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  • Datin Noor Azimah Abd Rahim, The Edge

English language proficiency still an urgent matter

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.

“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 It has been replaced by language policy “Memartabatkan Bahasa Melayu, Memperkasakan Bahasa Inggeris”, which offers parents the dual language programme (DLP) for their children, and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 challenges.

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.




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