Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Learning a New Language

It is no secret that Malaysians in general are not so good in the English language. Most of them believe they are, but actually they're not. That's the result of several decades of teaching what's known as the "Communicative English" in our schools. In learning the "Communicative English", the emphasis is on whether others can understand what we're saying. Very little emphasis, if any, was given to grammar or spelling etc. I'm not very sure if there was any stress on the accuracy of communication.

I recently spoke to a University Graduate who's presently pursuing a Masters in a local University. I found out from her that it's basically the same story even for the Masters level, i.e. not so much emphasis on grammar.

Unfortunately, in the job market English is an asset. The medium of communication is still overwhelmingly English. A few years ago, the Malaysian government made English the medium of instruction for maths and science, but it soon became clear that some people could not cope with the language.

So what happens when it's difficult to learn an important language? Why, of course the simplest thing to do is to reverse the policy! So, not surprisingly, maths and science are now taught in Malay—again.

As one would expect, many parents are concerned that their children will find it very tough when they enter the job market in the future. There is no question that English is important, even if some people would not admit it.

And so, we can now see so many people offering English lessons. I don't know about the other parts of Malaysia, but in KK, one is able to see "English Tuition" advertisements on almost every lamp post in the city these days. Check out the photo below, which I took near my office in KK.

There are many, many other advertisements of numerous sizes and patterns of course. And some of them also include other information and perhaps justifications why English is important. Such is the case with the advertisement below.

I shall refrain from arguing the claim of "Good English Good Job", simply because that is the absolute truth, although, to repeat, some people would not admit it. Apart from becoming eyesores, I can live with these advertisements. I just wished that they—whoever these people are—would advertise properly, such as in the papers.

Admittedly, I myself am a product of the Malaysian education system, and it is unfortunate that I am still not so good in English. I've not contacted any of those people who offer to teach English, but I suspect they, too, are products of the great Malaysian education system. If my suspicion is correct, then there is every possibility that these people are not really qualified to teach the language! For the English that they know is the "Communicative English", which is, for the most part, plain rubbish!

In the above advertisement, below those words "Good English Good Job", there are dark-coloured ovals, each containing justifications for learning the language. The grammar is just awful to say the least. One of them says "Self-Confident". I don't have an English degree, but I like "Self-Confidence" much better. A tiny little difference which does not really matter for "Communicative English". In fact, I wonder if the teacher knows the different [difference] at all?

And finally, I can't resist, as always, to quote yet again one of JJ's school work. This one from her recent mock exams. Part F instructs: "Use all the words below to make one correct sentence." What do you make of it? Apparently, all of her sentences are wrong.

Check out, for example, Question 2. The words which are required to appear in the sentence are "sat" and "tree". And JJ, referring to the picture on the left, came up with:

They sat under a big tree.

Again, let me repeat that I don't have an English degree, but I can't see anything wrong with that sentence. Both the words "sat" and "tree" are there. Grammatically, it is also sound. But no, the teacher found the sentence wrong because of a missing "yesterday".

And therefore, JJ got Question 3 wrong too, because although she came up with "He walked near the waterfall," she failed to include something there to emphasize that the event occurred in the past. But emphasis or no emphasis, are those sentences wrong?

I think it is entirely possible that we will come up with a whole new language by the next generation, known as Manglish. And that will be our official version of the English language. The hell with what the rest of the world thinks of our English!


Unsettled Soul said...

omg poor JJ, she gets errors when they aren't really errors! What a bad teacher!

Your English is superb, at least as far as sentence structure, spelling, & grammar goes. I would think someone who writes so well also speaks well. I don't think you have anything to worry about, lol.

My husband was in school during the BM teaching period. He thinks that is the reason he still has problems with grammar and spelling. For instance, he will use an ED at the end of a word when it should be an S. Not always, but with certain words.

He also asks me to slow down the volume instead of turn down the volume, or open the light instead of turn on the light.

He is in a high position in the financial industry here in the States, so it is not something he really needs to worry about as far as jobs. He speaks good English, but he still has to work hard at remember certain rules of English.
He thinks this is because he wasn't fluently speaking English in Malaysia even though he was going to the best schools.

He became fluent his first year in college and he struggled that first year because he could not understand people's English.

His experience is the reason I was saddened when I heard the gov't is going to go back to all BM in the schools.

Although it is true that English is the language of Malaysia's colonizers, and possibly for some this is a big deal, and I can understand that feeling, but as long as English is the language one needs in the world in order to get a job, I think it has to be implemented in the schools or the children, and eventually the society, will suffer.

Donald Trump's son was just talking about Malaysia, how it is the next big thing and he wants to invest in Malaysia. He said nothing but great things about Malaysia's economic development. He wants to bring "luxury" products and housing to Malaysia. Well, if no one is able to get a good education and learn fluent English, who is going to talk to him when he gets to Malaysia and wants to invest?!

Cornelius said...


When the present Education Minister took office shortly after the last General Election, apparently he was surprised that our schools haven't been teaching grammar all these years. Reportedly, he said from now on, we will be teaching grammar. But don't bet on it.

I think there are many Malaysians who're quite good in English. However, there are many, many more who're not! If indeed we're gonna teach English like how it's supposed to be taught, then maybe we will be able to see some improvement in a couple of years from now. But I must seriously doubt it. We simply don't have enough people who are really able to teach the language right now.

Sarah Elizabeth said...

My opinions are only coming from my circle of Malaysian friends, so I am not sure how accurate it is, but it sounds to me like the kids who go overseas to study come back obviously fluent in English, but for kids who stay in Malaysia, it is much much harder.

I have a friend who has only lived and gone to school in Malaysia and she speaks good English, her and I can have a conversation, but once again her grammar is off, and many times I can tell she is thinking in BM and then writing English but with BM grammatical rules instead of English rules.

She also tells me when she tries to speak to some people in English in order to practice, they mock her for trying to act like she is better than them. lol tough.

Anyways, I think it boils down to having teachers and professors who are comfortable speaking English. Wasn't the big issue with the schools not having enough teachers who could speak and teach in English? Wasn't that some of the reason gov't decided to switch to all BM?

My friends who went to International schools in Malaysia, they don't even have an accent! They speak fluent English, even with American accents. Possibly they grew up in homes that speak fluent English though.

What language do you and your wife speak with JJ? I want to speak English and BM with our child, and then make sure the child learns Mandarin in school.

Cornelius said...


I dare say there is some truth in what you say, i.e. that "the kids who go overseas to study come back obviously fluent in English". They may be fluent, yes, but not necessarily sound in their grammar. I have a few of them in my office right now.

I think the thing about English is that the grammar part should be taught from the very beginning. And then build up from there. Students who are lucky enough to go to foreign [English-speaking] countries to study can of course improve their spoken English, but they rarely will learn the basic grammar from zero. Therefore the grammar part of the language will always be problematic, no matter how "fluent" they can speak the language.

Therefore I'm inclined to the assumption that those who've been studying overseas and now are very good in English have had a sound basic grammar even before leaving Malaysia in the first place.

Will post this first, and continue shortly...

Cornelius said...

Regarding qualified teachers, I think that is a poor excuse for not teaching proper English in school. Years ago, when English was the medium of instruction in our schools, we had (or at least I think so) enough people who could teach the language. But because of the change of government policy, BM was then used as the medium of instruction in school. So obviously after a few decades, those qualified English teachers would phase out. Obviously it did not happen overnight.

The simple logic is that if we want to bring back the English teachers, it would of course require a bit of time to train the teachers. Again, it won't happen overnight.

But here's the thing about learning a new language - it is so damn hard! And not many people are willing to endure the pain. And it is also not easy because Malaysians are not people with the reading habit (something which is imperative in learning a new language). This is where people would conveniently use the excuse of "patriotism", so that they could use only BM, our national language.

Regarding the accent, that's a slightly different matter. Most of us here in Malaysia learned the British English. Hence we spell HONOUR, and not HONOR, for example. But because we are more exposed to the American films, we are more inclined to speak according to the American accent, not the British. Most Malaysians who are good in English can speak quite fluently, and sound perhaps 60%-80% like the American English. But when we speak to other Malaysians, expecially amongst close friends, most of the time we speak like how the Malaysians would. That is to say the accent becomes a bit distorted, and you will find plenty of useless expressions like "lah", "bah" or even "mah", "mei" etc to emphasise our sentences.

Cornelius said...

JJ is a bit unique. At first, when she first started to speak, I spoke Hakka, a Chinese dialect which is popular in KK, to her. Although my father-in-law was pleased with that, Mia spoke 80%-90% English. And then later on, I, too, spoke almost exclusively English to her. That continued up to the time when she entered into kindergarten (aged 5yrs) when she was first introduced to Mandarin (Chinese), and a bit of BM (national language).

Today (she's 8 yrs old now) I still speak 90% English with her (10% terrible Mandarin). Mia speaks perhaps 70% English and 30% Mandarin. And we sometimes spare about 5% for Malay. The priority in those languages is perhaps the same in most Chinese families in Malaysia. BM is almost exclusively used in all government offices, of which most of us Chinese can't even dream of getting into. The private sector uses mainly English (and this is where most Chinese folks can hope to earn their living). And the business community (at least the major ones) is a mixture of English and Chinese, depending on the nature of the business. So obviously that's where the focus should be for us.

However, as JJ gets older, she will have to learn BM one way or another, if only to pass her school exams. Whether it will be of use to her in the job market, that is a different matter. I think not, but it's good to have the extra ability.