Why the shift from Malay to English at the higher education level

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There are two basic ways that the Malay or national language is used in the country: firstly, for academic purposes, and secondly, for general communication. It has not been that effective in the first use or made much significant progress so far. The reality is that most institutions of higher learning have shifted to English after earlier experiments with Malay. There is a justification for this shift.

At the higher level of education, it’s more about teaching and learning the subject field – it’s subject-knowledge oriented. In order to succeed, not only do academics and students have to cope with new developments in their fields, they must also master the language in which the subject is written – in most cases, English.

This is where they face enormous difficulties if they neglect or are not proficient in English. English is an international language that can be globally understood in academic circles.

Moreover, knowledge can be more easily accessed from the many sources in English. For journals and citations, academics prefer that their research papers be written and published in English. Students are encouraged to write their academic and research papers in English for the same reason, especially as some would wish to pursue post-graduate studies in their related fields.

They have no choice but to improve their English and to be aware of the power of language and its impact on their peers when writing or presenting papers at the international level. They will use English not only for presenting their research papers but for communicating with others in their fields. They also need to be proficient in English as reviewers and editors of academic and research papers.

Researchers are aware of the power of language and its impact on their peers in order to succeed in the community of academic discourse. The presentation of academic and scientific findings in English is all the more crucial as even in non-English speaking countries, journals are published in English. Most international seminars and conferences are also held in English. So it’s a worthwhile effort for academics and students to brush up on their English.

Malay is not used widely on the international stage

Some researchers are aware of language difficulties when writing scientific research articles in Malay. It’s usually the lack of vocabulary that remains the problem, even though English scientific language is highly codified and can be translated into Malay with some effort. They are cognisant of the fact that the readability and scope for discourse is very limited as Malay is not widely used in the global arena. Research papers written in Malay will not find space in most international journals unless they are translated into English.

In the academia, most reference books and journals are written in English, and information sources from the internet is also largely in English. So it would be much more convenient for academics and students to write in English provided that they are adept in the language. It becomes very cumbersome for them to relate or decode information in Malay when the language lacks the appropriate or standardised terminologies of English equivalence.

It is worth mentioning that even those who at one time aspired for Malay to be used in higher institutions have now shifted to English because English is an internationally recognised language. Academics want their publications to be cited and their ideas acknowledged by the international community. Unfortunately, Malay has yet to show much weight here unless the research papers are translated into English and then published.

Some developed nations which use languages other than English, like Japan or European countries, have groomed a pool of experts who are trained to have their research papers translated and published in English. The same experts or subject specialists also translate research papers written in foreign languages into their national language. This can be done within a very short period in various academic disciplines. Most of their academics are specifically trained to do the job – to be proficient in at least two languages, their national language and English or any other foreign language.

In the Malaysian context, if Malay is used in higher learning institutions, there has to be a concerted effort to have academics and students who are fluent in at least two languages, Malay and English. There must also be a structured, standardised language morphology of the sciences and a corpus of Malay equivalents of English scientific terminologies which can be accessed by all. Academic articles or even theses written in Malay can then be promptly translated into English for publication in local and international journals.

Higher education institutions taking the safe path

Translating academic books and articles from English to Malay can be a mammoth task as it requires a great degree of skill and professionalism. This is almost impossible to accomplish in a short period of time. Medical schools and schools of other sciences in countries such as Egypt, Russia, China and Indonesia use English textbooks even though the language of instruction in their universities is their national language. Information is also sourced from the internet, where most of it is written in English. All this information can be relayed to students in different languages in both written and spoken form if academics are able to understand English.

Academics and students in our set-up need to go bilingual – to be proficient in both written and spoken Malay and English – for Malay to be used as the medium of instruction at higher levels. Studies have shown that good writing skills in mother tongues may have a positive effect on students’ English writing provided that they take the continuous initiative to learn the language.

In this case, academics and students need to use both Malay and English in their thinking and writing processes. However, scientific language is highly codified. In most cases, after understanding the subject-codified language in English, they stop short of coming to grips with the language itself, leaving them unable to use it in any communicative discourse.

This happens as they need to balance the cost and benefit of spending extra time learning how to speak and write in English. As a consequence, the majority appear to give up on improving their English. This could be why most of our graduates and academics are not very proficient in English although they can be mavens in their respective fields. They could even end up not being able to perform effectively in either English or Malay.

Whatever the language impediments, higher institutions in the country are now treading the safe path, which is to use English as the medium of instruction, to use English reference materials, to write theses and research papers in English, and to give presentations in English. This should be the most expedient and pragmatic way to move forward in education.

Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.

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