THE announcement by Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin that students in public universities must pass an English proficiency test to graduate has been long overdue.
Ever since the language was replaced as the medium of instruction in Malaysian schools in the early 1970s, the command of the language among Malaysians has been on a downward spiral.
This, in spite of the several surveys that found Malaysians ranking higher in the proficiency of the language among Asian countries.
What is apparent is that many who graduate from public universities have a hard time finding jobs in the private sector, particularly with large corporations.
Both local and foreign companies in the country have, for a long time, lamented on fresh graduates’ level of proficiency in the language.
Interviewers and managers have often shared their frustrations on how graduates are hardly able to string together a complete sentence in simple and concise English.
English, like it or not, has come a long way since the times it was regarded as the Queen’s language by the British colonies. Today, English has acquired the status of being a global language.
It is used as a common language for communications in diplomacy, in business negotiations, as well as in the pursuit of knowledge in various fields of sciences, arts and humanities. More than 50 per cent of Internet content is in the English language.
It would suffice to say that the world runs on the English language, which is also constantly evolving and developing in tandem with the emergence of new technologies.
With such a status accorded by the international community to the English language, most speakers of the language tend to associate a level of self-esteem with their command of the language.
Having said that, the competency that a person possesses and his confidence in communicating in the language does not happen overnight. Similarly it cannot be evaluated with just one exam or course.
Interviewers have often come across interviewees who have fairly decent to excellent grades in the language in their school examinations. Yet, the very same interviewees can barely put together a comprehensible sentence or express themselves well when it comes to verbal communication.
This brings us to the question on the standard of the language being taught in our schools. The same question will arise when this test for English language competency is implemented in our public universities. What will the pass mark be? What will the students be tested on? Will there be an effective evaluation of their ability to communicate and also think on their feet in the language?
It takes years to be proficient in a language. It takes a certain level of confidence to be able to put what is learnt on paper into practise.
Speaking of practise, it takes years of it to be an effective communicator in a language. It takes being exposed in various settings to the language. Sadly, these are still lacking where our education system is concerned.
Yes, children learn English as a subject in school. In many cases, that is just what it is – one of the subjects in school. When they go home, they have nobody to practise speaking the language with.
Depending on their backgrounds, they may not even be exposed to many situations where English is used, for example in books, newspapers, television shows and social settings.
Those who grow up proficient in the language usually have the advantage of having parents who themselves communicate regularly in the language, have exposure within a social context, or teachers who would go the extra mile to help them master the language.
When making the announcement on the requirement to pass English, Tan Sri Muhyiddin made a very important observation.
He said: “Basic knowledge is not enough for graduates if they don’t have the ability to communicate and write in English. Companies will have a certain benchmark. They want people who are not only qualified, but people who will be able to be the ambassador, who can communicate to the rest of the world and one of the important requirements is the ability to communicate in English.”
The fact that he emphasised on the ability to communicate (and not just pass a paper test) surely calls for a change in how we teach the language to our young children in schools and to create a social setting where the use of the language is encouraged.
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