by SHARMILA NAIR
SZETO YAN Weng is a stickler for proper English. It is highly advisable that one does not butcher the language by incorporating Manglish (Malaysian English) or, worse, making grammatical errors when speaking to him.
It is not because Szeto would get angry and hit you over the head with a dictionary. It is simply because he would correct you in a know-it-all way even if that is more irritating than it is educational, and he doesn’t care if it offends you.
“I try to speak proper English at all times because I feel like an idiot when I don’t,” stated Szeto, 19.
Szeto, of course, is a rare breed these days. His friends have got angry over his tendency to correct their sentences and he has been labelled a grammar freak many times; but that hasn’t stopped him from using proper English or expecting the same level of proficiency from his chums.
“On first impression, your level of English proficiency indicates whether you are a learned person or not. That may determine your future interactions with people, as well as opportunities in education and the workplace.”
Although there are many young people like Szeto who have a love and appreciation for the language, statistics indicate that the standard of English in Malaysia has been declining at a worrying rate.
A survey conducted by the Education Ministry showed that 56% of Malaysian employers cite fresh graduates’ poor command of English as a reason for not hiring them. Dowan, gostan, ‘Where got?’, can-lah, nochet and ‘How can?’ are just some of the words and phrases we use, but these colloquial terms would drive Engliah scholars who are unfamiliar with Manglish up the wall.
Got problem, meh?
The Star’s Mind Our English columnist Dr Lim Chin Lam described Manglish as a language “made up largely (about 99% ) of English words, interspersed with elements from at least three of the main languages of the country” (Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin and Tamil).
He also added: “While the vocabulary may be largely English, the grammar is not, and sentence construction in Manglish almost seems to be without structure.”
It is not unusual for one to hear young Malaysians forego correct grammar and syntax when speaking or writing in English. In fact, most of them speak Manglish now.
The Education Ministry has been working to improve the teaching and learning of English. “Steps taken include appointing two language teachers for classes with a high enrolment and introducing language arts in teaching and learning methods,” said Education Ministry deputy director-general Dr Khair Mohamad Yusof at the recent 21st Malaysian English Language Teaching Associations (Melta) International Conference. Sharon Bakar, a creative writing teacher, co-founder of the monthly Kuala Lumpur literary gathering, Readings, and literary blogger (thebookaholic.blogspot.com), however, feels that Malaysians do not realise the importance of English.
“I think there is an attitude problem – many learners believe that English is not important or feel they are being somehow disloyal to their national language if they use it.
“It is important as it is a world language, and without it, Malaysians are communicating in a limited sphere. I think learners often do not realise how much they will need English when they leave school,” she said.
Many of these school leavers end up learning the importance of English proficiency the hard way when they start working. “Some years ago, I was employed to work with technicians in a multinational chemical company. Their English was poor, but they had to read manuals in English, interact with overseas counterparts, travel overseas to gain expertise in their field, and sit for City and Guilds exams in English. Because their jobs suddenly depended on the need to become competent in English, they learned very fast.
Sathesh Raj’s foreign friends subscribed to the adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” and learned to speak Manglish instead.
“I guess they just integrated into Malaysian society. This is a culturally diverse nation with people who speak many different languages. I think that has somehow instilled in most of us that it is okay to speak bahasa rojak,” said Sathesh, 20.
The economics and management student doesn’t think there is anything wrong in speaking Manglish every day, provided the speaker knows when to draw the line. “I always use ‘can meh?’, ‘fuyoh’, ‘tumpang-ing’ in conversation, but not during formal events. I don’t think there is a need to be formal when talking to friends at the mamak stalls, right?” he said.
He believes that most Malaysians are adaptable when it comes to English, whereby they know when to slaughter it beyond recognition and also when to use it impeccably.
“You have to maintain a certain degree of professionalism in classes and during presentations to add to your credibility and project a good image. It also makes you feel confident, somehow.
“In informal settings, I don’t think the level of proficiency is important at all; unless of course, the people you’re hanging out with really care about the way you speak. So, around them, you will have to speak proper English, I guess,” he added.
There are many ways to improve one’s command of English. Sharon believes students pick up the language more easily if teachers make the learning process fun and communicative. “By that I mean the learners should actually use the language for meaningful communication.”
She also thinks well-equipped school and community libraries will encourage more young people to pick up books, which would facilitate the learning process. “I don’t think it’s actually easy to master any language, but if learners are doing things that they enjoy through the language, then it won’t be a chore,” said Sharon.