Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Shocking Revelation?

Most of the rich and powerful people in this country usually send their children overseas for their education. If they opt to put their children in our local schools, then it would be in the best ones in the country. As a result, many of these rich and powerful people don't really know much about what's going on in a typical school in Malaysia.

Over 20 years ago, when I was still in school, we learned English as a single subject. It was what we called "communicative English". We were not taught grammar. If I'm not wrong, grammar was last taught a few years before my generation. I'm not sure if English was a compulsory subject back then, but at any rate, it was very easy to get a credit in the so-called "communicative English".

When I finished form 6, I couldn't afford to pursue my studies. So I had to work for a few years to save up for the first year's fee of a distance-learning degree offered by a university in the United Kingdom. Three months into the course, I felt like giving up because I had to learn everything in English with the very little I knew of the language. Never mind about grammar—I could hardly construct a decent sentence without a spelling mistake in it. And so I had to start from the very beginning. I bought primary school books and learned grammar like a small kid. I spent many, many hours reading lots of books ranging from fictions to technical articles. It was quite a horrifying experience.

Throughout the years, the education system in Malaysia has been neglecting English, and we have now reached a point where even some official Government websites contain laughable English articles.

I have mentioned before that many of our local graduates who found their way to my office to look for jobs did not quite pass my requirements because of their weaknesses in the English language. Although Malay is the official language and widely used in the Government offices throughout the country, the private sector is still overwhelmingly English. And looking at how quickly the world is becoming borderless these days, it is likely that English will remain very important in time to come.

The sorry state of the level of English command among the younger generation is not something new. Yet our Deputy Prime Minister was shocked recently when he found out that grammar is no longer taught in school these days. [The Star]

Apparently it was quite a revelation to the minister. Perhaps someone should have at least mentioned it to him 20 years ago, although of course nothing could have been done about it anyway.

So now we are back to the beginning once again. The Education Ministry is contemplating making English a must-pass subject in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), i.e. form 5 exam. The plan is put forward to the public to seek feedback. I can only guess that when this whole "public consultation" thing is over, the majority will decide negatively. It is human nature to fear change—especially one that can hurt them.

Based on what I myself have been through, from the kind of English that we have in our schools, it would probably take at least 2 years to reach an acceptable standard of the language. To learn a new language as an adult is a very painful process, and many people will fail.

Sometimes, Governments make decisions not based on what's right and logical. Rather, decisions are made based on political reasons. Even correct decisions may have to be abandoned if the majority is against it, unless of course if the Government does not care about winning the next election.

I can understand that the good DPM is trying very hard to be seen as doing something profound in his new portfolio. And if he is serious about it, he has my vote to make English a must-pass subject in SPM. But even if that is going to happen, I don't think it's happening any time soon.

The hard truth is that Malaysia has neglected English for far too long; it can't suddenly correct the mistake overnight like switching on a computer. Very few of those in the current generation have the kind of English for the purpose of teaching the language to our children; what they have is just the so-called "communicative English". Certainly they can't teach grammar. Contrary to what these "people at the top" think, the current breed of teachers can't learn English through a month's "intensive course".

We just don't have enough people who can teach English at the moment. Therefore, the teachers must learn the language first. That will probably take at least 2 years, if not more. When we have enough people who can teach English, only then can we move to the next stage of actually making English a must-pass subject in school.

So whatever the motive is, the DPM should realise that it's not going to happen before the next general election. However, my personal view is that it will not happen at all. Too many people stand to lose. Either that, or we will see the "Malaysia Boleh" phenomenon—that suddenly many, many students will pass the English exams in school, but actually they know hardly anything about the language.

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