and language learning.
The second news report underscores the importance of knowing the rules of grammar. According to the report, a supervisor of schools in Massachusetts failed a basic English proficiency test!
Apparently, since 1998, all educators in Massachusetts, including superintendents, have had to pass the communications and literacy skills test, which measures basic reading and writing skills, including vocabulary, punctuation, grammar, spelling and capitalisation.
I understand that new teachers in Britain have to pass, among other tests, an English proficiency test as well. In Hong Kong, even native speakers have to take a proficiency test before they are allowed to teach English.
But in Malaysia, teachers are just asked to attend a short course, after which they are deemed fit to teach Maths and Science in English and enjoy incentive payments.
If education authorities in English-speaking countries find it necessary to test the English proficiency of their own educators, I cannot understand why the Malaysian Education Ministry does not take steps to ascertain the level of English proficiency among our educators before considering any kind of incentive payment, or before forcing them to teach badly in a language they are not proficient in.
It might interest the authorities to know that there are many English language teachers who use more Bahasa Malaysia or other mother tongues in their English classes.
As a senior teacher, I must say the situation is not peculiar to my school only.
English teachers in many schools are teaching English in the mother tongue while Maths and Science teachers are struggling to teach their subjects in English.
It is high time the Education Ministry takes a long hard look at the root causes of poor English proficiency before embarking on more ambitious schemes involving a lot of time, effort and money.
We owe it to our students to give them quality educators who can help them master the English language, not handicap them further with Manglish.
HELEN YEANG, Kuala Lumpur. (via e-mail)
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