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(File pix) Trying to speak English, even if it may lead to mistakes, is the essence of learning and enhancing proficiency in the language. Pix by Nurul Shafina Jemenon
(File pix) Trying to speak English, even if it may lead to mistakes, is the essence of learning and enhancing proficiency in the language. Pix by Nurul Shafina Jemenon

IN my conversations with youth and teachers across Malaysia, one issue is consistently brought up — the level of English proficiency among students.

I have heard about Fifth Formers who are incapable of writing a single sentence in English. I have even heard of a Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia candidate requesting an examiner’s help to translate a question into Bahasa Malaysia.

The lack of English proficiency among students should be taken seriously if we want to be among the top 20 economies by 2050.

Just last week, I had the privilege of organising a TN50x session titled “Teaching English in Malaysia: Challenges and Solutions”, which was attended by non-profit organisations.

The goal of the session was to go beyond providing a platform on which attendees could share their hopes and concerns about the way English is being taught in Malaysia. We wanted to highlight the fact that there are numerous non-profit organisations with the expertise to boost English proficiency in the country.

Our message that night was, with the government and such organisations working together, the problem won’t seem so vast.

At the TN50x session, we learnt about how MYReaders — a non-profit organisation set up in 2015 to help students learn to read in English using a structured, research-based programme — has been working to ensure that every student in the country is literate. TalentBase, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), runs on the belief that teaching English begins with a teacher who is willing to take lessons beyond the textbook.

Chumbaka encourages students to join technology-based competitions, where they can hone their English-speaking skills. And, Project Fearless encourages young women to learn from and work with female leaders. These comprise just a fraction of the NGOs dedicated to helping students.

English proficiency is a metric of progress for students. It demonstrates their willingness to engage in matters beyond Malaysia’s borders. It is key to being open-minded and sustaining the thirst for knowledge.

Mastering English grants students access to educational resources and library materials that are not in Bahasa Malaysia. Conquering English makes all things foreign — indeed, the world — that much less intimidating.

On a practical level, English proficiency allows youth access to high-paying jobs, enabling them to escape the vicious cycle of poverty. There is only so much that the government can provide with regard to affordable housing or cash aid.

The solution to achieving high-income status must come from the people themselves. Taking up English, as simple as it may sound, is the key to becoming a high-income nation.

That being said, according value to one language does not mean another loses its importance. Bahasa Malaysia will always be our primary medium of communication, and its significance will never fade.

The fearmongers who claim that learning English would lead to Bahasa Malaysia being wiped out are, in actuality, contributing to the stagnation of the national language. Indeed, by learning English, we are strengthening our national language, ensuring that we do not make Bahasa Malaysia an island unto itself, a language spoken only by people closed off from the world.

Many of the teachers I met expressed concern about the way English is being taught. According to one teacher in Perak, who has been in the profession for 19 years, the English curriculum does not encourage students to practise the language. Actively speaking and writing in English is essential to mastering it.

There is no point in teaching students the rules of grammar if they do not get a chance to practise the language and gradually work on their mistakes.

Practice makes perfect.

These days, it is common for teachers to have to deal with students who feel that speaking English is poyo and “uncool”. Because of a perceived lack of space to practise English, students, naturally, feel shy when attempting to speak it.

However, trying, even if it may lead to mistakes, is the essence of learning. No one should expect students to nail their pronunciation or sentence structure on their first try. We need to grant space in the curriculum to encourage students to come forward, make fun of themselves, laugh with their peers and, ultimately, feel comfortable speaking English.

Even if the English produced is peppered with Bahasa Malaysia, it is a start. Students will become increasingly accustomed to listening to the news or TV shows in English, which provides them with the opportunity to learn the correct tone and pronunciation.

Admittedly, as has been debated in the Senate, we must come to terms with the lack of good English teachers in Malaysia.

In a 2013 study by the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu), 1,191 secondary schools were found to have more than 23 per cent of their SPM candidates failing the English language paper.

Nationwide studies have found that the lack of good instructors contributes to the problem. Instead of continuing the debate on the lack of good English teachers, I would like to focus on a solution that has been proven effective.

Since its inception a few years ago, non-profit organisation Teach For Malaysia has been working hard to recruit teachers to low-performing schools.

In recruiting motivated educators from among fresh graduates, Teach For Malaysia runs on the belief that nation-building begins in the classroom.

These young teachers learn about the limitations in the education system and, in turn, become experts and agents of change.

I believe it is high time we reach out to NGOs, such as Teach For Malaysia, Chumbaka, MyReaders, TalentBase and Project Fearless. Together, we can tackle issues like the lack of English proficiency in schools.

The groups are out there, and while all of us have our own areas of expertise, the collective aim is to be an English-proficient Malaysia.

Khairul Azwan Harun is the deputy Umno Youth chief. He can be reached via [email protected]

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