[lg policy] Malaysia: Policy changes not helping our kids master English

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Mar 31 14:48:04 UTC 2016

Policy changes not helping our kids master English By FAUZIAH ISMAIL - 31
March 2016 @ 11:02 AM Those who attended Form 5 in 1979 were the last batch
using English as a medium of teaching and learning in schools. Some were
introduced to the language at home as their parents spoke English to them
while others began learning it at kindergarten back then. We started
spelling in Standard One, while reading and writing comprehension, and
dictations were from Standard Three. By Standard Four, we were speaking and
writing English quite well. I remember we had comprehension, dictations and
spelling until we were in Standard 6. We graduated from saying, “Teacher,
teacher, can I go out to pass water?” to “Teacher, may I be excused?” I was
in that 1979 batch. We didn’t have a choice really. We had to learn the
language because all subjects, with the exception of Bahasa Malaysia and
Agama, were taught in English. We were also fined by our teachers if we
spoke Malay outside our Bahasa Malaysia classes. Parents, too, pushed their
children to learn the language. A friend of mine told me his father had
taped the bottom part of the television screen to block out the Bahasa
Malaysia subtitles to get his children to listen to and learn from the
English programmes. Post-1979, there was no longer the push factor,
especially among Malays, to learn English. All subjects in school were
taught in Bahasa Malaysia. Some English programmes on television,
especially those targeting children, were dubbed into Bahasa Malaysia. So,
I was not really surprised when Education Minister Datuk Seri Mahdzir
Khalid, in a written reply to a question posed to him in Parliament
recently, said teachers and students were not ready for the implementation
of a compulsory passing grade in English for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia
(SPM) and PT3 examinations. Furthermore, Deputy Education Minister Datuk P.
Kamalanathan reportedly said that 15,000 teachers in the country were found
to be ill-equipped to teach English. I strongly believe that the English
language has to be introduced very early in a child’s life. We are not born
speaking a particular language. It is a skill we acquire by reading,
listening and speaking. Despite being in an English medium school through
two years of pre-school, six years of primary education and five years of
secondary school, I can say that it did not erode my comprehension of
Bahasa Malaysia. Non-Malays in my 1979 batch can still converse in their
mother tongues. It is quite disappointing to see how the comprehension of
the English language has deteriorated among school students and even
teachers. I witnessed this myself when I was asked to be on a panel of
judges for an essay writing competition among students of a school from an
east coast state sponsored by a government-linked company. All the students
had to do was write a 200-word essay about their experience flying on an
aeroplane to Kuala Lumpur. It would, I think, be a simple task for a
student from an urban area, but this was not so for those coming from the
rural area, whose exposure to English is contained to just in their
classrooms. One student used the word “funny” throughout her essay to
describe how fun the trip was. Another drew clouds in his essay as he did
not know how to spell the word. One student wrote, in very bad English, how
difficult it was to write. Most of the primary school students wrote about
eating and how yummy the KFC dinner was for them. It was probably easier
for them to write about food than their first flying experience. And
teachers, too, refused to speak English in their presentations, preferring
to speak in Malay instead. And, I remember how enthusiastic a group of
children were when a group of New Straits Times volunteers went to their
school during a flood relief mission to conduct English lessons. We sang
songs and nursery rhymes in their class. We conducted activities using our
newspapers. They were asked to spell words, ranging from easy ones to
difficult ones, to search for words in the newspaper based on our
pronunciations and cut out words which had similar meanings to the ones we
gave them. At the end of the session, they asked us why their own English
classes were not as fun as ours. Students are eager to learn. Teachers must
be qualified to teach the language and make English classes interesting for
them. English can not only make our children bilingual (in the case of
non-Malays, trilingual), but also more employable outside Malaysia. So, if
we were to go back to the question as to whether our students and teachers
will ever be ready for English, I do not think so, especially if the
authorities keep changing policies on the use of the language in schools.
We should make the policy and stick to it, come hell or high water. Fauziah
Ismail is a United Nation’s Journalism fellow and Wolfson College Cambridge
press fellow. She has 30 years of experience as a journalist, half of which
with the Business Times 273 reads Students are eager to learn English, but
only if teachers are qualified to teach it and make the classes interesting
for them.


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