Tuesday, 29 December 2015

English in Malaysia: General overview

English as an international language

It is undeniable that English is the most common and the most important language in the world. The speakers can be found almost anywhere, whether native or non-native. The expansion and acceptance of English is still growing. According to Zaharuddin (1993), this widespread use of English is due to two successive periods where two English speaking countries dominated the world with their wealth, strength, economic power and advanced technology. During the period of the 19th century, the English controlled the world trade. After that, from the 20th century onwards, the United States of America takes over. Malaysia learns English as a result of the British colonisation, similar to other countries which have had the same experience, and takes the language as the second language because of its importance in development and modernisation.

Presently, Zaharuddin (1993) stated that English is used by a number of countries totalling about 600 million people. Half of the population is native speakers while the other half is of the non-native speakers. Since English is still expanding, it is estimated that the number of non-native speakers of English may exceed the number of native speakers. Strevens (1980) stated that it would be an area of interest, since “the larger the total number of users, the larger the number of differentiated versions of the language which will develop.”

The position of English language in Malaysia

Due to colonisation, English was introduced to Malaysia, and has become the second language. Presently, it is an international language and is used as the language in international relations, and in exchanging knowledge and technology.

According to Platt (1982), English has had a comparatively long history in Malaysia. It was only since a few decades ago that it is taught to almost all school children. Historically, the Malays were the main ethnic group until the 19th century. They lived mainly along the coasts and rivers. Though there were a number Indian and Chinese merchants who settled here during the 15th century, a great number of them arrived after the establishment of British. Platt (1982) says that English colonies grew rapidly. When Kuala Lumpur became the capital of the federation, with the development of the British administration, the importance and use of English increased. However, then, Malay or pidginised Malay was used as a tool of communication between the ethnic groups. A local “English-based pidgin” did not develop, but the basic Pidgin English was used to communicate with the Europeans here.

Since the independence in 1957, English has had changes in its roles and functions. In government’s effort to unify the multi-racial Malaysia and create a sense of identity, Bahasa Melayu has been chosen to be the national language. Juliah (1993) stated that being the national language, it is also the official language and the medium of instruction. Therefore, every Malaysian citizen has to acquire it. According to Asmah (1983), as an official language, Malay is used orally or in written form in official and formal communications in government administration. As a medium of instruction, Malay is the medium used in schools and other educational institutions. Juliah (1993) added that due to its significant status and role in communication and language teaching, Malay has been made as a compulsory subject in all schools and institutions run by the government. With this new educational policy, Malay is gaining more and more prestige and importance.
With the upgrading of Malay, English was phased out from being the official and prestigious language. Its position has been reduced to the second language, and its usage is very limited. In the public sector, English is no longer important. In academic field, English is learned mainly because it offers access to higher academic pursuits and certain positions in employment. Although English is a compulsory subject, students do not have to pass it in public examinations. Juliah (1993) says that this has caused indifferent attitude and lack of motivation towards studying the language. Besides that, with Malay being the official language, there is a limited usage of English outside the classrooms, and even outside the English periods. These factors could be the reasons why the level of English proficiency among Malaysian students has declined seriously since the independence.

English in the Malaysian Education system

Though Malay is chosen as the national and official language, the government realises the importance of English as a tool for international communication and development. Therefore, English is taken as the second language in this country.

In the education system, English is made a compulsory subject to all students. The education system has been designed to produce students who are able to communicate effectively in English. Asmah (1983) stated that in terms of speaking skills, the goal of it is to teach students so that they can be understood not only by other Malaysians, but also by other English speaking communities in the world. This can be seen in the Upper Secondary School Curriculum Specification (form four and five) where the aims are:

The English Language Programme for the upper secondary school level aims at building and extending upon the proficiency of the students from the lower secondary school level so as to equip them with the skills and knowledge of English to communicate in certain job situations; and also to provide points of take-off for various post-secondary school needs.


Asmah Hj. Omar. 1982. Language and society in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur : Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka
Juliah Mohamad Beon.1993. Stress and meaning : Malay UKM students’ ability to apply English word stress. Academic exercise. University Kebangsaan Malaysia

Platt and Weber. 1980. English in Singapore and Malaysia: status, features, functions. Oxford : Oxford University Press

Strevens, P. 1980. Teaching English as an International Language. Oxford : Pergamon Press

Zaharuddin Yaacob. 1993. Intonation Patterns of Malaysian newscasters : a pilot study. Academic exercise. University Kebangsaan Malaysia.

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