Monday, July 18, 2005

Can Speak England?

Speak England? Posted by Picasa

How do you find our university graduates' English? What about our politicians and ministers' command on English? Read this article from the New Straits Times on July 17, 2005 by the maverick Kalimullah Hassan.

Do you speak the England?
By Kalimullah Hassan

SOME time ago, we interviewed aspiring journalists for Berita Harian, now the country’s top selling Bahasa Malaysia daily. The New Straits Times Press’ deputy group editor-in-chief Datuk Hishamuddin Aun normally tests applicants on their command of the English language as it is taken for granted that anyone not proficient in Bahasa Malaysia would be foolish to apply for a job in Berita Harian.

Hisham’s favourite story is of one candidate who was asked about his family. It goes like this:

Hisham: How many are there in your family?

Applicant: I number three.

Hisham: What does your father do?

Applicant: Father die already.

Hisham: What does your mother do?

Applicant: Mother not yet die.

Hisham could not have made his questions simpler. And the applicant, who naturally did not get the job, could hardly have answered in a more simplistic way.

Hisham’s story is not peculiar in today’s Malaysia. Editors who interviewed applicants for the New Straits Times, where they are also tested for their proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia, found that a good number — from different racial groups, from both rural and urban schools - spoke the "not yet die" kind of English.

A few months ago, a senior news vendor from Perak and five of his colleagues — all in their late forties and above — met me to discuss some issues.

The spokesman among them, a gentleman by the name of Pandian, began by saying: "Sir, we come here not to lament…"

And one by one, as I heard them out, what amazed me was that they all spoke good English and used words that many of us no longer use in day-to-day conversation. They were pukka old school and it was a delight to just listen to them.

There you are. There is a vast difference in command of both Bahasa Malaysia and the English language between the 45-and-above generation and the 40-and- below generation.

A generation of Malaysians — the lost generation, as Hisham describes them — have joined our work force, the majority of them having only a passable, if not rudimentary, knowledge of English.

Now, with the re-emphasis on English in schools, we find that we have teachers who are not well versed enough in the language to teach their students. We find that in rural areas, children find it harder to adapt and fare worse than their counterparts in the urban areas.

When the New Straits Times launched its compact version last September, we conducted a number of surveys and focus group studies to determine why some people preferred to buy our rival newspapers.

A frequent comment that came from the younger readers of English newspapers was "your English too high". Of course, there were other reasons given but that response of "English too high" floored us.

Talk to the older civil servants. Talk to some of our retirees. They are proud Malaysians and take equal pride in being able to speak perfect Bahasa Malaysia. But they will also tell you of the days when Malaysians were always chosen by our neighbours such as Thailand and Indonesia to represent the region’s views at international forums.

Why? Because that generation of Malaysians did not speak "not yet die" English; because they spoke "we come here not to lament" English.

Well, no more. Today, we have a new generation of Thais and Indonesians which speaks English eloquently, who can sit down at international forums and conferences and articulate their country’s case with those whose mother tongue is English and who can go through trade agreements and pacts without missing any nuance that may disadvantage their countries.

Malaysians who used to visit Thailand and Indonesia in the 1980s and who go there now will be the best judges of then and now. Today, as it used to be in Malaysia, it is more likely that one will find an Indonesian or a Thai who can speak passable if not good English than one who cannot.

Look at China. Receptionists and front desk managers at hotels are always testing out their English with guests and many have a pocket dictionary that they always refer to in their free time, learning as many English words as they can in a day.

Taxi drivers in Beijing and Shanghai can, to a large extent, follow instructions in English. India, of course, has always had a fascination for the English language and has produced many renowned writers of international standing.

We have to face it. We blundered when we started treating English as just another subject in the mid-1970s and made it non-compulsory to pass for examinations. Today, in a keenly competitive world, where English is the major language of knowledge and communication, one generation of Malaysians is paying the price for that blunder.

No point, though, in "lamenting" about that costly mistake. At least, we have taken steps to remedy the sorry situation we are in.

Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein’s task is not an easy one.

But the process of "re-learning" English, forced through by former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad despite strong opposition, is being backed just as strongly by the current administration. That, perhaps, may make the difference.

The 1960s’ and early 1970s’ generation grew up earning English not only through books but through children’s games as well.

We had this game of learning our colours where we would start off with a question going around "my mother went to the market and bought me some fish. What colour do you want?"

The person at whom the question stopped would answer "red". R-E-D would be counted out on his spread fingers, stopping at the third finger, which would then be closed.

The question would go around and around and all the colours would come up: blue, purple, grey, orange, yellow, pink, white, black and when we ran out of the normal colours we knew, we would try to find new ones to win the game. Such as burgundy, turquoise…

The person who managed to close all 10 fingers first won the game.

It may seem juvenile now but we learned our colours.

Scrabble competitions were a big hit and there used to be inter-school Scrabble championships.

Competition always brings out the best in people and it may not be a bad idea to re-think the tools of old to build up the Malaysians of tomorrow.

Speaking of job applicants and journalists, stories which go around newspaper circles often can be quite funny, especially anecdotes of the unprintable stuff about newsmakers.

In 1993, at the height of the battle for posts in Umno, a colleague from the Far Eastern Economic Review, Michael Vatikiotis, interviewed a senior Menteri Besar (since retired) who said: "We will win because of our prestation."

"Prestation?" Michael asked.

"Ya, ya… prestation. You know, prestasi (Bahasa Malaysia for performance)."

A few years ago, another Menteri Besar, at a dinner with senior editors, slapped his thighs excitedly at one point during the conversation, and said: "That’s the reason is…".

It was, of course, a direct translation from Bahasa Malaysia’s "itulah sebabnya".

That same Menteri Besar was known for always trying very hard to speak English and one day, impressed by a study tour of China, he briefed journalists saying he would implement in his State the "les-kay-pe" he saw in Beijing.


Eventually, it dawned on everyone that he was talking about landscaping though initially it sounded like he was speaking about a cousin of Nescafe.

But to his credit, this Menteri Besar took lessons and is today better versed in the language.

There was also a deputy minister, now in a more senior position, who attended a dinner organised by shipping companies. He kept referring to "the koeh" and "the koehs" in his speech. No, it was not kuih.

He was referring to the quay and the quays. His English is still appalling. My apologies if offence is taken but there is no slur intended.

Just like there is a need for many of our politicians to be more proficient in the national language, they need to set an example by improving their English.

We can’t be like the ketam mengajar anaknya jalan betul (a crab trying to teach its young to walk straight).

And we need to do more for our young, especially in the rural schools. Certainly, there is a limit to what the Government and the Education Ministry, in particular, can do. There is a need for the private sector and for individuals who have done well in life to help as well.

We can adopt schools and provide them with books for their resource centres; we can pay for extra tuition classes; we can volunteer our services to teach and train these students after classes; we can organise workshops for teachers.

Many of these things are already being done but they have not received the widespread support that is required to ensure that another generation does not suffer.

Perhaps, our greatest asset is, as proven by that Menteri Besar, that our spirit to learn and improve ourselves "not yet die".

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