LAST week, I was invited by Convent Bukit Nanas (CBN) in Kuala Lumpur to be one of the judges for its English Week competitions.
My presence was welcomed with raucous applause by the all-female studentship – until the emcee announced that I was formerly from Victoria Institution (traditionally CBN-ers have seemed to loyally prefer their neighbouring Johannians. *shrugs*).
The CBN English Week consisted of a number of events, including competitions for choral speaking, oral interpretation (of a piece of literature), elocution, story-telling and duet acting.
The other judges (well-established language trainers) and I were highly impressed by the students’ command of and fluency in English.
I was captivated by the maturity of ideas on display. For instance, in the choral speaking competition, the students themselves had prepared scripts which covered topics such as interracial marriage, the perils of social media, and (listen to this!) bridging the gap between reality and expectation in the life.
“We should not allow our lives to be validated by what others think. Put down the phone. Look up. And live,” urged one of the teams. (*Wow – awareness of phubbing, a recently coined word meaning snubbing a person in favour of your mobile phone!*)
“Interracial kids are cute,” said a team addressing the issue of interracial marriages. Being of mixed-parentage myself, I concurred (but in no way did this influence my adjudication).
During the original interpretation category, a contestant expertly delivered an excerpt from popular drama-romance movie “Shall We Dance”, about a couple whose lives had become mundane, but were rejuvenated when the husband (Richard Gere in the 2004 remake), took up dancing lessons.
Tangoing with tangled emotions from sorrow to hopeful belief, and culminating in a truly “Awww” moment, especially the eye-locking part in which the wife accepts her husband’s hand of invitation to dance, the re-enactment wowed the audience.
Another memorable performance was that of a Form One (13-year-old) student, who presented a contemporary twist to “Beauty and the Beast”.
In this version, Belle, a cosmetics saleswoman, meets the Beast while delivering hair shampoo and conditioners to him. Belle offers to teach the Beast how to “use the hair products properly”, and love blossoms during their sessions..
The emcee for the day, Rebecca Chan, 16, stood out in her own right. In keeping the audience entertained between rounds, she performed impromptu verses from Shakespeare, much to the amusement of her schoolmates.
What dawned and delighted me while watching the students was that there was a deep appreciation of English Week.
“It’s tradition,” said Cikgu S. Anusya, the coordinator of this year’s programme.
“English Week is more than just a formality. It’s an opportunity for the students to express themselves, to learn more about what the language can offer, and especially its richness in literature. Students are also able to practise the language in a safe, fun, and supportive environment.
“Parents too look forward to it. They share in the joy of their children’s success”, she added.
I asked about the level of English at CBN.
“Traditionally again, it’s always been high as most students who study here come from backgrounds where they are more exposed to English.
“Nonetheless, in order to sustain this, we have a capable and dedicated group of teachers who do their best to ensure the environment is conducive … Create an English speaking environment and have more subjects taught in the language, you will see a vast improvement,” opined Anusya.
I was encouraged by the whole English Week environment at CBN that day.
Yes, these students have an advantage over their out-of-city counterparts when it comes to English exposure, but it is the environment that matters as much.
Our nation and its people, I believe, have what it takes to enhance English proficiency across the board.
The Dual Language Programme (DLP) introduced this year by the Education Ministry is a step in the right direction. The DLP empowers parents to decide whether schools can teach other subjects in English.
It must be noted, however, that schools must have obtained higher than the National Average Grade in Bahasa Melayu in the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) and Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examinations before they qualify for DLP – so this acts as a check and balance for the standard of Bahasa Melayu.
There has already been some incremental improvement in our nation’s English proficiency levels.
In 2015, there was a 27.8% increase in MUET (the Malaysia University English Test) results. More students obtained the level of Band 3 and above.
Also, it was reported by English First (EF) in its Proficiency Index 2015 that Malaysia is ranked 14th out of 70 countries in the world, just behind Singapore (12th) and categorised as having “high proficiency” in the language.
The DLP complements continuous efforts to improve language learning and appreciation.
The CBN approach to English Language learning and development appears to me to be one of the 3R’s – reading, writing and reasoning. The school is a good model for creating that conducive environment to enhance English Language proficiency and it would be great to see more schools adopting such initiative.
CBN’s motto (as is with all convent schools in the country and worldwide) is “Simple in virtue, steadfast in duty”.
Steadfast refers to a determined perseverance and an indefatigable spirit to responsibly achieve one’s purpose.
To the English Week programme participants and organisers, well done! You’ve lived up to your school’s motto and more.> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
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Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at email@example.com.