My name is Qayyum and I’ve been involved in grassroots English education close to 3 years now under a little project I started back in 2013 called Englishjer that promotes English appreciation amongst youths. The outfit has over 124,000 followers on Twitter, dozens of videos on youtube and of course this website, englishjer.com. Englishjer has also travelled all over Malaysia to conduct training, workshops, and camps benefitting thousands of youths to date.
Much has been said about our youngster’s English proficiency over the past few years, and many of the data actually contradict each other. For example, there’s a survey by Jobstreet and PEMANDU that stresses the need for much better standards of English amongst job-seeking youths – and then there’s a global ranking of English proficiency by English First that places Malaysia as one of the best English speaking countries in Asia.
I have many theories as to why the standards leave so much to be desired. I used to think our standards for English proficiency is too high. I am reminded of how my teachers used to stress the need sound British when we talk in English. I would often, in my head at least, retort “But teacher, were not in England…”. In some cases I do believe the standards are too high, but there is no universal measure for this. it must be determined according to the specific environment of the group of people you are placing these standards upon. You must take into account how important is English in the community they live in, how much exposure to the English language they get, teacher’s attitude towards the language, and a host of other things.
But I’m not here to talk about my theories, but rather my experiences in dealing directly with the youths when it comes to approaching English as a language that can be beneficial to them in the long run.
One: Tap into positivity. As much as I would like to believe the problem is systemic, I actually think we have a problem with our education culture. I would like to refer to culture as things outside of the formal institutions like our schools and universities. We must make our youths want to learn, and currently what they do outside the formal systems do not in any way assist their English proficiency. We owe some kindness and gentleness when we approach our youths about mastering English. I always start with encouraging them to read in English about the things they like. Follow their favourite English-speaking celebrities, news portals, read comics, if they like. Get them to want to learn, that’s always a crucial first step. If you get this right, the next few steps, like acquiring real technical skills of the language will be that much easier.
Start small, start simply, and it’s okay to not get it the first time. Scaring them with old demons like “If you don’t learn English, you won’t get a good job and you’ll have a bleak future” simply will not work anymore – or rather, it will work too well that you’ll discourage some of them completely. The same thing happens when you ridicule somebody for their English proficiency.
When you find a child, tell them the wonders of education instead of scaring them with a hypothetical world where they cannot succeed if they cannot master English.
Two: The youths need better role models. People who are proficient cannot undermine how greatly they can impact the social scene they populate. Observe the social media sphere right now and you will see it’s littered with either gossips, dubious and questionable news, or personalities that could do more than just promote products on Instagram. I indulge in these things too, of course, but social media has a bigger power than what we have shaped it to become. We can take use celebrity culture to attract people to use English, or at least to not be intimidated by it.
For a shift to happen, we have to make social media smarter and become a positive influencer for the youths. For that to happen, we must encourage better people to have their presence counted in social media to at least give fight to all the nonsensical status quo. When this happens, social media will be more open to be used for education.
Three: Narrow the gap. There is a gaping void in the media consumed by the majority Malay speaking youths and the English speaking youths. They organise, attend, and enjoy different kinds of events and these events don’t intersect often. There must be a common ground for the youths to meet, english speakers and other language speakers alike. It needn’t be an event where everyone speaks a certain language but there must at least be a common theme that everyone can rally behind that does not discourage, whether mentally or via accessibility, diversity of audience.
Like it or not, there is an unspoken prejudice amongst the youths when it comes to the language they use. I have experienced this first hand many times. We must let everyone know that we’re in this together so we can help each other in the process and shed some of the prejudices we have over certain others just because they do not think like we do.
That’s pretty much all I can contribute to this on-going debate of English proficiency amongst our youths. Maybe we don’t have to look so far into the cause of the problem and start pointing fingers as to who’s responsible. We can do that all day (and trust me, I’ve been doing that for years!)
Maybe it’s time to look at ourselves as part of the solution and start doing something.