English is for everybody

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Feb 19 14:14:01 UTC 2006

>>From the 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

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 English. 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 programme.

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

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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