Wednesday, 30 June 2010

What language do YOU use?

Soo Ewe Jin and I have one or two things in common. Our alma mater is the Penang Free School. However, I believe that he entered the school in my final year so I don't think our paths ever crossed. Nevertheless due to some inexplicable reasons, one Old Free tend to recognise another.

The other common trait we share is the journalism line. Currently, Ewe Jin is the deputy executive editor at The Star newspaper while I am just a freelance columnist with them. Ewe Jin also contributes a weekly write-up in the newspaper and only last Monday, he came out with a very eloquent story on the official language that referees use at the World Cup to make themselves heard above the vuvuzelas. Okay....I made up that part about the vuvuzelas. My bad.

Anyway, Ewe Jin opened up by writing: "THIRTY referees from 28 countries, including our very own Subkhiddin Mohd Salleh, are officiating at the World Cup in South Africa. Have you ever wondered what is the language they use to keep all the players, plus the coaches on the sidelines, in check when things get a bit fiery?

"The lingua franca is English. Of course, this is not to say that everyone on the pitch speaks the language. In the heat of the moment, more colourful language, in all sorts of tongues, will invariably come out. But the authoritative language is English."

Get it? The language that referees use to communicate on the pitch is English, the language of the world. There is no way that any country can avoid using the English language if they want to get ahead in life. Even countries like China and Indonesia, both traditionally non-English speaking and both very proud of their respective Mandarin and Bahasa Indonesia, believe that the way forward for their countries to progress economically in this modern, globalised society is to increase the use of the English language.

Ewe Jin was quoting Raja Zarith Idris, the Sultan of Johor's consort, as lamenting that this is a problem that we can no longer ignore: that most Malaysians cannot speak or write well in English, compared with the ability and ease with which older Malaysians speak and write it.

“The English language has unmistakably achieved status as the world’s lingua franca through globalisation. English is now the official or dominant language for two billion people in at least 75 countries. According to the British Council, speakers of English as a second language probably outnumber those who speak it as a first language, and around 750 million people are believed to speak English as a foreign language,” she had said recently at a conference in Kuala Lumpur.

While the world is moving forward, the Malaysian government has adopted a completely different stance. I was dismayed with the de-emphasis on the English language, bowing to political pressure to re-adopt Bahasa Malaysia as the language of instruction for Science and Mathematics in the schools. I would have expected the government to expand the usage of English in schools rather than reduce English to a mere subject.

Of course, the whole shameful episode is the Federal government's own undoing over the years. By pushing through this language agenda since the 1970s, they have produced a vast majority of teachers who, frankly, are completely inept when conversing in the English language, let alone trying to impart knowledge to their charges in this language.

The Federal government knows that with globalisation, it is impossible for our country to live forever in a closed society and be unaffected by events happening right across the other side of the world. However, when it comes to taking unpopular decisions, this government is not willing to make them. This political short-sightedness is all to the detriment of our country's future. Mind you, the economical consequences are already being felt in our society. Heck, it has even affected Bernama, that institution which as Malaysia's official news agency should be the bedrock of our English language efficiency. Yet, the Federal government today still continues to harbour the citizens and dish out largesse when there is little to share around. The only way out is to free the people, provide them with the tools and allow them to compete globally on an equal basis. To do that, the government must do away with protective policies and the learning of the English language in schools is simply one of them.

In the past, I've written here and here that we must not stop using English in schools. I've even gone further by voicing opinion with friends that the government should perhaps bring back elitism into schools and allow some of them to convert fully into the English language medium. I've often wondered why should the government or the people feel threatened about this because in the long run, these students who will be the beneficiaries of an education policy change are ultimately the future engines of this country. Shoot the politicians, it will be commerce and the economy that guarantees whether Malaysia progress or regress in the decades to come.

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