Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What the rest of the world thinks about Malaysians' ability to speak English?

I came across something really funny quite by accident.

First, some background for Non-Malaysians:

For the past couple of months there has been a huge debate going on about Malaysia's attempt to teach its highschool students English usage. For a year or two, government highschools have been teaching science and maths in English instead of in the national language, and the debate is hot on both sides about whether this has improved English - or been a disaster for maths and science.

Unhappily, the fact remains that a great many kids emerge from even twelve or more years of schooling - having had some English lessons from first grade onwards - with a pathetic level of ability to make themselves understood in English.

I am reminded of listening to a German science student on his "gap" year here talking to a group of older Malaysian university science students. The place was a scientific expedition in Perlis State Park a few years ago.

The German was chatting easily. The Malaysians stuttered and stammered, trying to make themselves understood. Most of them couldn't even ask the questions they needed the answers to, let alone speak well enough to express an opinion, although they did try. They tried valiantly. They talked among themselves, trying to work out how to ask things.

Afterwards, I asked the German how he had learned English so well.
'At school,' he said, surprised by my question.
'Do you speak it at home?' I asked.
'No, my parents don't speak English.'
'Did you ever holiday in an English speaking country?' I asked.
'No, never. I've never left German till now.'
'Did you watch English language TV? Or go to films in English? Or read books for pleasure in English?'
He shook his head. 'No. I just learned English in school.'

What the Malaysian authorities seemed to have missed is that teaching science and maths in English is not the way to get Malaysians speaking good English.

The answer is so simple I can't see why they don't see it:

1. You have good English teachers, i.e. teachers who actually speak English. You don't do what they used to do - refuse to let people like me, a qualified English teacher and a resident, teach English in your schools because, horrors of horrors, I was a foreigner. Nor do you get teachers who can't speak English to teach it. When my kids were in Grade One, they already spoke better English than the teacher!

2. You teach the kids to SPEAK English. You don't get them to answer multiple choice questions on English grammar and vocab. You don't teach them to pass written exams. You teach them to COMMUNICATE. You throw away the written books and look at pictures and posters; you play games and sing songs and tell jokes and tell stories and have fun. Once you have done that for a year, the rest follows naturally.

Give me a free hand with a grade one class of kids at the beginning of the year and by the end of the year, I guarantee, they will all be chattering in English and loving it.

Ok, so much for my rant on the subject. Now I come to the hilarious bit.
I was reading a blog (led there by Boing Boing) talking about a published book and a person (Liz Smith) praising the book in the written blurb on the back cover. That's when I came across this:

What - what - what language is that even in? My opinion is Liz Smith is either a couple of Malaysian kids who write print columns through the magic of Babelfish, or Liz Smith suffers from mental retardation, because no one fucking talks that way if they are of average intelligence.

Oops. Malaysia has apparently become the epitome of bad English usage...

How humiliating.


Jo said...

I agree with your methods for teaching English, well any language in fact. When I was learning French in school I hated it, full of books and grammar etc. etc. It wasn't until I was 15 and went on an exchange visit with a French family that I realised it was a living language and not just boring lessons. No baby learns its own language with books and grammar lessons.

As for the bad language, some places love to teach you phrases in their language which sound rude in English. I'm not sure of the spelling, but "y shem ti shitta" means the sun is shining in Maltese and its one of the first things the Maltese kids teach you.

Peter said...

Considering that English is now the popular world language for most countries, Malaysians will be at a disadvantage in trade, commerce, overseas education and internet research.

All of the northern Europeans I met during my work were fluent in English and were taught it as a second language since early childhood.

Satima Flavell said...

I agree with you, Peter - I 've yet to meet a German, Dutch, Belgian or Scandinavian person who did not speak realy good English, Of course, they have the advantage of access to native born or trained teachers, something the Malaysian education department appears to think unnecessary, although we should also remember that Malay and other languages spoken in the region bear no relation to English at all. Even Hindi or Urdu speakers have the advantage of them on that score, and the northern Europeans, of course, are streets ahead.

Jo, when I next meet a Maltese person I shall try out that phrase just to see what they do:-) (Actually they'll probably reply in Maltese with something like "Don't be silly, it's pouring with rain," which will throw me completely!)

Glenda Larke said...

Yes, you're right, Satima. It is much more difficult for a Non-European language speaker to learn English. The structure is so different.

That is one reason why the younger the better. It is foolish to think you can fix things in highschool, when it is so much easier to start correctly in first grade elementary school.

Jo said...

I remember years ago, when I still lived in England, meeting a Dutchman at a party - not only was his English excellent but he could crack jokes in regional accents as well - he was better at accents than I was and I was accounted pretty good. It absolutely floored me.

I know another phrase in Maltese Satima, it means "I left my key in my room", more useful if not as funny.