And among his wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colours; for, in this, behold, there are messages indeed for all who are possessed of [innate] knowledge!

AR-RUM (22) 



Malay is my mother tongue, the language of home and family, the language in which the most tender of feelings are expressed, the tongue with which the harshest of emotions are spewed!

My first two years of formal learning was in a Malay primary school in Rasah, Seremban where I picked up the rudiments of kira-kira and alam sekitar. After that it was “off to a nunnery”, the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus  Seremban where my love for the English Language and Literature was sown. I went on to read English Literature and Linguistics later.

Having taught English Language, Literature and Linguistics in secondary schools and at a public university for more than 30 years, I feel kind of qualified to comment on several unresolved issues in the national education system, viz (i) the teaching of English and (ii) the teaching of Maths and Science in English. With this come the attendant problems in (a) standards and qualifications of teachers and students and (b) their eventual performance and results.

The importance of the English Language must be taken as the given in this equation. And in no way does this deny the position of Bahasa Malaysia as the national language.

I’m a proponent of  true bilingualism. What this means is that  Malaysians must be fluent speakers of  Malay and English who express their thoughts and ideas articulately in both languages. They must be able to use each  language confidently and consistently at all levels of discourse. NOT in the mumbo-jumbo of  Manglish, bahasa rojak or pidgin!

The vision of having a truly bilingual Malaysia and of building a truly bilingual (and even multilingual) society is within reach in the near future if the right policies, facilities, training and methodologies are in place! Topping all of these is the right attitudes towards language learning!  

Bahasa Malaysia must be developed in all its uses and functions as the key to nationalism, unity and integration – as the medium of instruction, as the official mode of communication, as the language of national discourses, as the channel for research and development, as a tool for academic advancement.  This must be vigorously and rigorously pursued at all levels of society. This is logically indisputable!


Running parallel to the growth of the national language must be an equally concerted effort to advance the use of English – the international language of communication, diplomacy and foreign affairs; of trade and industry; of economic development; of scientific and technological research. If we vow to make Malaysia an effective global player in all of these (and more) sectors we must vow to be proficient and efficient in English. The logic in  the equation is again indisputable! 

The ongoing debate about the supremacy of one language over the other or the threat that one language holds over the other is circular and wasteful! The same arguments have been proffered over the years. They have become boringly unproductive and disruptive if not destructive!

I urged for true bilingualism and suggested pragmatic and drastic ways of teaching English in a lengthy article in Utusan Malaysia (9 Mei 2002).

Meantime people are still arguing and Malaysians have not improved their language skills! In fact they’re getting worse with the advent of new communication technologies and the creation of modern language registers like contracted email and SMS language – the use of short forms, acronyms and abbreviations; the mixing of Malay and English colloquial language and slang. They are spreading like wildfire.

One has to look at the chats and comments on Facebook and Twitter, emails and blogs, SMS messages – to realize the extent of linguistic deterioration. In a multilingual society like Malaysia the incursion of mixed languages and language types is more drastic than in a monolingual society.  


I’d like to offer some pragmatic and realistic suggestions based on my experience and knowledge of developments in this area:


This can be done in the school language labs (if schools can afford them) or on the student’s own CD player/ walkman (with earphones) for one period a week under teacher supervision in school, and regularly under parental supervision at home.

Students get to hear English spoken by native / fluent speakers in conversations and in relevant communicative situations (asking for information, at an interview etc) and they will internalise the elements of the language – pronunciation, intonation, grammar and vocabulary – to reinforce learning in the other English periods. Young people like to imitate and with good models of English on tape, they get the full advantages of the language drills which they can practise in their own time.

 The text of the tape can be printed out and used to teach reading comprehension,  grammar and vocabulary. In the University of Malaya in the 70s we used the SRA labs with tapes for listening and speaking and printed texts for reading comprehension and writing. Copies of the tape and text  are easily and cheaply made for internal use. 

I believe this is a cheap and quick way of improving the English language proficiency of both the teachers and their pupils. And it has proven to be a  highly successful teaching/ learning methodology in China. 


Bring back the book report as a weekly/ fortnightly activity in the English classes.

Students are assigned a reading task, preferably a simple reader (start with short stories and progress to abridged editions of English classics and novels).

They submit a written exercise: (i)  paraphrase or summary of the story (ii) description of their favourite character/s (iii) phrase/ line/  paragraph quotations they like  lifted from the text  (iv) vocabulary work for new words and phrases that they come across and how to use them. To reinforce their speech and speaking skills, an oral presentation can be made  in class.


History, Living Skills and Civics offer teachers and students a wider scope for using language in all its manifestations – reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Unlike Maths and Science which is formulaic and more expository, the humanities are a lot more descriptive and exploratory. They offer a far greater range of possibilities for language use than Maths and Science. The argument that teaching  Maths and Science in English reinforces English language teaching/ learning  is a flimsy one.

I’m all for making English compulsory for SPM because this offers the greatest motivation for learning the language and for changing the attitudes towards it! And it’s not too much to ask for a pass in the English paper!

The rural schools must be equipped with the basic facilities and methodologies that the teachers can handle. Even if they are not English language specialists they can inspire learning and the right attitudes towards the subject. At the same time they can use the same facilities to improve themselves.

They’re worth a try!


3 Responses to “”

  1. 1 mekyam
    June 15, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    the pity is, two decades ago weren’t we already ahead with malay-english bilingualism?

    but as you said in your comment at rocky’s, we should “move on and make this a new phase in the nation’s history – the phase of consolidating our resources, our strengths and our talents for our own good!”. further recriminations are just counter-productive.

  2. June 27, 2009 at 1:27 am

    I found ninitalk.wordpress.com very informative. The article is professionally written and I feel like the author knows the subject very well. ninitalk.wordpress.com keep it that way.

  3. 3 cl
    June 8, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    “the mumbo-jumbo of Manglish, bahasa rojak or pidgin!” – that’s exactly why many non-urban Malays think learning English makes them less Malay; their urban compatriots juggle their languages with NEGLIGENCE. Everybody else in the world is learning English, but do we see them jumble it up with their own languages at their own whim?

    In the 90s and early 2000s, most TV programming was in English, yet today we lament our poor level of English in Malaysia. Why? Many Malaysians won’t open up to acquiring another language without due respect to their own. Do we see this now? On TV, at least we have BM-dubbed American cartoons; American cartoon makers can’t see how local dubbing inhibits popular interest toward English in 50+ other countries, why did we?

    In the Internet, at least not. Urbanites communicating in bahasa SMS, rojak etc on message boards, and most “for-Malaysian” websites from crucial fields like retail, services, NGO, charity are only in English – can we have BM and Chinese versions like Pete Teo’s 15Malaysia site? There goes the “Bahasa Malaysia must be developed in all its uses and functions as the key to nationalism” argument.

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