Sunday, August 14, 2011

Language Letdown


While there are calls for action against the declining English standards, what needs to be done is to ensure that policies on improving the language should be for the long term.

LAST WEEK, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin reportedly said that he himself was at a loss as to why Malaysian students have a poor grasp of the English language.

“I have instructed the education director-general to look into the curriculum to see why our students are unable to master English as a second language despite learning it for 13 years,” said Muhyiddin, who is also Education Minister.
... it is the students who become victims of all these ‘experiments’. — DATIN NOOR AZIMAH ABDUL RAHMAN
As always, this was the cue for a flurry of commentary over the declining standards of English and general hand-wringing over what can be done about it.

Questions have also been raised over the need for a new study following the current implementation of Upholding Bahasa Malaysia and Strengthening English (also known by its Malay acronym MBMMBI) policy, as well as the new Standard Curriculum for Primary Schools (KSSR) introduced this year.

Also left unanswered is whether English will be made into a must pass subject for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examinations; the idea was mooted by the minister himself in 2009.

Although the ministry stated then that 80% of the feedback received supported the proposal, there has been no subsequent developments on the matter.

Among those concerned over the issue is Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (Page) chairperson Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim.

“I think this admission reflects poorly on the ministry,” she says.

“Why weren’t these studies conducted before RM3bil was allocated for the MBMMBI policy?

“Education policies need to be well thought-out for the long term, and we cannot afford to have new policies with each new minister.

“In the end, it is the students who become victims of all these ‘experiments’.”

To be fair, the ministry has embarked on initiatives to improve English language skills to complement the MBMMBI initiative, the latest of which is the Pedagogy Standards for English Language Teaching.

Launched by Muhyiddin in July, the standards were developed by the English Language Training Centre (ELTC), the Education Ministry’s in-service teacher education provider.

Goals for teachers

ELTC director Dr Ranjit Singh Gill says the standards served as ‘aspirational’ goals for English language teachers rather than prescribing a minimum requirement.

“The main aim is to help teachers identify their strengths and weaknesses to help them chart their own career development.

“It will also help us in designing programmes to cater to teachers’ needs,” he says.

While it is still too soon to gauge the response to the project so far, Dr Ranjit thinks that teachers will be open to using the self-assessing standards.

“Judging from the number of teachers who take it upon themselves to further their studies, I think that there is a genuine desire among our teachers to improve themselves,” he says.

Former education director-general Tan Sri Alimuddin Mohd Dom also believes that the MBMMBI policy is sufficient to cover the language issue.

“The MBMMBI initiative is suitable because it addresses both the role of the national language in ensuring social cohesion, while recognising the importance of English as a global language.

“We should keep in mind that the purpose of the national education system is not just to prepare students for the workforce, but also to promote national unity.

“Of course, it will require all parties to play their roles if it is to work; teachers have to be passionate about teaching English, students need to be motivated to learn, and parents need to be more involved in their children’s academic study,” he says.
Staging plays and dramas are another avenue through which schoolchildren can express themselves in the English language.
Alimuddin also thinks that there is a serious rift in the public discourse of education and language, based on comments published by the media and posted on the blogosphere.

“On one hand you have those who are pushing for the direction of English medium schools, while on the other, there are those who lament the position of the national language.

“If these two divisions cannot reach a consensus, it will be a very problematic situation for the national education system as a whole,” he says.

A notable feature of this ‘rift’ is the Teaching of Mathematics and Science in English (better known by its Malay acronym PPSMI) first introduced by then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 2003.

Announced six-months before its implementation to the tune of RM5bil, the ministry reversed the policy in 2009.

PPSMI proponents continue to applaud the policy’s aims of exposing students to Mathematics and Science knowledge in English, saying that this will enable Malaysia to achieve a developed nation status.

Detractors meanwhile, say that the policy was implemented at the expense of Bahasa Melayu’s status as the national language, and cause rural students to lose out in their academics.

Numerous surveys have been cited by both parties to support their arguments, but a 2010 study stands out both in its methods and findings.

Carried out by Universiti Teknologi Mara researchers, the study involved 186 urban and rural Year Four pupils taking two sets of Mathematics tests; one purely in English, the other in both English and Bahasa Melayu.

The study concludes that all the students performed poorly in both tests, with the rural students being weaker than their urban counterparts.

Need for change

It should be noted that Malaysia is not unique in its problems with the English language and the education system.

In the CBI/ EDI Education Skills survey published in 2011, surveying 566 employers in the United Kingdom (UK), it was revealed that 42% of employers are not satisfied with the basic use of English by school and college-leavers.

Additionally in May, it was reported that the British education watchdog Ofqual will announce an investigation into concerns in the UK over the perceived lack of standards in their A Level and GSCE examinations.

“There is definitely a general rot in our system,” says a retired teacher from Perak.

“If students cannot speak the English language, then why is the SPM passing rate increasing for the subject each year?

“So if the passing rates for this subject cannot be relied upon, what are we to make of the other subjects and the increasing number of top scorers?” she asks.

Nora*, who works as a headhunter for multinational companies based in Malaysia, expressed a similar sentiment.
Time to stretch: Some teachers have taken the initiative to speak to their students in English during PE lessons. - File photo
“I get poorly written resumes in English and even Bahasa Melayu from students who are straight-A scorers,” she says.

“I find it easier to deal with those who have average grades, but can articulate themselves well and are motivated to learn,” she says.

Retired teacher Yo Lim thinks that motivation is crucial in improving students’ grasp of the language.

“Think of the children in a place like Kuala Tembeling, in a totally Malay environment where they are taught four to five hours a week.

“The reality is that English has no relevance (to their daily communication), so they don’t see the importance or relevance of having to learn a foreign language.

“This is not to say they don’t learn anything at all, as they do acquire some rudiments of the language,” he says.

He adds that while the system does produce students who are proficient in English, this has more to do from their out-of-school exposure.

“Quite often, their (the students’) high standard of English is despite the school system they have gone through,” he says.

“These are students who come from homes where English is widely spoken.

“Then we have to ask: is the Ministry able to lure enough of these graduates into the teaching profession?

Increasing research in the field of linguistics seem to challenge commonly accepted notions of learning English as second language.

For instance, while many may note that “children soak up information like sponges”, this is not necessarily so for Year One students encountering the language for the first time.

Additionally, some researchers also warn that just because a child can converse in a language, it does not mean that he or she has actually fully acquired it.

Helen Chew, a retired teacher with 26 years of experience, says that these sort of opinions over language learning can be damaging.

“There are just so many myths that are being circulated by non-educators and the media when it comes to language learning,” she says.

“For instance, what is the point of pushing literature down students’ throats if all you want them to do is speak and write English for the work place?

“I propose an even more radical idea; if there is a shortage of qualified English teachers, then maybe we should look at starting students on the language in their later years of primary school.

“It is better for children to have two years with good teachers and get a solid grounding in the language, rather than to go through so many years of below-par teaching that has to be ‘un-learnt’ at the secondary level.”

She adds that examinations should also be restructured to properly test students’ knowledge of the language.

“What is the point of oral examinations when I know of students who pass by memorising and regurgitating entire chunks of text?

“If we want to cater to all the different learners’ abilities without upsetting anyone, then maybe there should be different levels of examinations as well; an elementary one that everyone should pass, and intermediate and expert levels for those who wish to pursue the language on a deeper level.

“At the end of the day, it all boils down to what exactly it is you want the students to achieve with their language skills,” she says.

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