Yes, Malay is important but don’t neglect English and Mandarin

By Moaz Nair

No Malaysian can deny the status of Bahasa Melayu as the national language. In fact, after 61 years of independence, all Malaysians by and large are able to communicate in this language of unity.

The national language is seen as a tool to bring together all the races in the country. National language aficionados in the country can, of course, do more to make Bahasa Melayu the language of choice for communication, and they should ensure that every citizen is comfortable with it by making it easy to learn.

While the national language is the lingua franca of all Malaysians, English is currently the lingua franca of the world. No Malaysian should be left behind in the pursuit of knowledge because he or she is unable to master the English language. For commercial purposes, it would also benefit Malaysians if they could master Mandarin.

In truth, the national education philosophy has some flaws. It has failed to look into the importance of stressing language skills among children during their prime age. Language mastery in our present curriculum is not really emphasised at the primary and pre-school level. Perhaps our education policy planners have overlooked the fundamental dynamics in language acquisition pedagogics.

Mastering a few languages aside from the national language and English would always be an asset to Malaysians. It is well accepted the world over that English is the language for science and technology and is used as the medium of instruction in higher institutions. Nonetheless, it would also benefit Malaysians more if they could master Mandarin.

Today, Mandarin is spoken by more than one billion people, making it the most widely spoken language in the world. Mandarin has become the language of commerce in many countries such as China, Taiwan, Singapore and also Malaysia.

Language is more easily learned during the critical period of early childhood

Pedagogically, it has been proven that language is more easily learned during the critical period of early childhood. Behavioural-linguistic research has also shown that language learning and acquisition is most effective when it starts at a very young age – the so-called impressionistic age.

The education ministry should ensure that primary or pre-school children are extensively exposed to the acquirement of language skills before they are formally exposed to learning other subjects.

Children at their prime age learn foreign languages with ease. They are also capable of articulating in these languages even without any formal teaching. With proper exposure to learning materials, even the native speakers’ style of enunciation can be acquired with ease at this prime age.

Waiting for them to enter secondary and tertiary level education before picking up a foreign language could prove to be too late, as this is when conscious learning takes place. It may not be as effective, as by then they would have acquired fossilised language structures that cannot be effortlessly mended. For example, we see many graduates who are still not proficient in English despite undergoing formal lessons for many years.

It has been suggested that the school-going age could start as early as five, with two to three years solely allocated for language edification through an immersion programme. The Immersion Language Programmes adopted in Canada and some European countries have been found to be effective in helping children learn multiple languages.

Studies in developed countries have shown that children with good language skills are able to excel better in other subjects when they pursue their secondary and tertiary education. As studies have also shown, a child does not need to be exceptionally intelligent to acquire language skills. It’s just a matter of practice and early exposure to reading and listening activities, as well as to the right ways of speaking and writing.

For this reason, it would be apposite if the early phase of the national primary school curriculum is more focused on language learning and acquisition in more than one language. Preferably, Mandarin should be factored in aside from the national language and English. Parents have nothing to worry about, as children will learn languages at this age naturally and without inhibitions.

This would also lure more Chinese and Indian students to national schools, which would bode well for national integration.

The importance of English

When the world over is looking to English as the language of commerce, science and technology, Malaysians should be advised to do the same. It is wrong to suggest that mastering English can only be achieved at the expense of the national language and that it will make Malaysians less patriotic. Thus far, no empirical evidence has shown that those who have mastered English or Mandarin are less patriotic.

Children in schools must be made to realise that English is the language of the internet, an indispensable tool to seek knowledge and do serious research at the advanced level. Information, news and messages almost all over the world use English as the medium of communication. In nearly every country, news and information is transmitted in English aside from their own national language.

Even in many developing countries in Asia and Africa, there are newspapers in English. Over 90% of computer data is stored in English. Almost 80% of newspapers and bulletins in the world are in English. Almost 85% of all academic journals and scientific research materials are written in English. The most read research papers by scholars and researchers in the world today are in English.

English is indeed the language of science and technology. Almost all world conferences and seminars – from arts and politics to the sciences – are held in English.

Ninety percent of books in the world on various disciplines – from religion to the sciences – are in English. Our libraries are primarily stocked with books and reading materials in English. In fact, there are far more books and academic papers written in English on Islam than in the Arabic language.

English has become a universally understood language in maritime and air traffic communication in all countries. Almost all electrical gadgets, technological tools and machines in the world are branded in English and the operation manuals written in English.

Most high-ranking education institutions in the world use English as the medium of instruction. This makes English an indispensable language for moving forward in a knowledge-based society.

The real culprits are the politicians

If only the young are constantly reminded of the importance of English, many would find it meaningful to learn the language and become useful citizens. With a new government leading the nation, it’s now up to the leaders to instil this truth in the young. Politicians, educationists and the media on their part need to play their roles in disseminating the notion that it is important for Malaysians to master the English language and learn more foreign languages, including Mandarin.

The real culprits are actually self-centred politicians. Some disenchanted politicians in the country who have not made it harp on language for political expediency, which is enough to influence the less informed to abandon English or learn other foreign languages.

Politicising the learning of foreign languages for short-term personal benefit will only make Malaysians lose out in the long term. Politicians should not be allowed to get carried away by racial sentiments. They should weigh matters rationally when it concerns English or other foreign languages, as this could benefit Malaysians in a competitive and knowledge-based society.

To enrich the future of our young citizens, there has to be political will by the new government to make sure that foreign languages, specifically English and Mandarin, are taught in schools beginning at the primary level. Let’s not give the young the impression that mastering English or Mandarin is going to make them less Malaysian.

Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.