THE ability and confidence to speak in English by non-native speakers is an issue not just with Malaysian youths, but also non-native speakers worldwide, says Dr Gerard Louis, counselling psychologist and former principal of HELP International School.
The term used is “Foreign Language Anxiety” (FLA), or “xenoglossophobia”, and it is developed from a complexity of self-perceptions, beliefs, feelings and behaviours related to the process of learning a foreign language.
Aspects of FLA include communication apprehension, or a certain type of shyness that is manifested as being fearful or anxious about communicating with people. Part of this fear or anxiety can be anchored in past experiences of being laughed at when saying the “wrong” thing.
The fear of being negatively evaluated by others causes one to avoid any kind of evaluative situations for fear of being termed as not so intelligent.
“Being shamed or name-called for conversing in English stems from a misguided sense of nationalism by certain segments of our population that English is a vestige from our colonial past and there is no place for it in Malaysian society if one is truly Malaysian.
“Identity politics, as some have identified, has certainly contributed to this sort of mindset.
“Changing this mindset has to begin at the core of a National Education Policy that is willing to make English a compulsory second language that students must not only pass in Sijil Pelajaran Malay-sia (SPM), but obtain a credit if they are to gain entry into university or be confirmed in leadership roles in government services.
“While there have been efforts made by the Education Ministry to strengthen the English language in schools, mindset change happens when there are clear goals in terms of English language achievements throughout different levels of education and entry into the workplace.
“There will be positive social pressure from national leaders and people of influence at all levels to be proficient English-speaking models in public and private forums, events and functions when there are consequences for not achieving the goals set for the development of the language.”
Louis says we need to realise that mastering another language in no way diminishes the primacy of our national language.
He says countries that find a way to embrace this reality will be more competitive in the global economy.
He cited a famous poem by Do-rothy Law Nolte entitled Children Learn What They Live. A few lines of the poem lends insight into timidity: “If a child lives with ridi-cule, he or she learns to be shy, and if a child lives with fear, he or she learns to be apprehensive”.
“Psychologists have long studied children who come from environments that are overly strict and stern, that demand absolute obedience and where behaviour is modified through a system of rewards and threats, punishments or shaming,” he says.
“Some common outcomes are low self-esteem, poor social skills and a higher levels of trait anxiety. The child would also be less resourceful, perform poorly on problem-solving tasks and tend not to perform as well academically.”
He says setting and enforcing boundaries as well as teaching children to be “good” and well-behaved must always be balanced with consistent manifestations of emotional, psychological and physical care and love for them.
He adds that in the absence of the latter, children are constantly in a state of “fear” or “anxiety”, hence the “level of timidity” is observed among our youths.