Sunday, August 08 2004

COMMENT: English, BM must work together

By Radha K. Vengadasalam

It seems highly inappropriate and totally out of place to discuss the virtues of Bahasa Malaysia in an English daily.
But this is precisely where we should be having the discussions.
Recently there was a "Grand Lecture" on the Malay language organised jointly by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and Persatuan Linguistik Malaysia, and what an interesting event it was.
It was also interesting to note that the speaker frequently went off tangent, touching on issues that under normal circumstances would have provoked a storm of protest, but not in the confined group situation that we were in.
No, there won’t be a discourse on the off tangent issues but it would be good to openly argue the case for closely monitoring the languages.
Must it be that the usage of English is at the expense of Bahasa Malaysia or must the usage of Bahasa Malaysia be blamed for the deterioration of the proficiency in English language?
Both the languages can, should, and must co-exist without launching attacks on each other.
It is time we analyse the real reason for the deterioration rather than engage in silly headline-seeking statements.
Not for a moment do I think that the usage of Bahasa Malaysia in primary education in Mathematics and Science has led to a lack of proficiency in English; neither would the increased usage of English in schools now increase the proficiency of the language.
This emphasis of English again has brought about some interesting situations, like the Mathematics teacher who had been teaching "increasing" and "decreasing" all year long, only to use "ascending" and "descending" when setting the examination papers.
Yes, there is the thesaurus and dictionary but the poor, probably over-worked teacher did slip up, much to the ire of pupils and parents alike. But that is not mathematics; that is English.
Many of us started Primary One and finished the secondary education in Bahasa Malaysia. There is nothing wrong with my English proficiency (some may disagree though).
In fact these days I am embarrassed and full of regret that my command of Bahasa Malaysia has fallen due to lack of usage.
Knowing a language well is all about practice and usage. Language is not something you can learn by heart. It is a fluid stuff, honed by practice leading to perfection.
Practice is something we severely lack. In a country of over 22 million inhabitants, the combined daily English language newspaper circulation is less than a million.
Yes, there are many who do not buy newspapers but read it at the office or borrow it from friends or colleagues. Still, this does not explain the depressing circulation figures.
While we are harping on the lack of proficiency in English, there is also the danger of the same in Bahasa Malaysia.
Then there is the case of using so many Anglicised words in Bahasa Malaysia when we have perfectly good Malay words for them, like "biologi" being used instead of kajihayat.
During my school days, I used to read Malay novels and literature to familiarise myself with words and usage. These days it is difficult to even read the Malay dailies as the words and usage are beyond recognition.
Those who are very passionate about the need to safeguard Bahasa Malaysia seem unable to differentiate the concept that language is different from race or religion.
Harping on the race and religion platform does nothing to promote the language.
Many among us are not Englishmen but that has not stopped us from using the language to seek knowledge and fortune.
Neither did we become Englishmen by using their language. Nor are we beholden to their way of life or religion. English is just a form of communication.
Similarly, the promotion and the efforts to instill the passion for Bahasa Malaysia must be undertaken in the ultimate altruist fashion.
The trend in countries around the world is to be proficient in two or more languages. For instance, in Switzerland most citizens are proficient in at least three languages — German, French and Italian.
To help our students be proficient, we could make it a condition that one must obtain a "credit" in both languages to get a Grade One in their Form Five examination.
Proficiency in both languages must count towards university entrance and employment opportunities.
Government efforts to increase the proficiency of English need not be at the expense of Bahasa Malaysia.
Certainly there was no intention in this direction, except in the mind of those who have so interpreted it as they try to confuse the issue by bringing in the patriotism factor.
The effort to be proficient in the English language must also be emphasised, especially in the commercial world.
There is this mistaken belief that all in the commercial world are proficient in English, or all efforts are to this direction.
In fact, there was this boss in an office who once remarked that junior accountants need not be proficient in English; just knowing how to use the calculator was sufficient.
Apparently, if you have good paper qualifications but cannot speak the language to save your life, it does not matter.
Perhaps, there are many in senior management who could be suspect in this language proficiency malarkey, so they are not going to insist on language proficiency for people they are hiring.
It appears that everyone is making excuses and giving this reason and that rather than addressing the issue at hand.
Enough of the efforts to make Malaysia monolingual or promoting one language at the expense of the other.
All efforts must be made at making Malaysians bilingual — Bahasa Malaysia and English — and be proficient in a third language, if possible.
This is the way to go in this era of globalisation.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"