by Marina Tan
I recently became the first Malaysian to win the English Speaking Union (ESU) International Public Speaking Competition held in London in May. It was an amazing experience for so many reasons; the city, the activities, West End, and of course the shock and jubilation of winning- but mostly it was amazing because of the people I met. The IPSC brought together 54 students from 51 different countries ranged in age from 16 to 20 to compete, meet and most importantly, share.
These were all people like myself; young, energetic, mature and bursting with ideas and opinions. We had opinions on absolutely anything and everything and we definitely were not afraid to articulate them. Through our coffee-table discussions and debates, we learned so much about one another’s cultures and experienced a whole different worldview. Although we rarely agreed on anything; be it the death penalty or democracy or music, what we all took back was an increased understanding of the global culture. Seeing things from the perspectives of different cultural norms or economic realities not only highlighted the different ways we think but also the similarities in our ideals and in our determination to be heard. Communication is the foundation of any working relationship and I would have been completely shut out of this wonderful fellowship of like-minded young people had I not possessed an excellent command of the English language.
I think it is so important for children to grow up to be able to speak and write fluently in English. It is only natural to be more confident about voicing your opinions and ideas if you know the language, as opposed to constantly worrying about grammar and pronunciation. Being able to speak in English meant one less obstacle when it came to expressing myself to a global audience. Coming from an English speaking household, English has always figured hugely in my life as I was an avid reader from childhood. Reading widely provided me with the fodder to think, analyze and formulate my own ideas and arguments and this led to my foray into public speaking and debate.
Many people I meet are surprised that I was a student in a national type school. Foreigners I meet are impressed by the seemingly high standard of English in our national education system while Malaysians who are more attuned to the true realities of the dismal standard of English in national type schools accurately credit my proficiency to my family. I was lucky that my parents not only speak English on a daily basis but chose to send me to Methodist Girls’ School in my home state of Penang where a majority of the teachers and students use English as the lingua franca. That combination makes me one of the lucky Malaysians who speak English fluently without the aid of tuition or private schooling.
I really believe that the standard of English in our national schools needs to be significantly raised. We are well behind our southern neighbor in terms of the English curriculum and that is such a lamentable disadvantage simply because it is one so easily rectified.
The standard of teaching for our national language, Bahasa Malaysia is admirably high, as it should be. Enough so that someone like me, who knew little more than a handful of words in Bahasa Malaysia before entering Standard One, now knows the rules for BM grammar better than that for English and writes BM exam essays with better structure and flourish than my English exam essays. There is no reason then for the standard of English in our national type schools not to be equally high; from vocabulary to literature to just simple grammar.
None of us can truthfully assert that the English language is not of the utmost importance in the 21st century, especially as Malaysia looks to become a bigger player on the global stage. Raising the standards of English from the woefully low levels they are at now is not just an obvious but imperative and necessary next step. I may be only seventeen but I am merely echoing the sentiments of hundreds of students who wish that they could credit the national education system for their command of the English language and the hundreds more who are depending on it.