Edunation: While we hesitate, English has taken the world by storm

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 20, 2018 - August 26, 2018.
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Pakatan Harapan (PH) has now been in power for more than 100 days. As far as the education portfolio is concerned, the new minister has had his fair share of brickbats. Everyone knows it is a Herculean task to revamp the education system, yet the rakyat expect a miracle. No one can do it in a rush without possibly having to face the harsh consequences of a hasty decision. Policies and programmes need to be reviewed and assessed before recommendations can be made. We say, “Give him a chance.”

Many moons ago, when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was in his first tenure as prime minister, he had redefined nationalism. He said, “True nationalism means doing everything possible for the country, even if it means learning the English language.”

He has now instructed senior police officers to conduct briefings in English. Government departments should be wary when the prime minister visits in case he springs another surprise. Like with any language immersion programme, voluntary or otherwise, success can only be achieved by brave attempts to speak, shamelessly making mistakes along the way and quickly learning from them as part of the painstaking process.

Incidentally, in our dealings with the Ministry of Education Ministry and the previous Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, meetings are conducted in English with ease. It is encouraging to note that ideas, suggestions and concerns are well articulated by all parties involved.

The importance of English cannot be emphasised enough. While we continue to argue over language, bilingualism and multilingualism, the English language has taken the world by storm.

Kudos to Dr Sheena Kaur, deputy director of the International Relations Office of the University of Malaya, on enlightening the audience at a recent discourse entitled “English Language, Mathematics and Science Education: What next?” It was about ongoing efforts by several countries to make their young conquer this important global language of knowledge, which, if left ignored, may well cost a nation heavily.

Without doubt, globalisation has fuelled an unprecedented spread of the English language, which has resulted in countries such as Japan, South Korea and Vietnam reconsidering and redesigning their language policies. Countries where English has been a medium of instruction for higher education institutions, such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, continue to wisely retain its status post independence.

Japan is resolute in ensuring that its universities offer English-language courses to attract foreign students and provides opportunities for its own students who have the desire and capability to study abroad (more often than not in English). Primary and secondary schoolchildren are educated to respond to globalisation while the Japanese identity and culture continue to be cultivated.

In Hungary, the new Public Education Act aims for bilingual education in primary and secondary schools, including foreign (English) communication skills, as well as developing English-language learning skills to enable students to study in a foreign (English language-based) environment.

The Czech Republic has introduced bilingual schools to improve knowledge of foreign (English) languages among students for future higher education abroad. Similarly, its universities offer programmes in English to attract foreign students.

Cyprus offers English as a medium of instruction as well in tertiary education to attract foreign students.

The Netherlands has in place an internationalisation programme for secondary and tertiary institutions and recently introduced foreign language teaching, mainly focusing on English, in primary schools.

Macedonia now encourages the opening of international and bilingual schools with the aim of encouraging students to learn a foreign (English) language and to facilitate exchange programmes in the future.

The Bahrain Development Board has introduced initiatives to improve English proficiency in public education by establishing English-medium teachers’ colleges as well as technical colleges and instituting cyclical national examinations to assess the teaching of the language.

On hindsight, we may have made a grave mistake as we continue to grapple with a solution that appears to be still out of sight. It should in fact be rather easy as Malaysia’s multicultural society is a natural environment for English-language proficiency.

While the new education minister has endorsed the Highly-Immersive Programme (HIP) to enhance English proficiency across the board, he has been tight-lipped on the Dual Language Programme (DLP). The DLP, which is an advanced HIP, needs to be recognised, improved and strengthened. There are some challenges that require constant and focused interventions for it to succeed. While educators and teachers have the luxury of time, students do not. Once a cohort misses an opportunity, there is no turning back. Instead, the burden continues to be carried by the student into the unknown.


Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is the chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia

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