Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Language is a highly politicised issue in Malaysia, where around 60% speak some variety of Malay as their home language and others speak Chinese, Indian or Bornean languages, with English used widely in business and also in wealthier homes.
English standards are generally thought to have fallen over the last 30 years. But whenever the government introduces policies to raise standards, some people complain that they should promote Malay instead. After all, it is the national language, even though science, medicine, law and other competitive subjects in public universities are mostly taught in English, and private universities teach nearly everything in it.
After gaining independence from Britain in 1957, Malaya (which became Malaysia in 1963 after incorporating the states of northern Borneo, and also Singapore for two years) had English-, Malay-, Mandarin- and Tamil-medium elementary schools, with English used as the main language for secondary schools. But from the 1970s Malay was phased in as the medium of instruction in national schools (although Chinese and Tamil schools were still allowed as ‘national-type’ schools) and in all secondary schools. English-medium schools were abolished. As a result, the level of Malay rose. Nowadays almost everyone except for some older Chinese- and Tamil-speakers can communicate in it.
On the other hand, levels of English started to go down. And so in 2003 the government introduced the PPSMI (Science and Maths in English) programme. These two subjects (alongside English language itself) were taught in English, which had a strong influence on education as they were generally considered to attract the best students.
However, PPSMI increased the gap between richer people living in cities, where many speak English in daily life, and poorer people living in rural areas. Rural pupils already found it hard to compete with city pupils. It became harder still for them when important subjects were taught in English. So in 2012 the government decided to phase out PPSMI. Supporters of Malay welcomed this. But supporters of English opposed it. In 2012 it was reported that two thirds of pupils had failed to achieve basic proficiency in English. And two thirds of English teachers themselves were reported to have failed an English proficiency test.
The government has always had difficulty finding the right balance between Malay and English. English continues to be a compulsory subject in schools, and from 2012 Malaysia started importing English Teaching Assistants from the U.S.A, but some people complained that they were too young and inexperienced. Older Malaysians often speak better English than younger ones as it was the official language when they were at school, so it was suggested that they should be hired to teach instead of Americans.
In contrast the Indian teachers targeted by the government are experienced ones. Some people who support the plan to recruit them recognise the progress that India has made in international business and science and assume that one of the reasons for this is high proficiency in English. But others doubt that levels of English in India are higher than in Malaysia. Some make jokes about children learning to speak with an Indian accent, presumably because they think this is not as good as a Malaysian or British accent.
Many Malaysians believe that their country used to have one of the most successful economies in Asia but fear that, having been overtaken by Singapore long ago, they are likely also to be overtaken by Indonesia, the Philippines and India in the future. And some of them think that declining English is the reason. But in practice it is difficult to measure the levels of English across a whole country, and even more difficult to link English standards to economic standards.