While the Malaysian school system may be producing students who can write in English, speaking the language is an entirely different issue, educators say as concern over the standard of English among fresh graduates continues.
Students who attend the full 11 years of primary and secondary school spend over a decade learning English, yet are often unable to communicate fluently outside the classroom setting.
Saradha, an English teacher, said this is partly due to the teaching and learning approach used in schools which focuses on writing at the expense of speaking.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, she said teachers mostly emphasise essay writing skills in order to prepare students for their examinations which in turn centre on format and the elaboration of points.
“They are not given much chance to converse in class,” she said. “Even if they are given an opportunity, students are reluctant to speak due to lack of confidence.”
Ahmad Taufik Hidayah Abdullah, a university lecturer who has been teaching business English and public speaking for over 20 years, agreed.
“Even if they are given an opportunity, students are reluctant to speak due to lack of confidence.”
He said ample research has been done on the inability of secondary school students and university graduates to communicate well in English.
This affects their chances of landing jobs as they cannot converse with their interviewers.
“This may be due to a lack of family support, unconducive environments or worse still, the instructors themselves are not tactful in using the language, or they limit opportunities for students to speak up in class,” Taufik said.
Saradha, who has been teaching for 25 years, spoke of a reluctance among Malaysians to pick up the language despite its widespread use in the country as well as internationally.
She said interest and motivation is particularly low among students in rural areas, attributing this to ignorance among parents from poor families about coaching or teaching their children whether at primary or secondary school levels.
“They can’t create an environment at home because they themselves failed to speak in English,” she said, adding that government schools have an important role to play in encouraging students to speak the language.
Such efforts are already underway at many schools, including specific days set aside on a weekly basis for the exclusive use of English.
But Saradha said not everyone follows these rules.
“In some cases, administrators themselves fail to make announcements or speeches in English.”
She said even the principal and teachers who do not handle English classes should set an example by speaking the language.
She said the situation is different in convent and missionary schools where the culture of communicating in English is still strong.
“I can see students from missionary schools somehow picking up the language from peers as well as through the school environment,” she added.
Taufik suggested that teachers diversify their teaching techniques by allowing students more opportunity to use the language in real-life contexts.
“Take them out to public places like tourist resorts, islands, museums and malls where they can use English in its real context and setting,” he said.
“They can’t create an environment at home because they themselves failed to speak in English.”
Even within the classroom, teachers can allow students to choose their own topics when it comes to presentations or public speaking, he added.
“He or she will enjoy doing this since they are presenting on what they like. Don’t force them to present or speak on something they are not familiar with.”
Other suggestions include utilising technology such as videos for effective teaching and assessment.
Saradha meanwhile said intrinsic motivation is key to excelling in English.
She spoke of students from rural areas who nevertheless pick up the language quickly due to their own desire to do so.
“These students know the importance of having good grades that will lead them to better prospects, careers and being highly respected in society,” she said.
“So they work diligently to upgrade their proficiency in English.”
She also said that switching the medium of instruction for subjects like science and mathematics could help students become more proficient in English.
“Parents and teachers should continuously inspire and motivate students to learn English by creating the environment at home as well as in schools,” she said.