Better than our neighbour?

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Those working in education for decades know that there are problems with English proficiency even among many university students, says Zaharom Nain.

Once more, we evidently get a politician – a half, I mean, deputy, minister – talking through his nether regions.

Deputy Education Minister P Kamalanathan has done his share of shooting his mouth off without providing anything new or substantial to any debate.

He’s the one, lest we forget, who kept trying to reassure everyone that his ministry was ‘investigating’ the UiTM debacle in May last year, when there was a seminar purportedly preaching hate against Christians.

And it would appear that the investigation is still… ongoing. Or more likely, has become a case of NFA. That’s ‘No Further Action’, if you want the polite version.

He is also the one who, in July 2013, failed to reassure parents of pupils in SK Seri Pristina in Sungai Buloh, who were, rightly, upset about their children having to take their meals in the school toilet.

Kamalanathan is also the one who confidently asserted in October 2013 that there would be no slaughtering of animals in school compounds.

Only to be contradicted by his one of his seniors, Idris Jusoh, who then was reported to have said that the Education Ministry “will not prohibit the religious slaughtering of cattle or other animals in schools for korban (ritual sacrifice)”.

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Needless to say, then, Kamalanathan has not had an impressive track record in dealing with controversial issues involving his ministry.

Yet, he’s now gone off on one more of his sad sojourns into an area in which he clearly has no idea what he’s talking about.

Just recently, on 28 March, Kamalanathan was reportedly boasting that Malaysians’ command of English is so good that it is even better than that of Singaporeans.

He then quoted a survey done by Sweden-based Education First (EF) called the English Proficiency Index (EPI).

Referring to the study, he reportedly said, “When we are doing well, we don’t talk about it, but when we do something bad, everyone talks about it.”

What he didn’t say – and what the EF themselves reveal on their website – is that their surveys are Internet-based. Indeed, they do two data collecting exercises via the internet using ‘different’ methods.

According to the EF website, the EPI uses “data from two different EF English tests”. And BOTH are online surveys requiring the respondent to actively seek the questions online.

Self-selected respondents

In other words, and in plain English, the samples are not representative of the wider population. They can’t be because the samples are self-selected ones.

Also, because both are online surveys, those who don’t have access to the Internet are excluded.

Indeed, as EF themselves say on their website, “We recognise that the test-taking population represented in this index is self-selected and not guaranteed to be representative of the country as a whole. Only those people either wanting to learn English or curious about their English skills will participate in one of these tests. This could skew scores lower or higher than those of the general population.

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“In addition, because the tests are online, people without Internet access or unused to online applications are automatically excluded. In countries where Internet usage is low, we expect the impact of this exclusion to be the strongest. This sampling bias would tend to pull scores upward by excluding poorer, less educated, and less privileged people.”

Surely anybody who’d done their basic homework would know from the above that the studies by EF, to put it delicately, have serious limitations.

And they really shouldn’t be used – by a minister (sorry, deputy) at that – to blow his proverbial – and rather worn – trumpet.

Those of us who have been working in education for decades know that there are problems with English proficiency even among many university students.

When you consider that these students are the ‘successful’ products of our school system and that a substantial number of school-leavers do not qualify for universities, can you visualise the extent of the problem in our schools?

Quoting dodgy studies will not resolve the problem. Neither will it cover up a very real problem of English language proficiency in Malaysia that needs to be addressed.

In Malaysian universities, both public and private, the majority of the reference material is in English. No amount of translating will enable us to ‘catch up’ with new knowledge that is produced and disseminated daily.

The ministry itself goes around and around, coming with policies and strategies that, at one time, seem to take cognisance of the problem, but at another, simply pushes aside the problem due to political expediency.

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The fact is, there is a very real problem with English proficiency, certainly among our school children and, certainly, at tertiary level.

If the authorities, including half-baked politicians, don’t want to deal with it in a serious, intelligent manner, that’s fine.

But don’t then start making truly moronic pronouncements that have no valid basis whatsoever.

Many of us are already sick and tired of such grandstanding, such silliness.

Source: Malaysiakini

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