English proficiency: Where are we heading?

By Irfan Iskandar Putera Khairul Muzamir Putera

Recently, I was presented with an opportunity to attend an essay writing competition which was held in this university (IIUM). Six participants were shortlisted to present their essays for the final evaluation before the winner was chosen. It was without doubt that they made a brilliant job in delivering their ideas in their writing besides tackling such mature topics given to them. Their effort should not be left unrecognized and worth a round of applause.

However, there was a tiny glitch worth mentioning; their English. Being students of an international university, not to forget an English-speaking campus, their command of English was somewhat disappointing. Their English was supposed to reflect them as third and fourth year students but that was not the case.

Some might argue that this problem occurred because of stage fright and nervousness they felt presenting in front of a crowd. But how could stage fright make a person said “he” instead of “she” and made a direct translation? Even the question and answer session did not go smoothly, mainly because the participants failed to understand the questions posed to them. Some participants, on the other hand, did very well and their English was very good.

This problem, however, does not apply only to those participants but also to some of the students in this university. Even in handling major events, direct translation from Malay to English was not uncommon. Many students, despite their ability to write faultlessly in English, find themselves struggling with the right words when it comes to speaking the language. So, what is actually the root cause of this problem?

We are told to read and write a lot to improve our writing. Then why not speak a lot – in English, of course – to improve our speaking skills? We are not speaking in English frequent enough, that is the problem. It is not that we refuse to do so but because of the attitude of the society we are living today.

Many are afraid of being labelled as “Mat Saleh” or “Orang Putih” by their friends if they speak in English. This kind of attitude was clearly seen from the responses made to a Facebook post of a woman named Khairuhanisah dated 2 October seeking help from the public after her father’s car was broken into and several important things and documents were stolen. Instead of helping her, the public – well, most of them – chose to criticise her just because she used English to write the post.

This kind of people fail to realise the importance of English in today’s world, especially in tertiary education and working world. And this attitude that has made the 96′ batch paid the price. Regarding the abolishment of PPSMI, former Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, said that Malaysia would be left behind without a proper command of English language (The Star, 2014). Living in the digital age, English is a very important tool if we hope to catch up with the advanced technology and the ever-growing demand in the business and working area.

AirAsia group chief, Tan Sri Tony Fernandes also addressed his concern on the growing impacts of poor language command in the business circle by urging Malaysians to take part in an online survey on the importance of increasing English proficiency (Malay Mail Online, 2015). He also stated that Malaysia has lost its competitiveness due to decreasing standard in English proficiency.

The government, realising this problem and the effect that it could bring to the country, has started to take a few measures to increase the English proficiency among Malaysians such as raising the requirement in Malaysian University English Test (MUET) and introducing the system of GCE O-Level in Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM). Apart from these measures, the acceptance and willingness of the public to learn and improve their English is most important if we hope to be proficient in the language.

Despite all of these, we still have a long way to go.***

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