JONATHAN Dason, the secretary-general of Malaysian Students’ Global Alliance, who is also a student of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, shares his views on the lack of English proficiency among youths.
Question: In your opinion, what are some of the reasons our youth continue to struggle with English proficiency and communication?
Answer: Generally, they do not come from a home that utilises English.
This means that their primary media is their mother tongue or a closely-associated language. Thus, leading to a lack of exposure and confidence.
It worsens if there is a lack of opportunities to use the language effectively due to the individual’s school environment or circle of friends. This leads to a cycle where less exposure causes the individual to stay in a preferred language group.
There is also a lack of avenues for public speaking as a Malaysian. Youths are not encouraged to speak up. They are influenced by the Asian culture where students choose not to ask questions or explain themselves in detail.
Q: Many students are made fun of by peers for speaking in English. They are accused of being “Mat Salleh”. Why do you think this is so?
A: Speaking English as a mainstay is a sign of social class.
Often it creates a “us versus them” mentality, and comes hand-in-hand with being fluent in one language, but being weak in another.
Thus, the English-speaking student is seen as having ‘lost’ their roots. As students begin to embrace English, they may choose to hide or be discouraged to pick it up due to social pressure.
Q: Many kids are raised in a “seen but not heard” childhood. Do you think this culture could be a contributing factor to growing up timid?
A: The Asian culture allows for expression in many different ways. Just because a student does not speak up publicly, does not mean he agrees with everything being said. We should strive to create other avenues for expression, and empower our students to do so.
Taking a measurement from western-leaning Anglo Saxon-based nations, plotting it on the Asian culture and using it as means of measurement seems unfair. In fact, we might end up measuring the wrong traits.
On the same note, we believe that the trait “sopan” (being polite) is something that we, as a nation, promote, as it is culturally embedded in our life.
Nonetheless, we need to identify and adapt to the situation.
For example, knowing when to speak and what to say, and when not to speak and just listen, should not equal to being timid.
Q: With many fresh graduates failing to make good first impressions, can you offer some suggestions to remedy this?
A: On an educator level, form cross-university student organisations that allows for cross-pollination of ideas, culture, and the sharing of resources and best practices by students.
For parents, encourage children to widen their group of friends and learn how to work with diverse working environments across many social groups.
For youth, encourage each other to join external non-university based organisations, which are still educational. Participate in competitions, search for mentors and keep career development in mind.