By Ooi Kee Beng, for THE EDGE Malaysia, 21 December 2014
There is no doubt that the standard of English in Malaysia has fallen badly over the last few decades. And this is true for all Malaysian communities, even the Eurasians. It is a generational phenomenon made all the poignant because Malaysians started out having an enviably good command of the language. One has merely to read the parliamentary Hansard from the 1960s to realise how well most Malaysian politicians of any ethnic background could debate in English.
Now, as the wish to reverse the trend becomes palpable even among single-language nationalists who must now see that Malaysia does not and cannot develop in a language vacuum, cries for a higher stature to be given to English are being widely heard again. Even Muhyiddin Yassin, the Deputy Prime Minister, has recently expressed surprise—whether sincerely or disingenuously is beside the point—at how bad Malaysian students are in English.
Sadly though, the ambitions remain low; and the issue has been reduced to whether or not English should be used for teaching science and mathematics. Not only is the focus fixed on an extremely narrow functional command of the language, the fact that most new knowledge is clothed in English—as are most cutting-edge global debates—is not taken into account either.
Learning any language well requires some degree of immersion. This means the learner has to jump into water that is deeper than he can handle at the time. Learning a language by systematically concentrating on a narrow field like mathematics is not likely to foster confidence in the use of that language. It is in effect a kind of state-sanctioned dumbing down.
The ambition to dumb down for the sake of the masses/the race/the reader/the student/the voter is no doubt ubiquitous today, and that is certainly the case in politics, in the mass media and in schools. And this is done in any language.
Any dumbing down that becomes habitual and enduring should be recognized for its sinister intents; but in schools, dumbing down becomes disastrous. Many explanations for the fall in the standard of English blame the frighteningly low standard of English that teachers have. The blind cannot possibly help the young to see. Reports state that recently as many as 70% of 60,000 teachers performed poorly in their English Language Cambridge Placement Test. That is shocking to the point of being debilitating. How does one heal a body that is off kilter to such a degree?
Learning a language is very much like learning to know a city. The only way to feel at home in a new city is to criss-cross it often, and experience it in as different ways as possible and from as many different angles as possible. One must perceive it in time and in space.
And so, learning a language is to approach it as literature. Now, this need not happen at the cost of the national language, or one’s mother tongue. Multilingualism is after all the necessary skill for all in the future.
It is a bad mistake to consider English merely as a tool meant for specific purposes. It should be as a new pool of water is to a fish. There is only immersion. There is only an embracing of it and an acceptance of its promise.
To master a language is to have come to the point where one not only thinks new thoughts with it, one is also able to joke in it and yes, write original poetry with it.
For Malaysian youths to regain lost ground, the issue is not whether or not the sciences and mathematics should be taught in English—that is quite beside the point. The system has to embrace the language as a fact of modern life; and adopt it in school curricula as literature.
Over the last decades, it must have been quite a tough and expensive undertaking for a country like Malaysia keeping its young unskilled in English, given the country’s colonial background and given how internationally connected the economy is to the rest of the world.
Now, English is the language of ASEAN, let us not forget that.
Without it, we will have a hard time communicating with Southeast Asian neighbours. And if Malaysia continues being bad in English, its citizens will not be able to express themselves as well in international contexts and certainly not as well as people from, say India or the Philippines, do.
Another development that Malaysians should be aware of is how quickly Asians from countries with little or no connection to English are learning to speak language. In Vietnam and Cambodia, English is favoured before any other foreign language, including French. And people there are boldly overcoming difficulties that Malaysians did not have to start with.
In Myanmar, regret is endlessly being voiced over how the country has allowed its command of English and dropped so abysmally in that skill in recent decades. And for what?
China is another interesting case. After decades of political battles back and forth, what has developed is that common citizens now know that they must master Chinese alongside English. And young Chinese are learning to speak it relatively well.
Thinking that Malaysians of the future can manage well and excel internationally without their command of English being radically raised is a deceitful ambition.
Ooi Kee Beng is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. His latest book is The Eurasian Core and Its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2015).