Oh How Atrocious!

I knew the standard of English is going down the drain but I didn’t know how big the drain was!
Until today.
I was at USM helping a friend to do a poll for a well-known international magazine (sorry, can’t reveal which one) and I thought, hey, undergraduates should be the best target since they have reasonably good language ability and can understand simple English.
The one-page survey was truly easy peasy. One had to circle how one felt, from “Extremely Irritating” to “Not at all Irritating” on the 20 statements given. That’s all. Nothing to elaborate if one didn’t want to.
I overestimated the ability of today’s undergrads.
These people are tomorrow’s work force, leaders, what-have-you but more than a third of them could not understand the statements on the survey. I had to resort to Mandarin and BM to explain what the statements meant. One guy was puzzled as he couldn’t understand what ‘roadworks’ referred to! Another girl asked me haltingly what ‘irritating’ meant! How do these undergraduates pass their exams anyway when half their reference books are in English (and academic English at that too!)?
I can now sympathise with employers who say that they are highly frustrated when the graduates they interview can’t even string together a proper sentence in English. In another 3 years, these youths will graduate and will be joining the work force and they cannot speak English.
That’s sad, you know, because English opens doors. Economic doors, if you will. English is not the end but the means to an end. It allows you to access books and knowledge. It opens up a new world of information. People are hindered if they lack proficiency in a language. You can be the world’s smartest person but if you don’t write or speak or communicate those ideas, you’re not going to be able to share your stuff with anyone. And that’s sad, too because most Malaysians aren’t stupid or dumb.
And I still cannot understand why it is so difficult to understand/read/speak English when we’ve been learning it as a second language in primary and secondary school for 11 years. Is it the attitude? The motivation? The lack of good English teachers? And I can’t stand that spiel about how it is the colonialists’ language and how we should never ape the west, blah, blah, blah. If the Westerners can learn and speak Mandarin without an iota of guilt or shame, why should we Asians have hang-ups about learning their language?
One very good example is Astro’s Channel 36 CCTV… it is a China Central TV station and I love learning Mandarin from their daily 3.15pm Mandarin programme…conducted by a gweilo called “Ta Shan” who speaks impeccable Mandarin! It is definitely globalisation when Ta Shan is teaching viewers like yours truly the nuances of a language which doesn’t even belong to his forefathers!

9 thoughts on “Oh How Atrocious!”

  1. Saw your name on Lydia’s and hopped over here. Yes, it is sad – I know so because I meet so many students here – even those doing higher degrees, they are not confident enough to speak English. As for some, their essays are copy , cut and paste job – without a clue as to how to join them up to make enough sense. Yes, very sad.

  2. yeah – i totally agree with all of you. The level of english has definitely went down the BIG drain. Apart from questioning and blaming the students and people supposedly in-charge of them i.e the English teachers, do you guys have ALTERNATIVES AND SUGGESTIONS on how best to help them? Your IDEAS would be most appreciated as it is easier to point out than to help out. Thank you

  3. i think all that’s just an oversimplified misconception i.e. better english is the way to go.
    english is not the only language in the world. many europeans don’t speak english. most japanese speak unintelligible english, but they are one of the biggest economies in the world.
    you don’t need to be good with language to get ahead, unless you’re a newsreader. it is never a core factor for achieving success.
    those with good linguistic skills are not the smartest people and vice versa. their brain just operate differently.
    on the other hand, those with the confidence not to recognize language as a barrier often have no problems doing well in career.
    in the most basic (way of saying), language only goes as far as communication. progress comes from advancement brought about by intellectual proliferations.
    to speak a language well often need constant practice, which we all need to improve on. so, stop kicking ourselves and stop limiting our own self-belief.

  4. Hi Cik Bedah, yes, there are suggestions aplenty but I believe it has to start from primary schools – at the level where it matters. We should not simply implement policies arbitrarily because they’re in vogue but we should take a slow and steady approach to see how we can make sure children read. Children read when they see their parents read. Children read when they see books around the home. I know I grew up reading because I saw my dad reading all the time. It’s all about habits. Then again, I would say these days it’s easier to blame the teachers. Not all teachers are “teruk” but most teachers are. That’s the reality. An MA research by Sachithathanam (2002)in USM has revealed that teachers enrolled in training colleges have poor language attitudes and motivation towards learning the language. Why? Because when they were schooling, their teachers never taught them how to love learning English. It’s a cycle, and perhaps a vicious one but nevertheless, quite real. To start getting quality, we must begin wit quality. Nowadays people who can’t get jobs fall back on teaching, either by enrolling into training colleges or getting the one-year Dip.Ed from uni. I know many of my friends who take this path.

  5. Hi Elmo,
    I agree that English is not the only language in the world. And that justification that many Europeans and Japanese don’t speak English – well, there are also many who ARE learning to speak English. English is not a handicap but it does open doors, it does allow you to learn more. If I were living by myself, on an island, quite self-sustainable, I wouldn’t need English or any other language for that matter! But you see, we are not islands, we don’t live by ourselves and we currently exist in a world where geographical borders are quite insignificant. Whether you or I like it or not, English is the language of the globalised world. It’s no use being ostriches in the sand. Yes, Mandarin is important, yes, Arabic too. And even Malay for that matter. It depends on what you intend to do and why. For most graduates, well, they intend to carve a career most times in MNCs. So what’s missing in this equation? Good language ability. If you intend to be your own boss, you still need to communicate with your employees, your customers etc. Also, intellectual thoughts are impossible without language, whatever that language may be. You cannot advance if you cannot share your ideas or convince others your ideas are worth trying. Yes, language needs practice but then again, how much of practice (and I am talking about oral opportunities) do we really get in school beyond mugging for exams? Agree that being linguistically competent does not mean one is heckuva smart but it’s not about being smart. It’s about being able to string some sentences together. It’s about being able to communicate.

  6. Hi! I’m studying in USM now and not many people speak English, unfortunately. Most of them speak Mandarin as their first language, so it’s no wonder that their English aren’t that good.
    But I have some friends who speak English with me (they have to, since I don’t know Mandarin!) and they can improve their English. So, that’s the first step. They need to crawl out of their comfort zones and just practice speaking cos practice makes perfect! =)

  7. Hi Josette: Yes, just like I learnt Mandarin the tough way (I had to endure strange looks) I think Mandarin speakers should get out of their comfort zones and learn English. And it’s always a big advantage.


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