Sunday, January 6, 2013

LET'S START 2013 RIGHT: Stop politicizing education!

The 55 years of tinkering with the education policies in the country by UMNO’s armchair education ministers have not accomplished any favour in uplifting the standard of English among Malaysians today. There was a time though – the era before 1970 – when English was taught across the curriculum in schools and that was when Malaysians excelled in the language.
Post-1970 saw the standard drop drastically and now Prime Minister of the country – Najib Abdul Razak – has become so desperate that he is even contemplating of bringing teachers from India to teach English in the national schools.
Blame UMNO for the entire quandary – their flip-flop education policies for the past six decades.
Defeats the purpose of hiring them
So desperate is the Ministry of Education now that they have to import native-speakers of English to teach and make Malaysian students improve their English. But what most these native speakers of English could do is to ‘roll marbles in their mouth’ when teaching.
Apparently, students just could not understand their spoken English because of their accent. This defeats the purpose of hiring them if English is going to be taught for non-functional purposes.
These native speakers may no doubt be proficient in English but they just cannot comprehend why Malaysians are ‘passive’ learners – the inhibition due to cultural factors. Some of these teachers have given up and have complained that students in the Malaysian set up do not speak up. This unique Asian phenomenon is bothering them.
Some of these foreign teachers have complained as to why teachers do need to teach students phonetics at the primary level for them to be able to speak English well. They find this a waste of time but local ‘experts’ feel that it is necessary. Local English teachers themselves are lost when it comes to phonetics for ‘standard’ English.
What they speak is Manglish (another variant of English).  No set of book on Manglish phonetics has yet to be published in this country.
These so-called experts are equally lost when it comes to the phonetical and phonological variants in English. English as spoken in Great Britain – the Irish, Scottish, the Welsh–, the United States, Australia, India, China, Europe, Africa, the Arab lands, Japan, etc.  differ in many ways. Even linguists are lost when it comes to define what ‘standard’ English or phonetics is.
The functional purpose of English
The Ministry insists on ‘British’ English (and phonetics) in Malaysian schools but employing teachers from the US, Australia or India to teach Malaysians British English defeats this purpose. Malaysians generally do not speak ‘British’ English but with their own peculiar accent and inflections alien to those native speakers. In fact Malaysians, more often than not, find it hard to understand English spoken by foreigners.
Don’t talk about ‘Oxford’ or ‘Queen’s English to the Americans, Canadians or Indians. They don’t give a damn about this.  They feel that the English they speak is purposeful or functional enough. It’s again the practical purpose of English that most non-British or non-native speakers of the language are more concerned with.
There are many spoken English variants in Britain and the United States. In this situation even native speakers find it difficult to understand each other’s discourse in their own set-up.
And here in Malaysia the emphasis in the teaching of English is still bogged down with the form of the language, such as ‘standard’ English phonetics and ‘standard’ spoken English rather than the functional purpose of learning the language.  To make Malaysians speak ‘Oxford’ or ‘Queen’s’ English by perusing the phonetics of these variants is almost an impossible task for Malaysians.
Angered many parents
At least the former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad – a doctor by training – was apt enough to advocate that, “Learning Science and Mathematics in English is for functional purposes and not for the purpose of becoming proficient in the language. If one wants to be proficient in English, then study English literature.”
Unfortunately, the present Minister of Education, Muhyuddin Yassin, was not innovative or futuristic enough when he unequivocally stopped the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English, which started in 2003 – much to the chagrin of many parents and students who still want the subjects to be taught in English.  At least the Ministry could have continued with the policy by giving a choice for students to choose which medium they prefer to study these elected subjects in – English or Malay.
This change of policy effective this year has not only affected the functional purpose of learning the Sciences in English but also angered many parents.
Disappointingly, the Ministry does not even know what is going on in the field of English education in schools and universities.  In most cases TESL (Teaching of English as a Second Language) or TEFL (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) diplomas or degrees – both are more oriented towards the pedagogy of teaching language  and not a platform to hone the language proficiency skills of those enrolled in the programme.
Many trainee recruits may not necessarily be competent enough in English.
A report says, there are around 70,000 English teachers in Malaysia and almost 80 percent of them have failed to reach a proficient English level. Over 85 percent of these teachers are incompetent in written English and yet they are teaching English in schools. The lack of communication skills in English among local teachers is just atrocious.
Beyond that, most of these teachers generally speak Manglish or a mixed language when they teach. They cannot be blamed for this. Blame the Ministry for recruiting incompetent graduates to do the pedagogy training and make them teach the language.
Impeding the education process
In some countries only those competent in the language or with a degree in English literature are allowed to undergo training as English teachers but this is not the case in Malaysia. In many rural schools, non-English optionists are roped in to teach students English because of shortage of trained English teachers – a quick-fix approach to the problem.
There are even many incompetent retired teachers who cannot speak and write proper English who are recruited to teach primary school children just because they were former teachers. This is not facilitating the much touted MBMMBI policy (Memartabatkan Bahasa Malaysia dan Memperkukuhkan penguasaan Bahasa Inggeris). The Ministry has not appraised this or assessed the effectiveness of this policy.
How could students be able to speak and write proper English when teachers themselves cannot do the same? The Ministry is practising too much ‘restrictions’ and ‘bureaucracy’ in the recruitment of teachers to teach English in school and this is impeding the education process.
Instead of bringing in foreign ‘experts’ the Ministry should tap on the pool of competent Malaysians in the other sectors who among them have retired, good in spoken and written English to contribute as ‘ancillary’ teachers in schools.  They can be given a crash course in the pedagogy – a formality - before they start engaging the students.
Their hands-on and working experience would give students a new approach to learning English. There are even volunteers among them who would want to engage in teaching and they can be generously recruited.
Studies have shown that only less than 15 percent of students in Malaysians schools are motivated enough to learn English. How much can a normal-trained teacher without any field or work-place experience do when students are not keen to learn the language? This setback can be attributed to too much emphasis on formal and dry approach to the teaching of the language in schools.
The language is not taught as an exciting ‘field’ language but as a subject forced onto students.
Import English teachers from India
The Ministry brought in foreign teachers, including native English speakers from the United States and the United Kingdom. About 75 English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) have been assigned since this year with the collaboration between MACEE (Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange) and the Ministry of Education.
And now is another purported plan to import English teachers from India to teach in national schools. This appears to be meeting some opposition from local educators who doubt the government’s idea will help Malaysian students acquire the language. When students find it tough to understand English spoken with British, American or Australian accents, to understand English spoken by Indians from India would be just as futile.
They will be speaking in an unfamiliar heavily retroflexed accent to the disadvantage of Malaysian students. Indians in India speak their variant of English and though they are functionally competent in the language associated to the subject matters their hefty accent may be quite extraneous for Malaysian students to bear.
Hiring teachers from foreign countries Ito teach Malaysian students English is not going to be an effective measure in the long-run. It’s a waste of public fund which can better be used to upgrade the teaching facilities in schools or pay local competent personnel from the government and private sectors to teach.
Every Malaysian knows that in the Malaysian scenario despite spending billions of ringgit in engaging teachers to teach English in schools, it has not been effective enough for students to acquire the language when taught as a subject. There are three obvious reasons for this predicament: students are not motivated enough to acquire the language, most teachers are not truly competent to handle the subject and English is not taught across the curriculum or for selective subjects.
See the purpose in learning English
It will therefore be more cost-effective and tax-saving if the government were to reintroduce English as the medium of instruction or, at least, for some select subjects.  This is where English can be taught for functional purposes and it will indirectly make students pick up the language in an informal way. Students will then see the purpose in learning English.
And to be functionally competent in English one does not have to be taught by an Oxford or Cambridge trained teacher.  Neither should the Minister of Education go on a mission to find out if these teachers are Oxford or Cambridge trained.
Even local teachers, experienced recruits and volunteers can be trained to be as effective if there are fewer restrictions in the name of bureaucracy in the administration of education in the country.
Malaysia Chronicle