Not just a Malaysian issue

By Paul Rowe via The Sun

I ENJOYED reading “Chicken and egg phenomenon” (This N That, Nov 4). May I add a couple of points to the last three paragraphs?

First, to reiterate the writer’s point about ceasing to blame teachers for the perceived low level of English in Malaysia, just last week I was talking to an English teacher, one year from retirement. She was dejected over society’s opinion of her lifetime contribution to the education of thousands of young Malaysians. She says she wants to be proud of her achievement, but that society seems to use her and her colleagues as social whipping horses. Whenever, there is something wrong in society, blame the teachers.

Sadly, this is not solely a Malaysian issue. Teachers worldwide have become scapegoats for the modern world’s ills. The majority of my teaching life has been spent within the Australian education system. Australian teachers are blamed for bad economic conditions, increase in crime and graffiti, traffic deaths, smoking, alcoholism and of course the divorce rate. The barrage is unrelenting.

Nothing positive is achieved by going down this route. Teachers become even demoralised, and both society and governments can distance themselves from what really are social and government issues.

For the last eight months, I have had the privilege of working closely with 16 Malaysian English teachers in their schools and in their classes. In the majority of cases, I see hard working teachers, and hardworking, happy students. I am constantly in awe of your children.

Two days ago, at Selma primary school where I saw kindergarten students give performances in the English and Malay languages, a group of about 12 young musicians from years four, five and six performed the current pop song Price Tag. The lead singer had clearer English diction than the original recording artist. I was stunned to find out that a Year 2 girl and her friends in a Tamil school speak and write three languages. Some SK schools have trilingual students who also write Arabic!

What more does Malaysia want from its young and those who teach them? This myth that young Malaysians can’t talk English is to a large degree perceptional. Again, this perception is not only a Malaysian issue.

Here’s an example of how easily society can be misled to think their children don’t know English. I was teaching at a small English school in a small Korean village. The school’s owner, Lee, whose English was nearly native level, had his daughter in my kindergarten class. Near the end of my one-year teaching contract, Lee came to my class for some reason, and was shocked to find his five-year-old speaking English! Why hadn’t Lee picked up on that fact? If a qualified English teacher couldn’t deduce that his own daughter could speak English, what is the chance that the social perception that Malaysian children are not able to speak English might be highly misguided?

On the second point on the Malaysian government being called to action on this issue, the current government has committed itself to a huge nationwide language programme, in which I work. I don’t pretend to know all the figures, but what I do know is that on the west coast of Malaysia, there are currently 120 native English teachers working with over 1,000 Malaysian English teachers. Apparently there are similar Education Ministry-sponsored projects being run on the east coast of the peninsula and Sabah. That can only be a good thing.

Only time will tell if this project will be considered by society as successful? Time will also be the judge if such young citizens should be placed under such social pressures.