Fixing Malaysia’s English language woes

THE more I am around English teachers, the more I can see where English language education in Malaysia is going wrong.

I have experienced English teachers who graduated with high CGPAs (cumulative grade point averages) of 3.80 in TESL (Test of English as a Second Language) but who still have a poor command of the language. And I have met several English teachers who shared that they are not confident about their English proficiency and often times feel inferior to colleagues who speak better.

Back in the 1960s, our parents were taught the English language by native speakers. English was taught by teachers who understood the language, and by proficient speakers who then further underwent teacher training so they could teach it. In the 1990s, we were taught English by teachers who had grown up with parents and teachers who had learned English from native speakers. They too spoke very well. I vividly remember admiring the mastery of the language displayed by my primary school English teacher, Cikgu Sarimah.

Along the way, while some continued to be raised in an English-speaking environment, a change in the teaching medium from English to Bahasa Melayu in schools and a growing economic divide caused many more to lose out on the opportunity to learn English from an early age.

And so, over the years, we began producing graduates with a poor command of the English language. And these graduates are the ones taking up courses to teach English. As long as the proficiency level of our English teachers is not fixed, our nation will continue to face this problem, with reports about graduates not being employed due to poor English proficiency appearing in the newspapers year after year.

The main problem is that those who decide to teach English do not have a firm grasp of the language. Over the past two decades at least, students have been taught the English language by teachers who speak and use the language poorly.

The second problem is that English-related courses, such as TESL, at colleges and universities teach English-teachers-to-be the technical parts of English. It is like giving someone the equation “F = ma” when they don’t understand that F is force, m is mass, a is acceleration, and with no understanding of the meaning of the words mass and acceleration. Teaching a concept to someone who has no basic understanding of the subject matter will not help the person master the subject.

There are a couple of simple solutions. The first solution is to only allow fluent English speakers to become English teachers. And I am not even referring to native speakers. There are thousands of Malaysians who speak very good English, even today. They are the ones who should be trained to become English teachers.

The second solution is to make anyone who wants to become an English teacher take a one-year English proficiency course. Much like if we wanted to study in, say, Germany, and we would have to learn German for one year, pass the exam, and only then take up the actual course applied for.

There is still time to make that change. I know for a fact that some agencies and bodies have been trying many different ways to better the country’s English proficiency level. And yet, the problem remains. Fix the proficiency of those who want to teach English first. Then have them learn the rules and methods of teaching the language. Only then will our students begin to benefit from learning from proficient, confident English language teachers.



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