LANGUAGE proficiency tests have gained popularity over the years and are widely used now by university admission centres, employers and even immigration officers to test an individual’s competency in a language. Examples of such tests include the Test of Proficiency in Korean (Topik), Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and Chinese Proficiency Test (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi).
One of the most widely taken language tests is the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), a globally recognised test used to assess non-native speakers’ proficiency in the English language. The test assesses language proficiency based on four key skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. A person is given a score of between 0 and 9 (0 being a non-user and 9 being an expert user).
Every year, thousands of Malaysians take the IELTS for a wide range of purposes including admission into overseas universities, seeking employment or obtaining a visa.
Despite its long history as our national language, there is no IELTS-equivalent proficiency test for Bahasa Malaysia/Melayu (BM) yet. At present, the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examination’s BM result is used to gauge one’s proficiency in the language.
However, the SPM BM result is not a competent tool to test one’s proficiency in the language and should not be used in the same way as other similar tests (IELTS, for example). For one, SPM BM places great emphasis on writing skills while listening and speaking are less important. The SPM BM examination does not include a listening test; and while students are evaluated on their speaking skills in school, private candidates do not have to sit for an oral test. Paper One of the exam requires candidates to write two essays, one short (around 200 to 250 words) and one long (at least 350 words). These two essays make up about 60% of the total marks.
In comparison, the writing component of the IELTS makes up only 25% of the test taker’s total marks and the minimum word count for the IELTS short essay is 150 words (as opposed to 200 in SPM BM) and 250 words for the long essay (as opposed to 350 in SPM BM). To a foreigner or an international student learning BM, this can be overwhelming.
One of the biggest complaints concerning SPM BM is the literature component (also known as Komsas). SPM candidates are required to study several poems, dramas, short stories and novels specified in the BM syllabus.
While it is true that language cannot be separated from literature, and vice versa, private candidates find the study of such literary texts “useless” and serves little to no purpose in the evaluation of their language skills.
The language used in the required readings of the SPM BM examination is significantly different from the language used in everyday conversation. Also, none of the more recognised language proficiency tests (like IELTS, Toefl, Topik and JLPT) have a literature component.
Last year, medical graduates got the shock of their lives when they were told they had to have a SPM BM qualification or its equivalent to do their housemanship. This meant that medical students who did O-Level would not be able to do their housemanship since they did not sit for SPM BM.
Uproar ensued as the medical graduates claimed their BM proficiency was of the required level and they did not need the SPM certificate to prove it.
Therefore, a BM version of IELTS should be created promptly. The new test could be modelled on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which is a guideline used by educators and test makers to evaluate one’s achievement in language learning.
Not only will this benefit non-SPM students, it can also help in enhancing the status of our national language. If we want BM to become a globally recognised lingua franca like English, Chinese or French, we should create a standardised proficiency test for it that can be used by organisations in the country and potentially worldwide.
The creation of such a test could also have potential benefits for the economy.
Since the growth of IELTS, language centres have mushroomed across the world to teach students to prepare them for the test. The creation of a BM version of the IELTS may also start a similar trend across the nation.
To make it well grounded, this BM version of IELTS should be:
1. Accessible: This means Malaysians throughout the country and foreigners too can take the test. It should start nationwide, and after ironing out any teething problems, can be expanded across the South-East Asian region. Test centres could be set up in Singapore or Thailand for people who are planning to seek employment in our country.
2. Affordable: The test should be affordable to all classes of society. Discrimination cannot be tolerated in the education system, and this includes discrimination on the basis of economic situations.
3. Safe and secure: The IELTS employs various security systems to ensure no fraud is practised by the test takers or any outside parties.
The test taker’s thumbprint is scanned before he enters the examination hall. If, for some reason, he needs to leave in the middle of the exam, his thumbprint will be scanned again when he returns.
4. Valid: To put it simply, a person scoring high on the test should be a more proficient BM user than a person with a lower score. The BM proficiency test should assess all dimensions of language acquisition (reading, writing, listening and speaking) and also the test taker’s range of vocabulary and grammar patterns.
I am confident that the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka has the ability and resources to create a standardised BM proficiency test. Perhaps the Education Ministry can facilitate this process.
CHOI CHING JACK