We know that the level of English among the general population in Malaysia is not good. Instead of complaining endlessly and blaming the government, the education system, the teachers and whoever else, why don't we try to help in our own small way.
The mastery of English is uneven among different levels of society and the gap will probably get worse in the future. The command of English among kids from the upper strata of society is much higher than those in the lower rungs. It is really difficult to close the gap in the classroom.
Those who have poor command of the language are weak because they don't speak the language at home and with friends. They also don't read materials in English. Even many English cartoons now have been dubbed into Malay, with dual language options widely available. It used to be that only Japanese cartoons were dubbed. What happens is that by the time they reach school they are already left behind.
When they are behind, they are embarrassed to speak the language. More so when they grow older. Worse still if they hear people making fun of them. So they seek friendship with those who are similar to them. This closes any opportunity for improvement.
I've heard many people complaining about the bad English they encounter. Some also mention and reproduce them on social media, inviting their audience to have a laugh while lamenting how the situation has deteriorated.
Sometimes, we may not be fully aware of the circumstances of the person communicating with us. He may have grown up from an environment different from yours and did not receive the opportunities that you received. He may be intelligent and, god knows, could be a better person than you in other areas. It's just that he could not communicate properly in English. Why don't we help and encourage this person.
Maybe we can take some time and edit one paragraph of his communication. Of course if he's not happy with what you are doing, you can stop. For face to face conversations, we can speak to the person in English occasionally, although our default response would be to speak in the language he is comfortable in.
We should always encourage them to speak in English no matter how bad, and correct them when they make mistakes (of course when you have become close enough to this person). Please avoid making fun of people in public. This will discourage them from speaking and will hinder their learning.
I realised how bad the situation is and the huge gap between the different classes recently. My daughters play hockey and I usually assist the coach during training. They were previously from a school in an affluent area, whose students mainly come from the vicinity. However, they recently switched to a school in a nearby area where many students come from flats and public housing areas.
In the former, I was giving instructions in Malay and they asked me to speak in English, as many of them spoke English at home. However the situation is so different in their new school. The students there have problems understanding simple English words. The coach has to speak in Malay all the time.
It is not the students or the teachers' fault. It is just the circumstances they find themselves in. They have not been exposed to the language and have no chance to practice it. They may be able to answer exam questions if they study hard, but will find difficulty conversing and getting really good jobs later in life if they can't speak or write properly.
On our part, we can either complain about the current situation and blame the usual suspects, or we can strive to help at the micro level, even if its just one person.
Saying that whole education system needs to change or that we need better teachers before we can improve does not create any value. Helping one person improve his English has tremendous benefits. He in turn will probably be better equipped to converse with his children and friends in English. The benefits could possibly accrue to his family and expand.
This reminds me of a story some of you may have heard before about the old man and the starfish, which has been told by many motivational speakers and authors.
Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, ”Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.” he boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”
Adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)
Excerpted from Peter Straube's Events for Change.
Photo from nationalgeographic.com