Study: Law graduates becoming poorer in English

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KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian lawyers believe that English proficiency among fresh law graduates is on the decline, with many worried about rising grammatical errors in written documents, according to a study on communication skills of law students at Universiti Malaya (UM).

Lawyers interviewed in the one-year study by the university’s Faculty of Law and Faculty of Language and Linguistics said those who recently entered the profession lacked important soft skills.

“While some senior lawyers bemoaned the declining proficiency of English among recent graduates, many legal professionals took a more practical approach to the problem, saying that the students and new lawyers would naturally improve their spoken English over time as they gained more experience with their work,” said the study’s principal investigator, Dr Nurjanaah Chew Li Hua, in a summary of the findings made available to The Malaysian Insider

“It was found that many students struggle with a lack of confidence in speaking English.

“Deficient soft skills among law graduates were highlighted by the lawyers interviewed. Many of them put priority on skills such as public speaking, politeness, workplace familiarity and professional etiquette,” Nurjanaah said.

The study, completed last month, involved interviews with 22 academicians at the university’s faculty, nearly 400 UM law students as well as 20 pupil masters and new lawyers in the legal profession.

According to Nurjanaah, the study found that many of the undergraduates preferred to stick to the language they used at home, making them less confident of speaking in another tongue.

“While it was found that the older students are more likely to be multilingual, the younger students tend to use the one language that they feel comfortable with,” said Nurjanaah, who is a senior lecturer at UM’s Faculty of Law.

However, researchers were surprised to see that the vast majority of students (85%) scored enough to be considered good or competent users of the English language in a test designed to identify their level of general academic English proficiency, said Nurjanaah.

“The students are better at speaking and listening skills compared to writing skills. This finding is supported by the fact that many of the lawyers interviewed are more worried about the increase in grammatical errors in written documents than the level of spoken English.”

But Nurjanaah said while UM’s law students were using more English than students of two decades ago, senior lawyers widely reported a declining level of proficiency among those recently entering the profession.

“There is, however, no evidence that the use of English as the main medium of instruction has significantly improved the students’ communication skills over the years.”

On the contrary, there was a high probability that the emphasis on using English as the medium of instruction would hinder the students’ ability to use Bahasa Malaysia in their workplace, she said.

New lawyers interviewed in the study said they struggled in their job initially as they were unfamiliar with legal terminology in Bahasa Malaysia, predominantly used in the lower courts.

Interview data from young lawyers also suggested that Bahasa Malaysia was the more useful language in the initial period of employment.

“Considering that many legal firms expect their new lawyers to be fluent in both English and Bahasa Malaysia, this suggests a need to reconsider the use of English as the primary medium of instruction at the tertiary level.”

Nurjanaah said a bilingual teaching policy at the faculty would ensure and help the students gain confidence in both languages. — The Malaysian Insider

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on December 18, 2014.