By Mohd Fazli Ibrahim
08 January 2001
Teaching a second language to children at an early age ensures a greater chance of obtaining proficiency and a high level of comprehension, writes MOHD FAZLI IBRAHIM.
MEET Amanda, a six-year-old kindergarten pupil in Gombak. Like other children her age, she passes her time in playschool learning to listen, speak, read and write in good Bahasa Malaysia.
Meeting her for the first time, I was entertained by her rendition of nasyid tunes from Raihan and was invited to join her in a game of nenek-nenek si bongkok tiga. She also confided in me that her favourite cartoon is Sailor Moon, a Japanese series dubbed in Bahasa.
Despite her sounding and acting like a Malay child, however, Amanda has wavy blonde hair and her features are clearly Caucasian.
The truth is, Amanda was born in Albania, and Malay is her second language.
Her parents are undergraduates at the International Islamic University in Gombak. Like so many other children of different nationalities at the university's playschool, Amanda receives her instruction in Bahasa Malaysia. Enrolled at the age of four, she was able to acquire a firm grasp of the language from that time.
Amanda still speaks Albanian with her parents. She is living proof that early instruction in a second language is a more effective way of ensuring proficiency and a higher level of comprehension.
Teach them early and the results would come quickly. In no time, children exposed to a second language are able to understand and communicate effectively with each other, without abandoning the use of the home language.
The need to acquire a second language has become an issue of survival in today’s world. The debate raging about the effectiveness of English teaching in schools has caused parental worrying to reach an all-time high.
It seems our youngsters’ standard of English is below par, not enough to help them in a world where English is becoming the main language of technology, commerce, communication and education. It is time to consider new approaches to teach it effectively.
A recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a tertiary education publication in the US, highlighted the growing importance of English as a second language in universities around the world.
Such is the demand for the language that many universities have found ways to circumvent policies that imposed the use of national languages in favour of lessons in English. Lessons taught in English have become the norm, not the exception, even in countries where the language was not the main communicative medium until recently.
Several factors have motivated the growing emergence of English as the language of education. The most obvious, perhaps, is the emergence of the US as the sole superpower after the Cold War.
Its triumph touched off the integration of smaller national economies into a single globalised economy. Of course, to do business in a global economy, you would need to speak the global language first, which means learning English.
English is also the language of information technology and the Internet.
The growing use of the Internet and the important part it plays in driving the new global economy has popularised English beyond the traditional areas of commerce and communication.
Being the language of chatrooms, e-mail and cool new sites, English is accepted as the universal medium of communication in cyberspace.
The third contributing factor is the vast amount of knowledge and literature written in English. A large amount of university textbooks are published in English, covering almost all the fields of the arts and sciences.
The strong foundation laid down for the use of English, especially in education, resulted in the growing number of institutions offering courses in English. In a way, courses taught are popular because students wish to improve their learning skills in a language that is set to grow in tandem with the world economy.
Universities and colleges are also benefiting financially from the move as they seek to attract foreign students. The introduction of courses in English increases the institutions’ marketability to international students, bringing in much-needed tuition money. This trend can even be seen in Kuala Lumpur, with the growing number of public and private institutions opening their doors to foreign students.
English is indispensable if we are to develop an information technology-based economy.
Many people I know feel that 12 years of English instruction imposed by the national curriculum have failed to bring any improvement in the language capabilities of the Malaysian student.
The students produced by this system not only lack the basics of conversational English, they have also shown deficiency in writing skills.
Of course, they still use English after their own fashion.
The Malaysianisation of English has done away with proper semantics of the original language, replacing it with a haphazard system only Malaysians can understand. Perhaps, it is this process of adapting the language to the local idiom that has led to its gradual decline.
Often, even English teachers are not immune to this process. Many have opted to instruct students in Malaysianised English rather than suffer being misunderstood.
No, I am not saying that we should go back to the Pukka accents of the English spoken by the orang putih-planter back in pre-independence days. Nor am I suggesting that we all become English literature professors, ever ready to impress the public with a quotation from Shakespeare.
What we need at this juncture is to find ways to bring English language skills up to the standards acceptable globally. Other alternatives to the present curriculum must be investigated to arrest the decline and improve the quality of the language used in educational institutions.
One thing is certain. Young minds are easily impressionable when it comes to language learning. Living examples such as Amanda strengthen my conviction that second language teaching should begin with the young.
An alternative that can be experimented with is the language immersion technique, where young students are placed under the charge of a bilingual teacher.
Initially, the students would communicate with the teachers in their mother tongue while the teacher replies in the second language. Gradually, these students would develop a firm grasp of the second language, enough to allow them to use it themselves.
While the lessons would continue in the new language for some time, the mother tongue would be reintroduced later, when the targeted proficiency level has been reached.
The system has met with reasonable success in Quebec, Canada in the 1960s. English-speaking parents, in order to help their children learn and understand French, the dominant language of the province, initiated the approach. The immersion method has allowed their children to acquire better proficiency in French compared to students taught through conventional methods.
Their mother tongue abilities also did not seem to suffer due to the experience, and in some cases may even seem to improve.
In conclusion, educational policy-makers in Malaysia should consider strongly any approach that could improve the teaching of English. Perhaps it is high time we adopted an approach that concentrates on quality in place of one that concentrates solely on the quantity of instruction.
Maybe our curriculum experts can learn a few things from Amanda.