MALAYSIA needs to reaffirm a clear stand on bilingualism which was implemented as the MBM-MBI policy in 2010: Memartabatkan Bahasa Malaysia dan Memperkukuh Bahasa Inggeris. The national education system is committed to consolidating the position of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language and medium of instruction in government schools as defined in Perkara 152 Perlembagaan Malaysia and Akta Pendidikan 1996, while English is to be strengthened as a second language which will enhance knowledge acquisition and communication. “Tujuan utama memperkukuh BI adalah untuk membolehkan penerokaan pelbagai ilmu dan meningkatkan persaingan di peringkat kebangsaan dan antarabangsa …BI juga merupakan bahasa komunikasi antarabangsa yang perlu dikuasai dengan baik dan berkesan.” - Dasar Memartabatkan Bahasa Malaysia Memperkukuh Bahasa Inggeris, Kementerian Pendidikan Negara 2010
To achieve these stated objectives in the national education policy, Bahasa Malaysia is securely positioned as the medium of instruction in the Sekolah Kebangsaan, Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina and Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan, while English language is maintained as one taught subject in the current national curriculum. The proportion of teaching time for English language is an average of four to five periods per week.
One does not have to think very deeply to realise that this skeleton exposure given to students can barely scratch the surface of the noble objectives. If the government is really serious in effectively implementing the MBMMBI policy, the position of English must be redefined in an enhanced bilingual education system where it is effectively used as a complementary medium of instruction for selected subjects.
Learning in English is the only way by which students will be continuously exposed to the language in all its forms (oral and written) and become active users. The opportunity to read and write as well as to listen and speak in English will provide an environment where they are constantly exposed to and immersed in the language through their school subjects. The English language classes will then serve to reinforce the formal features of the language which will in turn improve overall proficiency.
Academically, the argument for teaching more subjects in English is a non-controversial one as it supports the language-learning principle of total immersion for successful language acquisition. Language educationists believe that if one lives in the socio-cultural and academic environment of the chosen language, one will effectively master it. Malaysian students studying abroad who mingle with the native speakers of the language and are taught various subjects in it will quickly become proficient users of the language with some even acquiring native-speaker mastery.
As it is impossible to plunge the majority of local Malaysian students into the socio-cultural and academic environment of English native speakers, the least that can be done for them would be to provide a learning environment in schools and institutions of learning that gives maximum exposure to English. Again, common sense will tell us that the most pragmatic way of addressing this issue in education is to teach a few subjects in English.
To circumvent the call for the reinstatement of English medium education and the continuous bargaining between the country’s three major ethnic groups in their bid to assume linguistic and cultural superiority, English language must resurface as a peace and pace maker. Whether they study in the Sekolah Kebangsaan or Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan, Malaysian students must be equalised in getting the same maximum access to English through the teaching of a few academic subjects in English. This must be augmented by compulsory reading and reference work in English.
Instead of beating about the English bush, the Minister of Education must have the courage and political will to introduce this bold reform. Integrating the three streams through a clear policy statement on bilingualism is the way forward. While maintaining the status quo of the vernacular languages, Bahasa Malaysia’s position as the official language which fosters national integration will be reinforced. English will regain its earlier role of promoting national and international networking for the pragmatic purpose of diplomacy, research and business.
To be seriously taken, bilingualism must manifest itself in a clear policy statement such as: The Malaysian national education system upholds and promotes bilingualism (Malay and English) in the curriculum of national schools and higher institutions of learning in order to produce students who will acquire knowledge and skills through their mastery of both languages. Malaysians who go through the national education system will enter the employment market with a high level of proficiency in both languages, where Malay will optimise their work and career opportunities at the local level, and English at the global level.
Only then will the country produce Malaysians who are at ease and articulate in both languages whether they are in the public or private sector, locally and internationally. Only then can Malaysians representing the country at international platforms hold their head high as they earn the respect and admiration of their international colleagues when they speak and write English expertly as true bilinguals.
* Datuk Halimah Mohd Said is the President of Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason (PCORE).
** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.