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Factors that leads to poor level of English proficiency among Malaysian


“What happened to the 11 years of learning English? “Why can’t our students speak
fluently in English even after 11 years of schooling?” “How is speaking skill taught in the
English language classroom?” A distinction in SPM but cannot speak in English?” (Spawa and
Fauziah Hassan, 2003, p. 1) These are the disturbing questions that haunt most of the
Malaysian nowadays. Poor levels of English proficiency among Malaysian learners has
become a national problem. Speaking proficiency in English is crucial if Malaysia wants to
produce a generation of global communicators, which is in line with the country’s mission to
become a fully developed nation.

In line with current global development, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun
Abdullah Badawi had been making serious calls to graduates to attain proficiency in English
so that they are marketable and employable (as cited in Hei, 2012). Lately, the 10th economic
plan of Malaysia even set aside a large sum of amount to elevate the English proficiency of
our country by bringing in native speakers of English (as cited in Hei, 2012). Both calls shows
how important English is in this century. Yet, we often hear of grievances that many Malaysian
learners are unable to compete in international level due to their poor English proficiency.
There are mainly three factors that contribute to this situation which are dominance of mother
tongue, student’s negative attitude and unqualified teachers.

In Malaysia, interference of a mother tongue language system in some ways

contributes to poor level of English proficiency among Malaysian learners. According to
Ashworth (1992), a mother tongue or native language is the language which the person learns
in early years and which become their natural medium of thought and communication. In
Malaysia most of the learners are from Indian, Malay or Chinese families. So, the learners
often use their own language to speak among their family or classmates because they are
more comfortable and fluent when speaking their own language rather than using English. For
instance, the Indian community speaks Tamil and the Chinese community speaks Mandarin
or Cantonese. Furthermore, majority of parents use their native language to speak with their
children rather than English. Since they often speak their native language at home and during
their interaction with their friends, peers, and classmates, there is a bleak chance to learn
English through day-to-day interaction.

Ellis (1999) claims that the grammatical structure of the native language tends to be
transferred to the foreign language and it is the major problem in learning the foreign language.
Similar, interference of mother tongue will limit their English proficiency and lead to wrong use
of English grammatical structures. Meanwhile, this will disrupt the fluency of the English
communication in learners. This is because they tend to refer to their native language system
when writing in English, use direct translation and depend on dictionary meanings to
comprehend English text (Ambigapathy, 2002). In short, a student with limited exposure to
English therefore, would be less successful in language acquisition (Jamali, 1991). In order to
overcome this problem parents should play their role well in fostering literacy among their
children. One of the greatest way for parents to help their children learn English is by speaking
English in home. More chances will arise for children to excel in English when parents use
English at home. Besides, they also should exhibit a positive attitude towards the language by
providing good examples and support their children learning by providing enough support
materials to reinforce their children’s interest in English.

Another factor contribute to poor level of English proficiency among Malaysian learners
is the negative attitudes towards the English Language. Gardner (1985) defined attitude has
the overall feelings of a person towards any particular thing. He also proposed that attitude is
a crucial element in language learning. Negative attitude such as fear, anxiety, lack of
confidence, unwillingness and lack of motivation to speak English are the most common
problem faced by Malaysians learners. According to a survey conducted by Ju Lin and Warden
(1998), most of the students had either fear or unpleasant feelings about their past English
learning experiences. This feeling will suppress their quest to learn English. Students also will
feel shy to speak English in front public. They afraid that their peers will embarrass or criticize
them. So they are less motivated to speak English in front of others. The study conducted by
Shamsudin and Nesi (2006) claimed that students are often declining to use English is
because they are embarrassed about their lack of fluency.

At the same time, learners also always express their unwillingness and high level of
anxiety to use English to communicate in front of a group. This anxiety could originate from
the learners themselves, negative attitudes towards the language learning and motivation
factors (Victori and Lockhart, 1995). Noor Hashimah (2007) found out that language anxiety
among higher education learners cause them difficulty to express themselves in English. In
addition, Laskowski (1996) admitted in seminars, over 41% of people have some fear or
anxiety dealing with speaking in front of a particular group. This is mainly due to fear of
rejection. They fear that the audience will not pay attention on their speech and they might be
disagreed with their ideas. Thus, they refuse to use the language in public. In short, the lower
the usage of English, the lower level of proficiency they have. The best solution for this problem
is the learners themselves should create their own opportunities to engage themselves with
language based activities such as public speaking. They also should read regularly as reading
will expose them to new words that eventually will enhance their speaking skills. Being well
spoken is a great help in any field and knowing that they can speak to other people who share
the language with self-confidence can be an enormous boost to their self-esteem.

On the other hand, unqualified teachers are also one of the major cause for the low
proficiency among the Malaysian learners. According to Geringer (2003), the most important
factor in student learning progress is the teachers. The teacher is the most vital element in the
teaching and learning process because they are responsible for implementation of the
educational process in accordance with the classroom reality (Shehdeh Fareha, 2010). No
huge amount of investment in education can improve quality of English language learning
unless there are well qualified English teachers to provide quality language education.
Unfortunately, majority of Malaysian teachers are unqualified to teach English in schools.
Quality veteran teachers who have a lot of experience to teach English is retiring gradually.
These teachers is being replaced by new and younger teacher who have limited exposure to
the language (Omer, 2011). Former Education Minister ll Datuk Idris Jusoh has stated that
about two-thirds of English Language teachers in the country have been classified as
incapable or unfit to teach the subject in schools (Borneo post, 2013). Although, many of these
teachers are degree holders, most of them have no sufficient teaching knowledge that qualify
them to teach English. This is undeniable true as many young graduates could not
communicate in good English. This is indicate when some children in Kelantan are being
taught to pronounce the word cucumber as “chu-chum-ber”. They are also being told by their
English teacher that hibiscus should be pronounced as “hee-bis-coose” (News Straits Time,
2015) Therefore, it is not a surprise that most of English teacher are not equip with the proper
knowledge to teach English. This situation clearly indicates the poor standard of English
teachers in Malaysia.

This statement is further supported when 70 percent out of the 60000 English
Language teachers who sat for the English Language Cambridge Placement Test (CPT)
performed poorly (Borneo post, 2013). Now, the question is if the teacher by themselves have
no proficiency in English, how they are going to teach the student in English. In addition to
that, English teacher nowadays often use bilingual as a medium to teach English. They often
use the Malay language or native language to explain the students who do not understand in
English during English classes. This is a wrong attempt used by them as an English teacher
(Kannan, 2009). This causes the tendency for the pupils to think in their native language and
render their thoughts into English. Since English language has different grammar structure
from their native language. Their English writing and speaking appears to make no sense.
The teachers are also rarely look for ways to improve their language teaching methods. The
classroom arrangement, language activities and materials chosen by the English teachers are
irrelevant or inappropriate to teach English. Thus, the unqualified teachers indirectly
discouraged the proficiency among Malaysian learners. As a solution for this problem, the
ministry must ensure that there are only qualified teachers should teach English language in
schools. They should recruit new teachers with English proficiency instead of trying to retrain
inadequate teachers which is waste of time. On the other hand, teachers also should
encourage them to become intrinsically motivated by becoming good role models of the
language users. They should also guide the students towards becoming autonomous learners,
which is required of them in order to become fluent speakers.

In summary, I strongly believe that mother tongue interference is one of the strong
reason for detteriotion of English proficiency among Malaysian learners. At the same time,
negative attitudes towards English Language and unqualified teacher are also attributing to
this scenario. As a solution for this problem parents should speak English in home. Besides,
learners should implement positive attitude towards English in themselves. Having the right
attitude towards English will eventually motivate the learners to learn the English. As for
teachers, they should master the language before they teach the pupils. In short, it is
necessary that the people of this country acquires the English language in order to achieve
our country’s Vision 2020.