Equal Emphasis for Both Languages

Media: The Star and The Malay Mail Online
Date: 15 January 2015

The role and proficiency in languages has always been a great concern to parents, educationists, employers and society at large.

Of late, this concern has grown more acute as battle lines are being drawn on the importance of the English Language and the role of Bahasa Malaysia in education and moulding of young lives across our nation. Does it really have to be one or the other?

Let’s consider the significance of both languages. The English Language, without a doubt is the lingua franca in the business world, education, science and technology.

It is also widely accepted that since Malaysia boasts of professionals and a workforce that is relatively fluent in the English Language, she is able to readily attract foreign investment and businesses.

Does this mean that Bahasa Malaysia will have to be sidelined in our country in order for us to be competitive amongst other developed nations?

The role of Bahasa Malaysia has been enshrined in our Constitution and it is a matter of national pride to have a language that is widely used across the different cultures and races in Malaysia.

It is also without a doubt that the use of Bahasa Malaysia spans across all generations of Malaysians and it has been a medium of unity due to ease of applicability and context of usage.

As Malaysians, we need to accept that we have to be proficient in both Bahasa Malaysia and the English Language in order to be a cohesive and progressive nation. It cannot be one or the other. In fact, if we take a step further, we also need to be proficient in other major languages in the world like Mandarin, Spanish and French to sharpen our competitive edge.

However, as Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has rightly pointed out, in spite of the many years of exposure to the English Language, many graduates are still struggling with it. Educationists and employers around our country will readily agree with him.

Before we delve into the reasons for this situation, let us also recognise that there are also many Malaysians who are not only proficient in Bahasa Malaysia and English, but are also fluent in other languages like Tamil or Chinese dialects such as Cantonese and Hokkien.

To add to this, we have foreign workers who live and work among us, who have gained good working knowledge of Bahasa Malaysia and even one or two Chinese dialects within a matter of months of being in Malaysia, whilst our graduates who seemly have the advantage of being formally taught the languages are grappling with basics.

Often, it boils down to the mindsets of the learner. In the case of children who may be exposed to multiple languages simultaneously, they tend to learn quickly to internalise the grammar rules of the different languages simply because the need to communicate is great, and they are not inhibited by prejudice or the fear of failing. As in the case of the foreign worker, he or she is simply driven by the need to survive.

At tertiary level, students learn languages not for the sake of mastering the conventions of the language but they need to internalise the language in relation to specific subjects. Students need to understand the content and terminology applicable to their subject area such as engineering, law or medicine. There have been countless occasions, where we have observed students struggling to cope with this disconnection between being proficient in the language and mastering the language in relation to specific subjects.

It is important for educationists to instil amongst our young learners that the need to communicate proficiently in both Bahasa Malaysia and English is imperative in order to be successful in one’s future career, not just for the sake of mastering grammar rules.

We need to be cognisant of the fact that the ability to acquire and be proficient in a language is impeded by a lack of motivation and a failure to appreciate that doors to countless opportunities can only be unlocked through one’s proficiency in language.

We cannot, as individuals and as a nation afford to be unilateral in our focus – the ability to be bilingual or even trilingual should not be seen as a unique ability possessed by a select few but as threshold requirement in being successful.