Wither English, Wither Nation

Posted on June 20, 2012


The title of this article is inspired by a presentation I heard at an English language conference I attended recently.  It was a gathering of educators involved in the teaching of English in schools and people who are committed to raising the standard of spoken and written English in our nation. Coincidentally, another article by Stephen Doss was published at the same time entitled “Whither the standard of English.”


Coming back to the conference, for me, a few facts stood out. Firstly, the height from which our command of English has fallen in our nation as a whole.  Most of the invited speakers spoke impeccable English, especially the “dinosaurs” amongst them. But they were from a  by-gone era, an era where English was the main language of instruction in our schools and our proficiency in the language were among some of the best in the world.

Secondly, there is a sense of haplessness among the educators that they are going against the flow, that the political will is not there to stem the downward slide despite all the chatters from politicians about improving the standard of English in our country.  The reversal of the decision to teach Math and Science in English is one such example of this inconsistency.

Thirdly, that the fruit of this decline is now maturing into our society, where we heard a newspaper editor and a hotel owner bemoaning the fact that they are finding it increasingly difficult to secure employees who are able to speak and write good English, which is a vital criterion in their industries.  We used to laugh at signage and product manuals from China but now we laugh with them.

But alas, all is not lost especially when we heard from some of the younger teachers who spoke.  Their passion, creativity and commitment to raise the level of English in our schools and their use of new technology is encouraging and gave us hope that there are still many out there who believe that English as a language is still important in this country.


The link I want to make in this article is the link between English proficiency and the destiny of a nation, thus the title “Wither English, Wither Nation”, that is, if we allow our command of the language to decline, we invariably assign our nation to a bleaker future.

Through advancement in communication and transportation systems, we live in a world where we are intertwined to each other economically, financially, culturally, and socially.  All these connections are facilitated by languages and in most cases, it is the English language.

In Stephen Doss’ article, he listed the following data related to the use of English in different situations:

  1. 380 million speak English as a second language;
  2. One billion speak English as a foreign language;
  3. There are an estimated 1.7 billion users of the language. English dominates the Internet, the print media, business, aviation, conferences, other international events, etc;
  4. Approximately one billion are learning English worldwide;
  5. Over the Internet, about 80 per cent of home pages and 60 per cent of e-mail are in English;
  6. English is the medium of higher education in many countries, eg India, the Netherlands, Oman, South Africa, Sweden and Turkey;
  7. 85 per cent of the world’s knowledge is in English; and
  8. 98 per cent of scientific papers are written in English.


Even with the rise of China as an economic superpower and along with it becoming a super influencer in all spheres and the fact that even now, by the sheer number of Chinese in the world, Mandarin is used by the most number of people, the place of English as the lingua franca of the world is unlikely to be displaced in the foreseeable future.

Renowned linguist David Graddol in the introduction of his book – English Next (2006) said, “People have wondered for some years whether English had so much got its feet under the global office desk that even the rise of China – and Mandarin – could ever shift it from its position of dominance. The answer is that there is already a challenger, one which has quietly appeared on the scene whilst many native speakers of English were looking the other way, celebrating the rising hegemony of their language. The new language which is rapidly ousting the language of Shakespeare as the world’s lingua franca is English itself – English in its new global form, this is not English as we have known it, and have taught it in the past as a foreign language. It is a new phenomenon, and if it represents any kind of triumph, it is probably not a cause of celebration by native speakers.”


In other words, English is no longer owned by native English speakers but by the global community.  Increasingly so it is no longer considered as a foreign language and in its evolving form certainly not exotic.  Its development as a language is no longer determined by the native speakers and not constrained by the technical rules of English grammars and sentence constructions but are shaped by practical functionality and by the global community.  For the purists, this is scary and disturbing but for the rest of the world, it is our global language.

Another way to understand what is happening is to borrow a term from the IT world.  English is an “open-source” language because unlike French or Arabic, I am told, it doesn’t have an official governing body to decide what can or cannot be added to the language.  As a result, newly invented words are added to the English vocabulary every day by individuals and organizations across the globe.


While the nations of the world are waking up to the fact that for globalization to work they must have a global language and most have voted to go with English, including China.  We as a nation have chosen to walk away from the rich heritage we inherited from the British and have systematically dismantled our advantage in this language.  Why, when and how did it happen?  It has to do with nationalism and nation-building.  Read Stephen’s article for a more detailed chronicle of the whens, hows and whys of this decline. [Click here]

Some may argue that our standard of English is still alright, like the gentleman from the state education department who closed the above-mentioned English conference by giving his speech entirely in Malay. He presented glowing statistics of the passing rates of English in the national and vernacular schools.  Impressive stats, 85% passing rates, 75%, etc.  But these figures are meaningless!  I know of a private school whose Grade 2 class (8 year olds) are able to pass the UPSR English with scores of 60 and above.  Let’s not fool ourselves.  English in the nation has withered!  Lowering the standard to raise the passing rates fool no one but ourselves.

The ultra-nationalists amongst us may argue that giving priority to the teaching of English in our country is tantamount to linguistic imperialism for we are reverting to the language of our colonial masters.  Whilst one does recognize the importance of Bahasa Melayu as the National Language in forging a Malaysian identity, we must not condemn our children to a future where they are not equipped with the language skills needed to communicate with the rest of the world.


If we believe that learning is a life-long process and does not end with our formal education and exams, we would be severely restricting our children’s ability to access the vast repository of knowledge if they cannot understand English. The information age would pass them by if they can’t read the information.  Have you ever been to a country where all the signage is written in a language foreign to you?  I have.  You might as well be a blind and mute man!

Another outcome of not making the English language one of the main languages in our national school system is that we are creating a new class system based on one’s proficiency in the English language.  Those who can afford private or overseas education would pay top dollar for a good English education to ensure that their children have a head-start in life because they know that when it comes down to a choice between two equally qualified candidates, the one with the better command of English would have the advantage.  I wonder how many of the same politicians who condemned our children to a national education policy that marginalize English also send their own children to our national schools?  Or are they hypocritically sending their own children overseas to get  good English education?  A new ruling class is being created at the great expense to the majority of Malaysians!


Proponents for the reintroduction of English in our schools are not calling for the doing away with the national language but for multilingualism.  Malaysia, being a multi-cultural society, is uniquely placed on the world stage to be a truly multi-linguistic society where we can be proficient in Malay, English, Mandarin and Tamil.  A typical Malaysian should be able to speak and understand at least three languages, the National Language, English and their mother tongue.  This is something many in the world would be envious of and would give us an advantage in the world.

In his book English Next, David Graddol saw a trend that “… in an increasing number of countries, English is now regarded as a component of basic education, rather than as part of the foreign languages curriculum. A surprising number of countries now aspire to bilingualism”.  Basically, to retain a national identity, countries would continue to teach their national language but in order to be relevant in a globalized world, English is taught, not as a foreign language but as a core component of education.


What should be the way forward?  I believe we need to have an education system that best prepare our children for the future. By being proficient in English, we are giving them the essential skill to communicate with the rest of humanity, accessing knowledge and information, and become a contributing member of the global community.

It will take political courage and will to bring about a revamp of the education system and raise the standard of English in our country.  Short-sighted and populist policies may appease some but in the end undermine the foundation for a strong and competitive nation. The longer we delay the reversal of making English a priority in our schools, the harder it would be for us to climb out of the pit as the generation of teachers who have had an English education retire or have already retired.  It is now or never!

Benjamin Disraeli, a British Prime Minister once said, “Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends.”    Truer words were never spoken!