At my father’s invitation, I met my parents’ college friends recently at their informal gathering at Kelab Golf Negara Subang.
I wanted to go because I’ve always wanted to meet the people who knew my parents when they were in their early 20s way back in the 1960s. I wanted to hear stories of my father and late mother from their college-mates, anecdotes that I can pass on to the next generation.
Now, looking at this bunch of 70-year-olds, in ketayaps and tudungs, one might be forgiven for thinking that they are amongst pakciks and makciks.
However, as soon as I sat down, I smiled listening to their conversations and chatter. No, I didn’t smile because they were telling funny stories of yesteryear, and no, I didn’t smile because they were telling wonderful stories of my parents.
I smiled because they were speaking in perfect English. I listened, but could not hear any broken English or mispronunciation of any words, or pelat (accent) whatsoever.
This was a welcome respite to the barrage of broken English I face in my everyday communications with the generation of today. There would always be moments when I would cringe reading resumes, letters, emails and proposals written in bad English.
How did our English become so bad?
My late mother once told me that when she attended Convent Seremban, everyone was proud to speak good and proper English. In fact, they would tease those who spoke bad English.
Now, it’s the other way around. Watch TV and movies and you see that people tease those who speak good English. They would say things like “Eh, dia speaking London lah” to the point that even people who can speak good English make grammatical and pronunciation mistakes on purpose just to get laughs.
And, the masses love watching artistes and comedians make basic mistakes in speaking English, laughing their heads off at every bad English punchline. It’s mind-boggling.
I remember hosting a bunch of primary school kids from an inner-city area, and the teacher asked me to explain to them why it was important to learn English.
It was a real question posed by one of the students who felt that learning English was unnecessary, especially if his ambition was to sell handphones on the sidewalk for a living as soon as he finished school.
I dug deep. I told the children the answer was very simple.
Most of the information needed to succeed in life are found in books and articles, both physical and online, that are almost always written in English. It’s just the way the world is.
Go to Kinokuniya and it’s mostly English books. Go to Oxford University’s library and you will read research in the English language. I told them my knowledge and information that have helped me in my career have come from reading in the English language.
So, if they don’t know English, they will miss out on all the wonderful knowledge and secrets out there just ready for them to absorb. Knowledge and secrets that might elevate them from being a handphone seller to a handphone maker, in charge of his own destiny.
I snapped out of my thoughts at the sound of Aunty Nurul laughing at the story of how my father met my mother. She then proceeded to tell me that her husband decided one day to build high-end tube amplifiers for audiophiles and now exhibits his products at audio-video shows in town.
There was something in the teaching of the English language in the 1960s. Was it just colonialism and the influx of teachers from England and, therefore, good English was the order of the day? Or, was it a real effort at trying to catch up with the world?
Whatever it was, the effect of that education was long-lasting and still felt on that bright Saturday morning on the terrace overlooking the driving range.
We need to bring this pride of mastering the English language back.
In fact, in order for Malaysia to really make a go at being a global player, it’s not just mastery of the English language that is needed, but a deeper understanding of its nuances so that we cannot just simply communicate but elevate ourselves to debate and philosophise, and put forth our very own thoughts on the world stage.
Or, we can sell handphones on the sidewalk.
Ahmad Izham Omar works in the production of TV, film and music content, and gets panicky trying to figure out his next tweet