Looking abroad to raise the standard of English


THE ISSUE is no longer about teaching science and math in English. After nearly a decade, the policy has been reversed on the ground that the PPSMI (teaching and learning of science and math in English) policy has not achieved its intended target since implementation in 2003.

From 2012, English will cease to be the language of instruction for both subjects in national schools.

Thereafter, science and math in Chinese and Tamil national-type schools will be taught in their mother tongue of the two communities.

The new policy will be fully implemented by 2014 when the last batch of English-taught sixth formers and matriculation class students will have completed their studies.

Regardless, the task before us now is achieving proficiency in English as a second language in order to be effective in articulating our interests on the global stage where English is the lingua franca for trade, diplomacy, politics as well as technical and scientific research, among others.

For this undertaking, the government has decided to recruit some 1,000 retired foreign English teachers (on contract) to complement the 375 native English-speaking teachers in training local teachers.

The move is apparently prompted by the present low number of primary and secondary school teachers with the required proficiency level to teach English.

Indeed, even at a higher level, fluency in the language has often been found wanting. For instance, it has been discovered that locally set English question papers in one of the public exams this year contained glaring errors in grammar and syntax.

Some local TV newscasters are equally guilty, using ‘womans’ for women and has ‘went’ home for has ‘gone’ home, to give a couple of examples.

But what’s the fuss?

English is, after all, not our mother tongue. That may be true but the point is if we have to use the language professionally, at least do a good job of it.

Proper usage of a language – any language – we are working in is both advantageous and necessary.

It’s not about showing off – certainly not — but rather the need for clarity and efficiency to avoid causing confusion and shoddiness or becoming the subject of ridicule for allowing our slips to show once too often.

Some educationists in the country do not hold with overseas recruitment, arguing there are enough qualified local English language teachers, and bringing in foreigners is not only a waste of money but also homegrown talents.

Certain quarters claim local English language teachers are unhappy because they feel their qualifications and experience are not recognised by the government.

While it is impolitic to question the competence of these teachers, one feels compelled to ask are there enough of them around to take on the prodigious task ahead?

Do we really have the numbers to render the employment of foreign English teachers redundant? How many qualified local English language teachers do we actually have right now – 1,000, 500 or half that?

According to Minister in the Chief Minister Department Datin Fatimah Abdullah Fatimah, who is Minister in charge of education here, there is still a shortage of qualified local English language teachers in the state.

The same can be said of the country at large – a fact borne out by the need to employ English teachers from overseas. The decision to recruit couldn’t have been random. Why should we look abroad if supply at home were adequate? Moreover, the measure is only temporary and will cease when the target is met.

Apart from addressing the shortage of teaching staff, introducing native Englishspeaking teachers has other merits as well. While the focus should be on producing more local English language teachers, Fatimah is quite right in saying students will also gain from exposure to the proper way of speaking English.

An interesting observation is that when schools registered low grades in English in public exams, the reason (or excuse) given has consistently been that there are inadequate qualified teachers to help the students attain proficiency in the language.

But when remedial action is taken, the common grouse is that local English language teachers are being unfairly bypassed in favour of foreigners. Obviously, two wrongs do not make a right.

So where do we go from here? Backward or static? Most will agree “forward” is the better option.

Malaysia has become part of a globalised world.

Recognising the geo-political realities of the world today, the government is encouraging the people to master other languages such as English and Mandarin in addition to the National Language. Most Malaysians have little doubt that the adoption of a second language (in this instance, English), widely acknowledged as a practical tool for learning, commerce and advancement, will serve to enhance the country’s high-income aspiration.