Malaysia top-scores for English — but hold the cheers

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Malaysia has been rated top in English-language proficiency among Asian countries and the only high-proficiency country outside Europe, according to rankings on an English Proficiency Index, the first produced by a private English training organisation EF Education First, which has a network of 400 English-language schools around the world.

Hold the cheering, though.

For one thing, the rankings do not include Singapore, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, most of the Gulf countries, Papua-New Guinea or Australia and New Zealand. The whole of Africa and North America are out, and so is the UK.

For another, the index was based on scores from two online English-language tests available on the Internet and two placement tests used by EF when students enrol at its English-language schools.

It seems obvious that few Singaporeans, Australians or New Zealanders bothered to take EF’s tests or enrol in their English-language schools, thus the absence of those countries on the rankings.

Countries are ranked only if a minimum of 400 people from that country took the EF tests.

In effect this is a giant puff for the company.

The fact that Malaysia top-scored, as well as had sufficient numbers to enrol in English-training seems to show up the ambivalence in Malaysian official society on the value of English, as well as the strength of the legacy of English education.

The report is bound to provoke controversy with one of its recommendations — that communication skills should receive priority over grammatical correctness.

This is already the main principle behind English-language training in Malaysian schools, and probably the main cause of frustration among English-language editors and probably among ad/PR agency directors, too, for the shoddiness in English that results in the products of Malaysian education.

Parents and teachers who care about English-language proficiency will similarly be aghast.

The Malaysian education system is already geared towards communications English, or coffeeshop English, resulting in a generation of Malaysians unable to communicate effectively in English even if they opted for the Cambridge O-level English-language paper as well as SPM English.

The results have been apparent in English-language journalism in Malaysia over two decades: reporters and even editors badly let down by their poor grounding in grammar, unable to express themselves or effectively understand idiomatic English, or cope with the nuances of a language where almost every word reeks of ambiguity and where context is everything.

And that’s not even taking into account the need of all English-language reporters to be equally proficient in Malay, and in Chinese newspapers, almost to be trilingual.

That aside, the report makes favourable noises about the role of English in Malaysia’s multi-cultural society which our newspapers will no doubt lap up.

Some conclusions about how to encourage English proficiency:
• Send all children to school and give them an education on par with today’s global standards.
• Teach English in public schools as a required language for all students, starting by age 12, continued throughout secondary school and into university or professional school.
• Cultivate a culture of multilingualism. The more families and governments do to foster the expectation of everyone speaking more than one language, the more children will expect it of themselves.
• Recognize that many adults missed out on English training in public school. Amongst adults feeling economic pressure, demand for English learning is already high. They need low barrier paths to training and realistic goals that take into account the years required to master a foreign language.

A certain amount of self-interest may be evident in EF pushing for language training. That’s their business, after all.

For those interested in the full report:

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