First and foremost, I personally would agree with most Malaysians that Bahasa Malaysia must be developed into a strong and viable language for the sciences, mathematics and arts too. I personally am in favour of teaching subjects in both Bahasa Malaysia and English in our national primary and secondary schools and encouraging students to think and write and do research in both languages (depending on the subjects and/or topics researched) when they enter universities and go for their first degrees or higher.
Secondly, and at the same time, English language needs to be taught to a high standard at all national primary and secondary schools as a second language in order for the country to progress faster to achieve 1st World status by 2020 and to achieve a high-income economy, and for our graduates to gain employment and have good and well-paid careers, not only in the country but also in countries outside Malaysia.
I notice that many people send letters to the press about English language and they mention examples of some practices in certain European countries, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, China, South Korea, Japan and Thailand to support their arguments and I am not too sure whether their comments are based on their own personal experiences, heresy or something they read about in some magazines, newspapers, book, research papers or reports. However, like many of them, I also have had my own personal experiences interacting with Europeans, Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese (from China), Japanese, South Koreans and Thais here and in their respective countries during my work and social visits to the many European countries the last 25 years (Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, Poland), Ukraine, Russia, Japan, China, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand beside countries in the UK (United Kingdom of Gt. Britain and Northern Ireland), and I wish to share my first-hand knowledge and experiences in my letter here.
Germany is a good example of a country that has preserved its culture and excelled in science and the arts through its own language. At the same time, everyone there accepts the importance of English, and a great many people use it to a very high standard indeed. I do not think there are any German scientists who are unable to write an academic paper in perfect English.
Tertiary education in Germany uses mainly German but a lot of science and applied engineering disciplines are taught in English. Their primary and secondary schools use mainly German.
However, there is a strong non-German education system; most of all in English (from kindergarten to Year 12), but also in French, Portuguese, Polish, even Mandarin and Arabic, in a few places. Often these are bilingual programs and children study all subjects in two languages. This is happening there because of the presence of people of many nationalities residing and working in Germany itself.
An English language professor friend of mine who is a Welshman and who has been teaching at one of the top universities in Tokyo, Japan for many years now, once told to me, “When I was 17, I attended a school in Germany for a few weeks and their English lessons were almost the same as the ones we had in England and Wales – they didn't really discuss English, they just discussed things in English.”
Few Germans claim to speak the Queen's English (even the Queen doesn't speak that anymore!) or breathe the 'same air as native speakers', but in their own way they use it very proficiently. On the whole it does not prevent them using and developing their own language, but some people do complain about the enormous amount of English words that have been absorbed, such as 'sorry' - which young people think is not as formal and cold-sounding as ‘verzeihen Sie mir bitte’ (meaning: ‘please forgive me’ in English).
In Sweden and Switzerland, at tertiary level, lessons for many subjects are conducted in English. The Swedes and the Swiss are mostly, if not all, bilingual, at least, which work to their great advantage. Bilingualism is good for a country like Malaysia too.
Many other European countries are similar to Germany, Sweden and Switzerland in their attitude toward English.
I think the Chinese, Koreans and the Thais are getting close to it too. No Chinese, Koreans or Thais would ever think that their own language or culture is disappearing just because they speak English, and more and more of them are speaking it very well. Personally, I find the English spoken by people in and from China, South Korea and Thailand very easy to understand - less so the English spoken by many Malaysian Malays, Chinese and Indians, especially those who graduated from local public and private universities and even some of those who graduated from overseas universities, including universities in the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, the last thirty years or less. However, their written and spoken Bahasa Malaysia is excellent.
France used to be well known for resisting English, and personally I respect them for continuing to make a major contribution to world culture in their own language. But there is no doubt that many young people there now speak it very well. Even their politicians use it in international settings - something that would have been unthinkable as recent as ten years ago. Whatever language they use, I think there is very little chance of the French becoming less French.
Russia is a huge country and I think it is still the case that most people don't need English. Under the Soviet Union, Russian was a major language in science and technology. Now many Russians study and work abroad and gain high proficiency in English, but I think they are still a minority. The situation in Ukraine and Poland and in many East European countries is quite similar to this.
As for Japan, on the one hand they have made great achievements in economics and science entirely in their own language. On the other hand, despite putting a lot of time and into English language learning, they are still pretty lousy at it. The reality is that they just do not need English, so only a minority are motivated to use it. The other day I saw an advertisement for a mobile phone: you simply speak Japanese into it and it speaks the same thing in English (or Chinese or whatever) back at you. Of course it is not a perfect translation, but it is much better than translation devices used to be. So in the case of the Japanese I do not think much will change as far as English is concerned.
I think Middle European countries may emphasise native languages (at least at lower levels), lacking the finances to foster English-only. But I also gather there is a strong will to use English.
As for Malaysia, Bahasa Malaysia is already a very important regional language, even if there is not much science or globally-read literature being produced in it yet.
As I said above, ‘English language needs to be taught to a high standard at all national primary and secondary schools as a second language,’ and the best people to teach English here are not the foreigners but locals especially our retired well-trained and very experienced specialist English language teachers who can still be recalled to serve the people. They may be assisted or complemented by the many graduate teachers who have gone through the TESL programme, for example, at various local and foreign universities. Native English speaking English language teachers from the UK and worse still, teachers from Australia (who do not speak proper English), do not know and do not understand our culture and customs and the situation pertaining to the history, the preferred methods and the standard of teaching English, among others, in the country very well. It will be a waste of time and money if the government still insists on this move.
There will be no progress on this language issue in Malaysia as long as the people, in particular our politicians from both divides, think of it as a zero-sum game. Malaysians have no choice but to be bilingual (Bahasa Malaysia and English language), and we should try for the highest proficiency in both languages.
The common factor of most of the 1st World countries, as we can see from the above is English, and many of the countries we know that used to ignore English before are now embracing it, with passion, like China, for example. Therefore, it would be good for Malaysia, where the majority of the people used to be excellent English speakers and writers during the pre-seventy years, emulating the 1st World countries’ use of English would hasten our quest to become one of the new members of the 1st World Club.
Let us all work together and fully support our Rt. Hon. Prime Minister, Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak, in his noble aim for this country to achieve 1st World status and to achieve a high-income economy by 2020, by being good at both Bahasa Malaysia and English language.HUSSAINI ABDUL KARIM, Shah Alam
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