The main purpose of learning a language is for communication. In the desire to produce skilled bilingual or trilingual societies many nations encourage the learning of a few languages. In the Malaysian context, mastering of English and mother tongue languages is noteworthy, but as Malaysians, learning to speak and write in the national language is equally important.
A nation should take pride in its national language and it should not be looked upon as a sub-standard language.
Today, the Malay language is widely spoken in the Chinese and Indian communities unlike many decades ago. The schools may play a role to this effect but social and economic needs have pushed Malaysians into learning the language more avidly. This occurs in workplaces where communication has to be done in Malay, as well as in households because of the employment of Indonesian maids. Even young Malaysians of today have opted to speak a common language and Malay is often used as their preferred language.
Spoken language is a pidgin form
The issue is that the mastery of grammar is often missing when most non-Malays speak the language. The language spoken is usually a pidgin form, and spoken with fragmented phrases. It lacks cohesion, fluency and is profoundly influenced by the mother tongue.
Mastery of the Malay language syntax when speaking seems to be rather a difficult skill for non-Malay students despite exposing themselves to the language for many years in school.
One reason is that grammar learnt is not put to practice contextually and the emphasis in school is more on written exercises. Most students end up being adept in writing as what we observe among non-Malay students who have become high achievers in the subject. Many have even outdone the native speakers in their writing skills. Yet, they are not able to speak in the language glibly and with a proper grammar repertoire to it.
The Malay language syllabus in schools is skewed more towards writing. The oral skills are rather neglected, as written skills carry more weight for students to score higher grades in exams. As the subject is made compulsory to obtain an examination certificate, students opt for tuition classes in droves to help them perform better in exams.
Malay is a highly classy language with a delightful and evocative syntax. The language is infused with finesse and subtlety. However, do not blame students if they find it mind-numbing to learn the language. Language is best acquired when there is a natural liking for it and if it is made easy and interesting to learn. This is not the case with the present Malay language syllabus in school. Some of the subject sub-topics are made too complex and set to a standard that is unnecessarily too lofty: this has dissuaded students from developing a predilection for the language.
Are teachers helping to create an environment in school to help draw interest among students to acquire the language? Or is it the syllabus that bogs down the teachers and hinders the creation of a congenial learning environment for students to develop an interest?
There can be some observable reasons for the lackadaisical attitude and the loss of interest among some students.
Among them are the intricate language structures and the need to learn idiomatic or metaphoric structures too soon at lower primary school; the syllabus is too demanding, the teaching approach not inspiring enough; combined with ineffectual classroom activities such as the lack of exposure to oral and debating activities and the lack of reading habit among students.
In most casual interactions, Malay is liberally or haphazardly spoken minus the affixes. A non-native speaker may find the affixes, such as me, meng, ter, be, ber, i, an, kan etc., to be the most mind-boggling facets of the language. Non-native adults will find mastery of the affixes almost unattainable. This can best be achieved through more corrective speaking activities in school.
The more appealing approach is to expose students to extensive speaking activities, as this will allow them to make out the use of affixes contextually, in an authentic manner and thus go about acquiring the traits and nuances of the language naturally. Teachers should allow these language qualities to be discovered by students early in their school life through oral processes.
Syllabus cannot be treated like a religious script
Knotty idiomatic or metaphoric expressions should best be introduced at a higher level after students have grasped the rudiments of the language.
Irrelevant sub-topics in the syllabus that do not lead to language mastery should be discarded at the primary level. A language syllabus cannot be treated like a religious script for indoctrination. Our children need a more flexible and dynamic Malay language syllabus that serves a purpose in society.
Getting the language structures right is more important than having students learn extremely difficult words and writing complex sentences. The doggedness on the part of some teachers that students must know how to dissect sentences proverbially and grammatically, write complex sentences and that each sentence must comprise a significant number of words is not practical at the early stage of learning.
Let learners first find it at ease to express in simple language using simple correct sentences.
Most of the modish expressions, structures and metaphors often expected from the syllabus have to be discarded or simplified. Making language learning a difficult process does not necessarily reflect a high standard in education.
The syllabus content has to be relevant and simplified so as to make the whole process of learning enjoyable and in the process triggering in children the impulse to build up their interest and dexterity so as to make the morphological phase of the language come to them naturally.
Moaz Nair is an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.