Experts will be neutral

THERE was a time when many Malaysians could well consider themselves as native English speakers as English was the medium of instruction at the secondary and tertiary levels.

The usage of English was not restricted to schools alone but also in much of public life. With regular usage, many Malaysians spoke the Queen’s English and went on to do well at the international level, be it in the field of education, commerce or diplomacy.

But the winds of change brought about by social and political realities relegated English into the background, and the standard of English in Malaysia has never recovered from its downslide since.

That does not mean, however, that English was neglected.

Among those who valued its importance, and those with the means to ensure that their children – and their children’s children – would not suffer from its neglect, there were always different roads to maintain one’s linguistic superiority.

So, much like the digital divide, our citizens too are divided between those who are proficient in English and those who are not.

To master a language, one needs to start young, and one needs to use the language regularly.

And it is important that those who teach are equipped with the right tools to smoothen the way for our young ones to not only be functional but be proficient in English.

The Government’s plan to hire some 375 foreign English experts to monitor the teaching of English in primary schools nationwide as part of the Education Ministry’s plan to strengthen the language and streamline the curriculum must be viewed in this perspective.

Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said the experts would monitor how the language is taught by teachers from the start of the school year in 2011.

“The experts are not here to teach but to monitor and guide the teaching of the language in line with efforts to strengthen the English language,” he said at a dialogue session with trainee teachers at the Institute of Teacher Education in Durian Daun in Malacca on Monday.

Some may opine that we have enough retired teachers who are practically native English speakers themselves who could do the same thing, at a lesser cost.

However, we must be mindful that the English issue is like a hot potato, and there has been too much emotion in practically every debate about it.

It is a good move, therefore, to bring in “uninvolved but professional” experts who are not emotionally driven by the politics of the day.

They are here to monitor and to recommend and the ministry must, therefore, be prepared to listen.

Let us be clear that despite English being relegated in importance, it has never gone away.

Our leaders, when they are not bowing to political pressure, do know the importance of equipping our people with the extra linguistic skills beyond the national language.

Which is why we still have, within the system, a huge pool of English teachers as well as trainee teachers committed to teaching the language to our schoolchildren.

These native-speaking experts, or “master teachers” as they will be called, will get the opportunity to observe our teachers in action, and see for themselves why the teaching process has failed to improve the standard of English all these years.

They will move from school to school and they will have to understand the different playing fields that our primary schoolchildren are subjected to.

Words and terminology familiar to the urban child who is practically surrounded by an English-speaking world will be like Greek to a rural child in a Felda estate where the teacher may still be using the Bahasa Baku approach to pronounce all the English words. And we all know that English as a language just does not lend itself to that approach.

The ministry, in bringing in these 375 “master teachers”, including those from Britain and Australia, will help the policy work better if it ensures that there is a good ethnic mix among them.

The perception that English is the white man’s language must be laid to rest, just as the perception that all Australians and Britons are white is no longer rooted in reality.

The master teachers should also interact with our current trainers who have much to share on their difficulty in teaching the language to our trainee teachers.

Let us, therefore, be open to their mission and take their recommendations seriously.

And let us not let political one-upmanship derail this process that is seeking to make our young Malaysians proficient in English.

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