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M'sia's English language crisis
Publication Date : 12-10-2013
In Perak, northern Peninsular Malaysia, an English teacher uses textbooks meant for seven-year-olds to teach her Form One class of mainly 13-year-olds.
"When I first taught them, they could not even tell the difference between 'when' and 'what'," the teacher, who wants to be known only as Yee, told The Straits Times recently.
"I had to put my planned lessons aside and start with the basics."
It is the type of story many English teachers in Malaysia share, but are reluctant to speak openly about because they worry about being sanctioned by the education ministry.
And so, when the ministry recently announced that from 2016 onwards, students in Form Five - the equivalent of a GCE O-level class in Singapore - must pass English before they can obtain their school-leaving certificates, it set tongues wagging.
After all, last year, almost a quarter of 470,000 Form Five students failed English, and only 16 per cent of them scored highly in the language.
"Without the school-leaving certificates, the students cannot further their studies or get jobs," said Lok Yim Pheng, secretary-general of the National Union of the Teaching Profession. "Is their future being killed?"
Part of the problem, educationists say, is that there are not enough qualified English teachers. Recently, the education ministry revealed that 70 per cent of the country's 70,000 English teachers failed a competency test to teach the language.
The ministry is now working overtime to retrain thousands of English teachers around the country to try and meet the 2016 deadline.
"It is an ambitious goal, but we cannot tolerate students not being able to communicate in English any more," Dr Habibah Abdul Rahim, head of a new agency within the ministry, told The Straits Times in a recent interview.
"Something needs to be done."
In Malaysia, English is a compulsory subject from Primary One to Form Five. Despite that, many school-leavers, especially in rural areas, cannot converse or write fluently in English.
It was not always this way.
During the British colonial era, schools used English as the medium of instruction. This continued after independence in 1957 and many English teachers either came from the United Kingdom or were trained there.
"In the 1960s, one of the books read and discussed in English classes by sixteen-year-olds was George Orwell's Animal Farm," recalled Mr Andrew Yip, 60, a shopkeeper in Ipoh, Perak.
In 1970, the Malaysian government began requiring all state-funded schools to use Malay to teach, to build nationalism, though English remained a compulsory subject.
Many English teachers were phased out.
Over the years, students' academic performances declined.
In the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, an international benchmark on students' performance in reading, science and mathematics, Malaysian students were in the bottom third among 74 countries.
By contrast, 15-year-old students in Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea appeared to have the equivalent of another three or more years of schooling compared to Malaysian students.
According to Jobstreet.com Malaysia, a recruitment agency, poor English is among the top complaints that employers have about fresh graduates.
To compensate, middle-class parents are increasingly sending their children for tuition, or to private schools, as they lose confidence in the education quality in national schools.
Teachers who spoke to The Straits Times on condition of anonymity said it was impossible to meet the ministry's English must-pass target in two years.
Habibah said they aim to prove sceptics wrong.
Her agency is named PADU, or Performance and Delivery Unit. Starting in November last year, some 14,000 teachers have been enrolled on a crash course in English. After school hours, they take lessons online and attend classes taught by teachers from the British Council and English university lecturers.
Upon finishing 480 hours of studies, they are reassessed. Those who fail are redeployed to teach other subjects.
The ministry is also promoting experienced teachers to coaches. Already, almost 300 such coaches have been sent to district education offices in mostly rural Kedah and Sabah.
But some feel it is not enough.
Former premier Mahathir Mohamad has called for a return to teaching science and mathematics in English, a policy introduced by him in 2003 and scrapped by Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2009.
Such flip-flops, said Dr Kua Kia Soong, an educationist, have hurt students. "They have affected students' concentration in grasping the language," he said.
A teacher in Sabah, who asked to be identified only as Nurul, is among those preparing the first batch of students aiming to achieve the compulsory English pass. She said they are doing what they can. For example, she advises the weakest students to find and copy sentences that have similar words to the question.
"At least they get some marks and do not hand in a blank exam paper," she said.