English is the most commonly spoken language besides Mandarin and Spanish, and is widely used in the world that it is often perceived as the universal language. It no doubt plays a very important role in our daily lives as well – for daily and international communications, business and trade, education, and especially in this technology revolution and the rise of the internet – it is the most accessible language.
But sadly, as pointed out by the Permaisuri of Johor, Raja Zarith Sofiah Sultan Idris Shah, recently, there has been a “dramatic and drastic” decline in the proficiency of both written and spoken English among our younger generation, which is worrying as their future is at stake especially if they fail to keep up with technological advancements and to be noticed by others in this inter-connected world.
Stressing that we cannot rely solely on the government, Raja Zarith who is also the Royal Patron of the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (MELTA), called on all Malaysians to take proactive measures to place more emphasis on teaching and learning the English language.
“In schools now, students don’t speak the language for fear of being mocked for trying to be a Mat Salleh. The perception is that if you don’t speak Bahasa Melayu, you are not proud of being Malaysian. So they retreat and don’t speak English.
“My dream is to see young Malaysians pursue education at world-class universities like Harvard or Oxford and go on to become CEOs of global companies. To achieve such goals, they need to learn the English language,” she highlighted in her press statement.
Youngsters Must Never Give Up On Speaking In English
Young and upcoming beauty YouTuber Aisha Liyana, who boasts nearly 100k subscribers on her channel, is one who has been sharing tips online in English, attests to Raja Zarith’s statements as she feels comfortable conversing in the language and confesses it does serve as a form of practice.
And relating to the Johor Permaisuri’s comments on being mocked, she lamented how she has received some backbiting comments from viewers for conversing in English. Yet, it has not dampened her spirits to keep on learning and speaking the language.
“‘Why are you trying so hard to speak English’ and‘Melayu cakaplah Melayu, kenapa nak cakap English (You’re Malay, so speak in Malay)’”, were some of the remarks lashed out at Aisha.
“But one bad comment about my English does not reflect me as a whole. 90 per cent of my viewers have been supportive and encouraging so any haters on my videos will never be taken seriously,” she said, adding she would never change the way she makes her videos just because a handful of critics are telling her otherwise.
Aisha uses English as the language to express herself as she relayed YouTube is a platform that caters to a worldwide audience, and therefore, sharing tips in English would widen her reach to viewers across the globe.
“Just because I speak a certain language other than my mother tongue it does not make me any less Malay. I still eat with my hands and enjoy nasi lemak and nasi kandar, I still speak a lot of Malay at home,” clarifying that negative comments do not bother her.
Sharing her two cents on English proficiency among the younger generation, the 24-year-old relayed a shocking incident told by a friend about some youngsters in vocational colleges who do not even know the meaning of the word ‘ugly’.
“I would attribute it to their social surroundings and their influences growing up. Unlike the urban folk who have more access to English content; from books, TV shows and movies, to songs, perhaps, people in rural areas are less exposed to the language, making them less receptive to such contents.
“And despite the internet making English more accessible, we need to encourage reading to be proficient in the language itself,” using herself as an example, as she recalls starting reading English language books at a very young age.
Aisha believes that English is a necessity for youngsters in this day and age, not only to secure jobs, but to get by in life, in general.
“To the current generation who are still struggling with English, you should never give up or think that it’s too late to learn. Everyone is equipped with the basics and are able to learn, so push yourselves further to improve on your language,” she expressed.
But Are Our English Language Teachers Doing Enough?
Following Raja Zarith’s concern, last week, Education Minister Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid too concurred with her statements, however, noted the problem is more prevalent in schools in rural areas whereby the students themselves are afraid to speak in English.
“The schools have done enough to teach students the language. It is up to the students to put in more effort to master English,” he said, adding we do have enough competent English language teachers in the country.
Malaysian Digest approached two high school students to discuss the current state of learning the English language in their schools, and if they are pleased about their teachers’ performance during English lessons.
Regine Tan, 16, said her English lessons are conducted four times a week and it focuses a lot on the technicality of the language – for example, the types of sentence structure, syntax, among others – which she feels are effective and essential.
“Teachers in school will prepare assignments for us where we have to present and be graded based on the assignments. English lessons play an important role in school as it is an international language,” she opined, while sharing that the English language teachers in her school are really helpful, supportive, and would ensure the students learn and speak the language properly.
“It’s not only about what’s in the textbook but also utilising the knowledge correctly. My teachers always make sure that all of us understand all the basics of English as it is important for us when we finish high school as subjects in universities will be fully taught in English.
“I believe the teachers are doing a good job, but it would be helpful if more English lessons are conducted in a week,” she added.
As for Aaron who is about to sit for his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) exam later this year, he explained how other than using the textbooks, his teacher encourages students to speak the language by doing a little sketch in the classroom.
“It is a bit embarrassing to do this, but it helps with our communication skills and boost our confidence when we speak in English. Besides acting out a role, our teacher also encourages us to read a story out loud and participate more in choral speaking,” he relayed.
For the final year high school student, there is nothing to complain about as he believes his English teacher has done an excellent job.
“He always makes our lesson incredibly fun and interesting by increasing our participation whether with a pop quiz or a show and tell. Surprisingly, this actually makes us look forward to his class,” said Aaron.
Education Ministry Needs To Be More Transparent With English Upskilling
While the Education Ministry’s effort in upskilling teachers prove to be fruitful based on our interviewees’ opinions, Chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE), Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, shared with Malaysian Digest her expectations toward the ministry.
“I think the decline started due to the result of the May 1969 race relations when the then Minister of Education, Tun Datuk Patinggi Abdul Rahman Yak'ub, decided upon himself to change the medium instructions. So he made that announcement after the riot and since then, the English proficiency started to deteriorate.
“Despite the understanding that English should be upheld, the ministry has failed to do so, which is why we are stuck in this rut. Of course, the upside is that people started placing an importance on Bahasa Melayu, but today, we realise the downside of it,” she stated.
“Malaysians have great potential but we are so caught up with language squabbles,” which affects the children, she said, while relaying that despite the ministry’s efforts in trying to maximise the use of English since then, the nation has only seen a little improvement over time.
Touching on the ministry’s move to use imported textbooks to achieve proficiency levels aligned to international standards by implementing the new Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) for preschoolers, Standard One, Standard Two as well as Form One and Form Two students, she adds, “I believe, it is a big step forward but of course the other question now is whether the teachers are capable of teaching the syllabus.
“But this should not be an obstacle because since the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 existed as part of the plan for the English language to be improved, all English language teachers have been upskilling,” she notes.
She however accentuates the concern now is for the Education Minister to be more transparent about what upskilling is, the nature of upskilling and the progress made in upskilling teachers.
“Mahdzir Khalid has to tell us how prepared the teachers are and the current direction the upskilling is going.
“It should be orchestrated and it should reach the desired level so we do not miss this opportunity to upgrade our English language proficiency,” she highlights.
Noor Azimah also thinks one of the blueprint’s goals to increase proficiency in both the English and Malay language is questionable.
“To be proficient in English, you need to apply the language, not just learn it in the classroom. For that to happen, schools need to teach more subjects in English,” adding that PAGE had previously mooted the idea for the ministry to pilot English medium schools, but unfortunately, it had been turned down because the ministry was not confident about it.
“We see English medium schools as a platform to produce English teachers, but the argument has always been about having English medium schools would eradicate the national language,” she shared.
She believes by establishing English medium schools, student graduates could eventually become English language teachers themselves.
“We then don’t need to import native speakers which can be very expensive. They have produced very good English teachers, so why can’t we do the same?,” she posed the question.
Finding New Ways To Approach Youngsters To Master The English Language
As Noor Azimah’s points come with her experience in speaking with parents and teachers, Malaysian Digest caught up with Qayyum Jumadi, the founder of Englishjer, an organisation aimed at solving English proficiency problems creatively through informal institutions, utilising digital media and experiential learning – who has profound interest in helping the younger generation.
For five years the establishment has been promoting empowerment of the English language and through their observation they have identified it is more than just a conflict of identity issue, which requires a new approach to see a change in mindset.
“We cannot simply say who has the most important role in the development of English, because we speak with a lot of educators and they are trying their best.
“We believe the conducive environment must first exist, and it must exist in the homes of the learners, with their friends, and with whatever media they interact with.
“I would like to highlight that how we do things in our formal institutions must evolve. We have a new generation of thinkers that are psychologically different with all their exposure to the world through the new media that's more open.
“We must make learning English attractive and relevant, not just in terms of our youngsters getting better career prospects but also it must be relevant to their lifestyle and how they interact with each other right now,” he said, stressing how sometimes we are too strict about using the 'correct' English that what is imparted disconnects with how our youngsters interact with the world, which can be a turn off.
Always believing that relevance is the first and hardest hurdle, Qayyum explains how we often forget learning a language is also learning about ourselves and each other.
“Language has to be a part of life and that requires efforts from every front, both our formal and informal institutions.
“Based on my personal observation, many of the students we meet have grasped English at least on a basic level, even in the more rural areas. Many of them are really eager to learn. It's just this hesitance of actually using the language with their peers and within their environment that becomes a huge stumbling block for them to really improve.
“We need to address this, and what we suggest is getting role models from their community to actually go back to their schools and see how they can help by either giving inspiration or by conducting activities with the students.
“Youngsters must see that the usage of English is alive and it can actually be of benefit to them,” he aptly concluded on that note.