Wither English, wither the nation

— Thomas Fann
The Malaysian Insider
Jun 21, 2012

JUNE 21 — The title of this article is inspired by a presentation I heard at an English language conference I attended recently. It was a gathering of educators involved in the teaching of English in schools and people who are committed to raising the standard of spoken and written English in our nation. Coincidentally, another article by Stephen Doss was published at the same time entitled “Whither the standard of English.” (http://stephendoss.blogspot.com/2012/06/whither-standard-of-english.html)


For me, a few facts stood out. Firstly, the height from which our command of English has fallen in our nation as a whole. Most of the invited speakers spoke impeccable English, especially the “dinosaurs” amongst them. But they were from a bygone era, an era where English was the main language of instruction in our schools and our proficiency in the language was among some of the best in the world.

Secondly, there is a sense of haplessness among the educators that they are going against the flow, that the political will is not there to stem the downward slide despite all the chatter from politicians about improving the standard of English in our country. The reversal in the decision to teach maths and science in English is one such example of this inconsistency.

Thirdly, that the fruit of this decline is now maturing in our society, where we heard a newspaper editor and a hotel owner bemoaning the fact that they are finding it increasingly difficult to secure employees who are able to speak and write good English, which is a vital criteria in their industries. We used to laugh at signage and product manuals from China but now we laugh with them.

But alas, all is not lost especially when we heard from some of the younger teachers who spoke. Their passion, creativity and commitment to raise the level of English in our schools and their use of new technology are encouraging and gave us hope that there are still many out there who believe that English as a language is still important in this country.


The link I want to make in this article is the link between English proficiency and the destiny of a nation, thus the title “Wither English, Wither Nation”, that is, if we allow our command of the language to decline, we invariably assign our nation to a bleaker future.

Through advancement in communication and transportation systems, we live in a world where we are intertwined to each other economically, financially, culturally, and socially. All these connections are facilitated by languages and in most cases, it is the English language.

In Stephen Doss’ article, he listed the following data related to the use of English in different situations:

1. 380 million speak English as a second language;

2. One billion speak English as a foreign language;

3. There are an estimated 1.7 billion users of the language. English dominates the Internet, the print media, business, aviation, conferences, other international events, etc;

4. Approximately one billion are learning English worldwide;

5. Over the Internet, about 80 per cent of home pages and 60 per cent of e-mail are in English;

6. English is the medium of higher education in many countries, e.g. India, the Netherlands, Oman, South Africa, Sweden and Turkey;

7. 85 per cent of the world’s knowledge is in English; and

8. 98 per cent of scientific papers are written in English.


Even with the rise of China as an economic superpower and along with it becoming a super influencer in all spheres and the fact that even now, by the sheer number of Chinese in the world, Mandarin is used by the most number of people, the place of English as the lingua franca of the world is unlikely to be displaced in the foreseeable future.

Renowned linguist David Graddol in the introduction of his book “English Next” (2006) said: “People have wondered for some years whether English had so much got its feet under the global office desk that even the rise of China — and Mandarin — could ever shift it from its position of dominance. The answer is that there is already a challenger, one which has quietly appeared on the scene whilst many native speakers of English were looking the other way, celebrating the rising hegemony of their language. The new language which is rapidly ousting the language of Shakespeare as the world’s lingua franca is English itself — English in its new global form, this is not English as we have known it, and have taught it in the past as a foreign language. It is a new phenomenon, and if it represents any kind of triumph, it is probably not a cause of celebration by native speakers.”


In other words, English is no longer owned by native English speakers but by the global community. Increasingly so it is no longer considered as a foreign language and in its evolving form certainly not exotic. Its development as a language is no longer determined by the native speakers and not constrained by the technical rules of English grammar and sentence construction but are shaped by practical functionality and by the global community. For the purists, this is scary and disturbing but for the rest of the world, it is our global language.

Another way to understand what is happening is to borrow a term from the IT world. English is an “open-source” language because unlike French or Arabic, I am told, it doesn’t have an official governing body to decide what can or cannot be added to the language. As a result, newly invented words are added to the English vocabulary every day by individuals and organisations across the globe.


While the nations of the world are waking up to the fact that for globalisation to work they must have a global language and most have voted to go with English, including China. We as a nation have chosen to walk away from the rich heritage we inherited from the British and have systematically dismantled our advantage in this language. Why, when and how did it happen? It has to do with nationalism and nation-building.

Some may argue that our standard of English is still all right, like the gentleman from the state education department who closed the above-mentioned English conference by giving his speech entirely in Malay. He presented glowing statistics of the passing rates of English in national and vernacular schools. Impressive stats, 85 per cent passing rates, 75 per cent, etc. But these figures are meaningless! I know of a private school whose Grade 2 class (eight year olds) are able to pass the UPSR English with scores of 60 and above. Let’s not fool ourselves. English in the nation has withered! Lowering the standard to raise the passing rates fools no one but ourselves.

The ultra-nationalists amongst us may argue that giving priority to the teaching of English in our country tantamount to linguistic imperialism for we are reverting back to the language of our colonial masters. Whilst one does recognise the importance of Bahasa Melayu as the national language in forging a Malaysian identity, we must not condemn our children to a future where they are not equipped with the language skills needed to communicate with the rest of the world.


If we believe that learning is a life-long process and does not end with our formal education and exams, we would be severely restricting our children’s ability to access the vast repository of knowledge if they cannot understand English. The information age would pass them by if they can’t read the information. Have you ever been to a country where all the signage are written in a language foreign to you? I have. You might as well be a blind and mute man!

Another outcome of not making the English language one of the main languages in our national school system is that we are creating a new class system based on one’s proficiency in the English language. Those who can afford private or overseas education would pay top dollar for a good English education to ensure that their children have a head-start in life because they know that when it comes down to a choice between two equally qualified candidates, the one with the better command of English would have the advantage. I wonder how many of the same politicians who condemned our children to a national education policy that marginalise English also send their own children to our national schools? Or are they hypocritically sending their own children overseas to get a good English education? A new ruling class is being created at the great expense to the majority of Malaysians!


Proponents for the reintroduction of English in our schools are not calling for the doing away with the national language but for multi-linguism. Malaysia, being a multi-cultural society, is uniquely placed on the world stage to be a truly multi-linguistic society where we can be proficient in Malay, English, Mandarin and Tamil. A typical Malaysian should be able to speak and understand at least three languages, the national language, English and his or her mother tongue. This is something many in the world would be envious of and would give us an advantage in the world.

In his book “English Next”, David Graddol saw a trend that “… in an increasing number of countries, English is now regarded as a component of basic education, rather than as part of the foreign languages curriculum. A surprising number of countries now aspire to bilingualism”. Basically, to retain a national identity, countries would continue to teach their national language but in order to be relevant in a globalised world, English is taught, not as a foreign language but as a core component of education.


What should be the way forward? I believe we need to have an education system that best prepares our children for the future. By being proficient in English, we are giving them the essential skill to communicate with the rest of humanity, accessing knowledge and information, and become a contributing member of the global community.

It will take political courage and will to bring about a revamp of the education system and raise the standard of English in our country. Short-sighted and populist policies may appease some but in the end undermine the foundation for a strong and competitive nation. The longer we delay the reversal of making English a priority in our schools, the harder it would be for us to climb out of the pit as the generation of teachers who have had an English education retire or have already retired. It is now or never!

Benjamin Disraeli, a British prime minister once said: “Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends.” Truer words were never spoken!

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 21 June 2012 - 3:22 pm

    “Wither English, wither the nation” – or whither any individual human being or life itself – a wise man (Albert Einstein) is quoted to have oberved, “Life e is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” It is a rule in all nature that anybody and anything that moves (like a flowing river) is alive and anything and anybody that stops moving eventually dies like a stagnant pond! In context iof the subject under discussion, to move on, one has to grasp changed circumstances of Globalisation and let go the anxiety/insecurity of past memories of Colonisation Imperialism “pendatang” . Yet its never truer to say that many especially political elites of incumbent are trapped within this past thinking that their traditional constitutency are euqally so trapped – which explains why Mahathirism & Ketuanan (instead of 1 Malaysia that for this reason is given only lip service) is till resorted to as main defence against a resurgent opposition threat since 2008.

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 21 June 2012 - 3:48 pm

    Ours is communal politics established since Independence – each party UMNO, MCA and MIC take care of its own respective race group. Naturally UMNO being dominant partner would look at angle of its own Malay constituency. Taking back the country at independence UMNO political elites perceived the main collective anxieties/insecurities of the Malay constituency then were to avert political social and economic marginalisation by the then numerically substantial and relatively economically strong “pendatang” given citizenship (again all thanks due to British colonial policies). To assuage anxieties, its important to have symbols such as national identity, culture and definitely language which though shared by all races must be based on that of Malay majority based on their historical entitlement to the land (before the British intervention). The root cause of marginalising English (after May 13 1969 and still contiuing) is UMNO’s political imperative to uphold these symbols. Arguments on Globalisation economic development etc though important to country have no place in their immediate political purposes.

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 21 June 2012 - 4:03 pm

    Until today many UMNO elites (principal spokeman TDM) still believe there’s ample reservoir of such anxiety/insecurities amongst their constitutencies to beat their chest over Ketuanan symbolism ( eg Malay/National language way superior to English in importance) – and to galvanise solo support without traditional BN multiracial MCA/MIC etc support to help defend against and defeat the Opposition. True or not, let’s see in next GE. But it underlines the point: the marginalisation and relegation of English to secondary importance and marginalised role is not because the political elites do not grasp the practical disadvantages or futility of such policies – they do- but more important is the imperative of their preserving and staying in power derived mainly from the majority ethnic group voting support. That overrides all other arguments and practical considerations. They are therefore leveraging on History/Colonial past and themes to stay relevant and ignoring the prerequisites to stay competitive and ahead including mastering English as demanded by changed circumstances of Globalisation and the Wired world! They’re simply not moving on!

  4. #4 by yhsiew on Thursday, 21 June 2012 - 4:16 pm

    BN should stop formulating populist policies (treating Bahasa as being more superior to English) at the expense of young people’s future.

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 21 June 2012 - 4:27 pm

    To try uphold at the public front Malay/National language as symbolicaly superior to English in importance – in order to meet a political objective- and to belakang try meet (piecemeal and indirect methods) the practical requirements of improving English to maintain the economic competitive edge in the backdrop of Globalisation’s demands, is like trying to juggle attentions and dividing time between making the official wife happy in official functions and having sufficient trysts with the mistress in afterwork hours. In the end neither is happy as their objectives are diametrically competitive and opposed. How to be faithful to both? To some, to even make English not more important but equally important is to dishonourably prioritise economic and technlogical benefits over Malay cultural heritage symbolised by language – akin to relegating one’s official wife to the shade and replacing her with a new woman just because she’s richer more youthful and contemporary – an act of unforgivable betrayal.

  6. #6 by PoliticoKat on Thursday, 21 June 2012 - 9:28 pm

    [i]”The ultra-nationalists amongst us may argue that giving priority to the teaching of English in our country tantamount to linguistic imperialism for we are reverting back to the language of our colonial masters.”[/i]

    Sorry ultra-nationalist, you have already been colonized! You guys just don’t want to acknowledge it.

    It is the control of technological development, global economic power, media and ease of use which determines which lingua franca which we must all learn.

    Even the favorite examples of Japanese and Germans actually speak and write in English went they go for International conferences.

    By all means ignore English and teach only Bahasa Melayu. But be prepared to learn English as an adult the moment you leave the country or start working for an international company. It is easier to learn languages when you are a child.

    If I had my way, I would have all Malaysian primary school children be able to read, write and speak in several languages.

    English, Mandarin, Hindi, Malay, Spanish, French.

    We are a multi lingual, multiracial nation. For once I wished our useless government would play to our strengths instead of trying to weaken the nation.

    Kids are not dumb!

  7. #7 by PoliticoKat on Thursday, 21 June 2012 - 9:31 pm

    and Russian!

    Speak all these languages, and Malaysians can do business with any of the BRIC nations and have a lingual foothold in any part of the planet!

  8. #8 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Thursday, 21 June 2012 - 9:32 pm

    I dont know what was once spoken by the uk pm but our current pm said recently, “gimme your nambekai.” but of course i did not. Anyway. Whatever! Umno is supreme. That is the whole problem. How could a supreme body and race (the umnoputras) lower themselves by learning the languages of lesser people? That is the difficulty facing umno. We seem backward and that is only a perception. That is because lesser people felt threatened. They are afraid of umnoputras the superior beings of this universe. You see superior position gives rise to loneliness. And umnoputras are way ahead of everyone else.

    Huh? Wat? Me out of order. Awwww come on but i was having so much fun ….

  9. #9 by monsterball on Friday, 22 June 2012 - 9:33 am

    Breaking news!!
    Indonesian Govt. jailed Umar for 20 years guilty for PREMEDITATED MURDER on the Bali nightclub bombing.
    If Malaysia can conduct a court case on Atlantuya murder, like Indonesia, Najib and Rosmah has to prove beyond shadow of doubts they are innocent.
    Why can’t our laws be like Indonesia?

  10. #10 by Kampong Orang on Friday, 22 June 2012 - 6:13 pm

    Malaysia’s best university is placed above 400th position: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2011-2012/asia.html
    Time to change the managers and those managing behind Malaysia public universities.
    The big talker and big spender (the previous prime ministers) are incapable and unable to manage national resources well.
    Time to CHANGE!

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