The current crop of students do not realise the importance of the English language until they enter the working world, especially in the private sector.
They say the rot started when the medium of instruction was switched from English to Malay in the 1970s.
Malaysia was ranked third after Singapore and the Philippines in an English level assessment test conducted by online recruitment company Jobstreet.com.
Thailand and Indonesia came in fourth and fifth respectively.
“There has been a clear decline of English language proficiency over the past 20 years,” said an English lecturer with over 37 years of experience.
The lecturer, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the rot set in since the 1970s, when the medium of instruction was switched from English to BM.
“From then on, our children were less exposed to the language. Another reason is the lack of emphasis on English as it now not a compulsory subject to pass,” he said.
The lecturer said that many, especially those in the rural areas, did not realise the importance of English until they started working, especially in the private sector.
“Singaporeans, having a much more business-oriented economy, know they cannot survive in life without the language, but Malaysians have become aware of it much later in life,” he said.
The lecturer also lamented the standard of English teachers, saying that steps should be taken by the government to get more qualified teachers.
“Politically, we cannot reverse certain things. It’s now time to focus on getting high quality teachers, not just getting foreigners, which I feel is merely a short-term measure,” he said.
He added that the “flip-flop” decision by the government over the teaching of science and mathematics in English is not helping in arresting the decline.
An English Language Department head of a local university also agreed that English proficiency has been “going downhill” since the switch in the medium of instruction.
“Definitely there has been a big difference. Because in those days, everything was in English, and language classes were different.
“Those who did the traditional syllabus are better grounded in the language structure. But then it changed in the 1970s. From that point on, it was downhill all the way,” said the head of department who wished not to be named.
She said she was aware that the job market was saying that Malaysian students are lacking in proficiency in the English language.
“Malaysian students don’t have facility of speech. They can communicate but they don’t have good grammar and vocabulary.
“Many are not able to express their ideas and strategies at a higher level,” said the senior lecturer with over 25 years of teaching experience.
She said as a result, the quality of students and teachers coming into her university has sunk alarmingly.
“If we look at our university, there’s definitely a difference in the crop of students coming in. Could it be that the elite group has simply now opted for private universities?
“The current batch of students lack a foundation in English language, and perhaps do not have the right aptitute or attitude,” she said.
She said that it has become a problem getting good staff to teach as well. “I need good teachers, but I’m not getting enough.”
On how to tackle the problem, the lecturer said it often boils down to political will. “I always say that you have to go to the top – do we have someone who really cares?
“With the right intention, power and authority to execute a proper plan, then something can happen. If you don’t have a good head, things done at the lower levels won’t be good.”
She said she was referring to all heads, including people in the education ministry, school principals or heads of departments in universities.
She said she was attempting to revive the curriculum in her own university by injecting more out-of-class room activities for her students.
“We’re nurturing students who are bright and smart but not effective. They are not fantastic at problem solving, and we are trying to incoporate community engagement programmes, internships, and student exchange into their curriculum,” she said.
She said that English should be encouraged at all levels.
“Our university has been insistent that our staff be bilingual and it should be encouraged in all government departments as well,” she said.
The JobStreet.com English language assessment was conducted from November 2009 on 1.5 million workers in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. The test comprised 40 questions to evaluate an individual’s grasp of the language.
In April, Education First English Proficiency Index 2011 report ranked Malaysia as the No 1 country in English proficiency among Asian countries where English is not the mother tongue, ahead of Hong Kong (in second place), South Korea (third place) and Japan (fourth place).
Malaysia was also ranked ninth place globally by Education First, a global education centre which conducted online English tests on 2.3 million working adults from 2007 to 2009.