[EDLING:1256] English is for everybody

Francis M. Hult fmhult at DOLPHIN.UPENN.EDU
Sat Feb 18 22:33:03 UTC 2006

Malaysia Star

English is for everybody


Comment by WONG SULONG

HERE’S food for thought for our planners and decision-makers, particularly 
those involved in education. Within a decade or thereabouts, English will 
become a near-universal basic skill. 

This means employers will regard it as a given that job applicants are fluent 
in English. The competitive advantage that English-speaking candidates have 
will no longer exist. 

Instead, employers will be looking out for candidates who are bilingual, 
possibly even trilingual – meaning English plus another language, particularly 
Chinese, Spanish and Japanese, which are emerging as global languages as well. 

This is one of the major conclusions of a landmark study entitled English Next 
by David Graddol, a distinguished linguist for the British Council, the 
organisation that promotes English around the world. 

Native English-speaking countries and people in Britain, the United States, 
Canada and Australia have enjoyed a huge economic (possibly running into 
billions of dollars), cultural and social advantage over the rest of the 
world, with the dominance of English in the world of commerce, medicine, 
communications and music. 

But the study said this situation was changing fast. 

It said that all over the world – from China to Chile, from Japan to Thailand –
 governments were investing big money to encourage their citizens to learn 

All new police recruits in Beijing must pass an oral English test; and by 
2008, four out of five Beijing policemen will be able to speak English when 
the city hosts the Olympics. This does not include the tens of thousands of 
English-speaking interpreters, tour guides and hotel staff. 

There are more than 500 million native English-speaking people in the world; 
within a decade two billion more people will be able to speak English as a 
second language, making English the language spoken by most people (there are 
1.1 billion Mandarin-speakers). 

Although the study focuses on the major ramifications of the universality of 
English on the native English-speaking world – the main conclusion is that 
native English speakers will lose their economic advantage – the acceleration 
of English as the world’s lingua franca also has important ramifications for 
Malaysia, which is struggling to keep pace with globalisation and competition, 
particularly from our neighbours. 

It used to be that east of India, Malaysians and Singaporeans had the best 
command of English and the language was used extensively. This gave Malaysians 
an economic advantage over many other Asians – a fact that was unappreciated 
at that time. Unfortunately, this advantage was frittered away. 

Don’t get me wrong. As an independent nation, there is no question that Bahasa 
Malaysia is the primary language of our nation. It is now a very dynamic 
language. At the same time, I feel the development of Bahasa can and should go 
hand in hand with the promotion of English. And if one can pick up a third or 
fourth language, why not? 

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and his predecessor Tun Dr 
Mahathir Mohamad realise the importance of English as an economic and global 
language. In the last years of his administration, Dr Mahathir took some bold 
decisions to reintroduce English in schools, and Pak Lah is continuing this 
policy of reviving English in schools and tertiary institutions. 

The Government has set aside RM100mil to retrain unemployed graduates, and 
improving English is part of this programme. According to Human Resources 
Minister Datuk Dr Fong Chan Onn, some 10,600 graduates have taken part in the 

The appointment of Datuk Mustapa Mohamed, an economist by training and 
formerly in charge of the Economic Planning Unit, to the Higher Education 
portfolio portends well. A lot is expected of him. The development of human 
capital is critical to the economy. 

Education as a trade item has grown by leaps and bounds over the past two 
decades, and Malaysia has an advantage in the development of education as an 
export commodity, including the teaching of English to students from China, 
Indonesia and Thailand. 

Within Asia, Malaysia is a pioneer in the provision of private education. 

But there is only a limited window of opportunity for us to exploit this first-
mover advantage before others, such as Singapore and Thailand, catch up with 
Malaysia and take this education business away. 

When it comes to promotion of English, policymakers and those in charge of 
implementation, particularly those involved in education, need a huge dose of 
pragmatism. In this respect, time is of the essence. 

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