November 13, 2013, by michaelgroves
A Vicious Cycle
One of the CELE staff teaching , Yan Lai Peen reflects on the teaching of English in Malaysia, and the human capital it can provide……..
In the previous blog entry, the writer considers the gaps in the recent EF English Proficiency Index, in which Malaysia ranks 11th in the world. However, merely two months ago, The Star reported that a staggering 70% of the 60,000 English Language teachers of Malaysia performed poorly in the English Language Cambridge Placement Test and are ‘incapable’ of teaching the subject (“70% of English teachers not fit to teach”, 2013).
Why did Malaysians fare so well and yet so poorly in two separate tests that measure the same thing? It could mean, indeed, that those who took the EF test already had a socio-economic advantage over those who didn’t, thus rendering the results skewed. What does this imply about the rest of the nation who did not take the test? More importantly, can we afford to sit back complacently, believing that we are not doing too badly after all? I do not think so. The language education that takes place in school is pivotal to bridging the very socio-economic divide that possibly separated those who took the EF English Test from those who didn’t. And if the Cambridge Placement Test is anything to go by, it paints a rather bleak picture.
It is not clear what ‘performed poorly’ actually means in the news report in The Star, but I am not surprised. It was only a few years ago that I discovered, much to my horror, that English Language was not a compulsory subject to pass in the SPM (Malaysian High School Education Certificate) examination. This essentially means that one could undertake 11 years of formal education without having to speak a word of English and still come away with a high school certificate. What does that imply for the future of our students, some of whom will and have become English teachers? A vicious cycle.
English is undoubtedly the language of the globalised world, but not everyone, or every school teacher, for that matter, has to be fluent in English. In fact, the many varieties of English that are spoken throughout the world now attest to the fact that no single country can claim ownership of the language. There are more people speaking English as a second (or even third or fourth) language than there are native speakers. The emphasis is placed on meaning, not accuracy. However, it is my opinion that if one is to be a professional language educator, we need to be knowledgeable about the rules of the language to know when to abide by them and when it is all right to break them. In many social situations, sometimes non-standard language may be used as a social dialect to build or maintain rapport with the people we are communicating with. However, in a language classroom, the emphasis on meaning should not be at the expense of accuracy. An educational institution is where students acquire linguistic capital – the advantage afforded by (the mastery of) language, or a variety of a particular language. The possession of this capital can make a difference to a person’s future.
In the next entry, I will consider the importance of linguistic capital and the role of English language teachers in developing this capital.