[lg policy] Edunation: English language proficiency still an urgent matter

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat May 25 10:23:13 EDT 2019

Edunation: English language proficiency still an urgent matter
Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim
The Edge Malaysia
May 25, 2019 11:30 am +08
This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 20,
2019 - May 26, 2019.

Last week marked two significant days — the 50th anniversary of the May 13
race riots, which we need to be reminded of lest we forget that such
incidents must not be allowed to happen again, and the 48th anniversary of
Teacher’s Day on May 16.

“Shortly after independence, there came an abrupt change in our education
system. The then Minister of Agriculture and Co-operatives in Tunku’s
cabinet, Aziz Ishak, while acting as Minister of Education, ordered the
conversion of all government primary schools to national schools where the
medium of instruction was Malay. The primary classes in the English schools
were among those suddenly converted in this way. The government secondary
schools, meanwhile, retained English as their medium of instruction and
Chinese and Indian children continued to attend these schools, as did a lot
of Malays,” writes Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in his
autobiography Doctor In The House.

“After the 1969 general election and the ensuing race riots in Kuala
Lumpur, Tun Abdul Rahman Yaacob was appointed Education Minister. He
announced that all government secondary schools and government-aided
schools would become national secondary schools where the teaching would be
in Malay. Schools in Sarawak and Sabah, however, were exempted. Such a move
made national primary and secondary schools almost exclusively Malay.


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“Meanwhile, the government decided that although the national language of
Bahasa Malaysia should be the medium of instruction, English had to be a
very important second language which everyone must learn and master. But
many Malay students, encouraged by young activists and older-style
nationalists, decided that knowing only Malay was sufficient for them. They
didn’t even need to learn it properly as it was their mother tongue. It was
enough to know their own local dialects and they were not concerned about
mastering modern and spoken Malay. Very quickly, Malay students became less
proficient in their own language and had little command of English to boot.”

Fast forward to 2019, and the policy of teaching science and mathematics in
English has come and gone. It has been replaced by language policy
“Memartabatkan Bahasa Melayu, Memperkasakan Bahasa Inggeris”, which offers
parents the dual language programme (DLP) for their children, and which
continues to gain in popularity, albeit slowly. Incidentally, a baseline
study conducted by University of Cambridge English Language Assessment
(CELA) concluded that DLP students fared better than non-DLP students.

Kudos to the English Language Standards and Quality Council headed by
Professor Zuraidah Mohd Don, who has been tasked by the Education Minister
with raising the standard of English in this country to international
levels through the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), overseen
by CELA.

Parents as the stakeholders should at least be assured that there is some
level of quality and standard. The Malaysia Education Blueprint’s target is
for 70% of students to pass English with a credit by 2025, but to date,
less than 30% have done so.

The debate now is whether or not there is a shortage of English language
teachers. The National Union of the Teaching Profession says yes while the
Education Ministry says no. By definition, an English language teacher is
someone who has been trained to teach the language. Therefore, a teacher
who is trained to teach another discipline but who is teaching the language
anyway due to numerous reasons is not an English language teacher, or is
he? An ingenious avenue called Program Intervensi Tambah Opsyen has been
created where such teachers can also become accredited English language
teachers if they meet the criteria, although there appear to be funding

The good news is that a third of English language teachers have achieved a
minimum CEFR C1 effective operational proficiency. The rest are at CEFR B2,
which is post-secondary student level. The bad news is that half of them
still remain unscreened. Worse still, untrained English language teachers
have not been screened either, which has led to a brouhaha over MUET
(Malaysian University English Test) being an assessment tool.

The CEFR has been aligned with UPSR, PT3 and SPM English language. Its
latest alignment with MUET will assess whether teachers (with some
exceptions) have C1 effective operational proficiency (which will be the
minimum proficiency level for all English language teachers by 2020) or C2
mastery, and if they have neither, whether upskilling is required. This
cuts costs as funding remains a challenge. Maybe the Education Ministry
could reconsider picking up the tab on MUET.

Nonetheless, there is an urgency with regard to English language
proficiency. The burden on English language teachers is staggering and
cannot be overemphasised. They need to be screened, assessed and accredited
to ensure quality is achieved and a high standard is maintained. If we all
put our minds together, imagine the impact that would have on the human and
humane capital, helping turn Malaysia into the Asian tiger it once was — a
formidable legacy that Mahathir is keen to leave behind for our nation.

On that note, Happy Teacher’s Day to all the cikgu-cikgu.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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