We can heal Malaysia's English crisis, but we have to work together

THE English language. Much has been said about it over the past week - especially about how we're losing our grip on English language fluency. The picture is clear, the level of proficiency is falling, and all Malaysians are going to pay the price in the long-run if this downward spiral is not arrested soon.

How? Let's take medicine for example. It was reported last Monday that 1,000 medical graduates completed their two-year housemanship in 2014, only to quit practicing medicine entirely because their grasp of English was poor.

According to Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) Malacca chapter president Prof Dr M. Nachiappan, medical students would find it difficult to keep pace with their peers from other nations if they lacked English language fluency. 

“There must be an urgency to improve the grasp of the language at the primary level. Otherwise, the quality of doctors will go downhill,” said Dr.  Nachiappan.

Dr Nachiappan-  who is also the deputy dean of Melaka Manipal Medical College- said medical schools were also facing difficulties in churning quality medical graduates due to lack of exposure in English.

He said this was evident with the poor results obtained by medical students when pursuing their stu­dies in universities and medical colleges.

“The quality of our students are compromised due to their inabilities to communicate in English,” he said, adding that most reference books on medicine and lectures were delivered in English.

Dr Nachiappan is not wrong here. Something has to be done to keep fresh, competent blood flowing into our clinics and hospitals as everyone living in Malaysia depends on doctors to stay healthy. Like all professions, there will be constant turnover as senior doctors retire and new ones take their place.

And let's face it, we will need more doctors with Malaysia's population growing at the rate it is. So this four-figure dropout rate - due to poor English fluency -  is alarming. 

However, here's the thing. We can all work together to stop the rot. It's not impossible, but we have to work together. I spoke to Parent Action Group for English Malaysia (PAGE) chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim about this, and she had some sound advice. 

"Parents play an important role in wanting their children to be proficient in the English language, and it cannot be emphasised enough. It is up to parents to encourage their children to read aloud and speak at home," said Noor Azimah.

She pointed out that there were many ways to get the right tools to boost English fluency. 

"Books can be brought home from school, the neighbourhood library or the mobile library. Other sources for learning tools are the TV and the internet if these sources are available," said Noor Azimah.

She said that parents and teachers should find something that the child is passionate about and use that to develop English fluency. 

"While schools provide the structure and resources, it is a concerted effort by parents which would make such English initiatives successful," she added. 

Noor Azimah added that parents could get their children to participate in initiatives launched by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and youth groups, saying that this would be beneficial for those from urban poor and rural neighbourhoods. 

She also gave some constructive suggestions for schools to take up. 

"Schools should adopt sister schools from native English speaking countries so kids can exchange emails or chat through Skype or Google Hangout," she said. 

Her suggestions gave me some food for thought, especially after re-watching the video made by the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) on addressing the need for better English proficiency.

In watching that video, a comment by Khairul Bariah hit a note with me. The Form 5 student from SMK Jengka Pusat said that when she talks in English to her classmates, they will ask her to stop. 

And this has to stop. We all need to be open to learning from each other. 

We need to be ready to set aside our pride and form interdependent networks where we can all work together to help each other out, forming sharing spaces where we can work together to pool our resources and knowledge for the good of all. 

Where we are strong and privileged, we should acknowledge our privilege and reach out to help those who were not blessed with our strengths and privileges. 

In this case we can donate books to community libraries or libraries for underprivileged children, we can participate in efforts with youth groups or NGOs that offer tuition to underprivileged children or youths. 

There is a lot we can do to arrest the decline, and there is no time to discuss this as a committee. Let's act together as a community and stop this rot.

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