Before I begin, I want to clarify one essential detail: The following observations are my own. My comments should not, under any circumstances, be interpreted as anybody else’s. These observations are based on my personal experiences and informal conversations with my Malaysian colleagues. Additionally, the situation as I describe it below may not be the reality in every school in Bachok, Kelantan, or Malaysia for that matter.
Teaching English is difficult. Humanity’s “global language” is one of the hardest to master, even for those of us who consider ourselves native speakers. English grammar is difficult both in terms of its breadth and depth. There just as many exceptions to the rule as there are rules themselves.
Teaching English is hard. But it is even harder in Kelantan.
Admittedly, my experience teaching English in Malaysia is limited. I have taught one English camp at a school in KL, participated in another in a flood-damaged school in Kelantan, and have spent the past month and a half at one school in Bachok. But when I speak to the teachers of SMK Badak, their views are similar to the observations I have made. I trust their opinions more than my own. And I think their voices speak louder than mine in this situation. As an outsider to my community, even the slightest of differences tend to be magnified. Often times this is the direct result of cultural differences. I notice things that my colleagues do not solely because they are Kelantanese and new to me.
So it is alarming to me when, time and time again, my colleagues speak to me of the difficulties of teaching English in Malaysia. But more specifically in Kelantan.
In order to better comprehend these conversations, observations, and collective viewpoints, I think it appropriate to provide a brief background on the teaching of English in Malaysia and how these policies relate to the state of Kelantan. When Malaysia gained their independence from Great Britain in 1956, they continued using a British-style education system. All public schools followed what people refer to today as the English-medium: All subjects were taught in English. Students spoke English the majority of the time they were in school. Naturally, this style of education led to increased proficiency with the English language.
However, it also led to the abandonment of the native Malay tongue. This drew criticism from members of the Malay political community. In response to these outcries, the Malaysian government abandoned the English-medium in the early 1970s, gradually replacing it with a new Malay-medium. Under the Malay-medium school policy, all classes would be taught in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. This move was meant to further bolster the native Malay population’s place in society as well as establish a strong national identity. It is only recently that the Malaysian government has begun to shift their thinking when it comes to teaching the English language.
Starting in 2012, the Malaysian Ministry of Education (MOE) introduced the Malaysia Education Blueprint, a 13-year educational plan that is meant to reinvigorate the practice of teaching English in Malaysian public schools. In the same way the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards are meant to catapult American schools into the 21st century by introducing new, researched-backed educational policies, so too is the MOE’s Malaysia Education Blueprint. When it comes to English language instruction, the Blueprint promises to that every student will have “bilingual proficiency.” This is the reality of the education system in Malaysia today.
Refocusing the conversation with this historical perspective allows us to more accurately analyze the current situation. Let us delve into this reality now.
As I previously mentioned, my colleagues speak to me all the time about how difficult it is to teach English in Kelantan. But why is this the case? I believe that there are three main reasons why English instruction in Kelantan is extremely difficult:
- The Kelantanese dialect.
- English language instruction inside the classroom.
- Family background and the use of the English language outside of school.
First, the dialect. The people of Kelantan speak with a very distinctive accent. The Kelantanese dialect is one of, if not the hardest for most Malays to speak and understand. My teaching colleagues have told me that they are hesitant to speak Bahasa Malaysia in large cities like Kuala Lumpur because they fear they will be ridiculed or ignored due to their Kelantanese accent. This hesitancy to speak any to anybody other than fellow Kelantanese is true for both teachers and students and undoubtedly rubs off inside the classroom.
If my students feel uncomfortable speaking traditional Bahasa Malaysia to other Malays, they probably aren’t going to be overly enthused to speak English some random Orang Puteh (Literally, “White Person” in Bahasa Malaysia). Measurable evidence of the weight this hesitancy carries can be seen in the students’ exam scores. Kelantanese students score very low on their English portions of their exams, both written and spoken. However, they also score lower than most other Malaysian students when it comes to their Bahasa Malaysia portions of the exams. in other words, proficiency levels in both English and Bahasa Malaysia are low in Kelantan.
Secondly, English language instruction in Kelantan is conducted mostly in Kelantanese. The teachers are unwilling or unprepared to force students to practice their English. They then become frustrated when students refuse to participate and so, as a result, they begin teaching in Kelantanese. The students, who are much more intelligent than they are given credit for, recognize this pattern and take advantage of the situation. And they should not be faulted for this by any means. Why would you practice speaking or writing in English, an extremely difficult and frustrating language, when they can always fall back on their BM?
Furthermore, the Malaysian teaching style does not encourage critical or free thinking. The curriculum is heavily exam oriented. This is reflected in the day-to-day lessons. Teachers, who are frustrated with their students hesitancy or unwillingness to use English, simply present the mandated information and ask that the students copy it all down onto their paper. Everything is copy and paste; preprogrammed teaching and learning. Asking for students to generate their own thoughts is extremely difficult and the instruction often ends where it began: with dead silence.
This is where the conflict occurs. Theory vs practice. In theory, English is a national priority. In practice, it is not that simple. In theory, all teachers who teach English have an English background. In reality, many of the teachers I know and have met do not. Even those teachers who have studied Teaching English as a Second Language, TESOL, find it difficult to teach and motivate their students. TESOL certified teachers are in high demand. This is especially true in Kelantan. However, their unique skill set is not being used as positively as it could. The idea of TESOL certified teachers is welcomed, but they are not given the freedom to implement their ideas or lessons with their students.
Finally, the importance of a strong family background cannot be ignored. This is especially true when it comes to attitudes towards and usage of the English language outside of the classroom. In most cases, English is not spoken in Kelantanese households. Many families feel that there is no need to. Many of my students parents also attended SMK Badak or another school in Bachok. People spend their entire lives in the same city. Born and raised in Bachok. This lifestyle choice rubs off on the younger generations. My students enter school knowing that they will, in all likelihood, become fishermen or farmers like their fathers. So they ask themselves a simple question: “why?” Why study? Why take the all-important risk? In their minds, there is no need to.
As I stated earlier, it should go without saying that these are my own observations. Obviously, there are students who do not fit these molds. There are students from Kelantan who attend very prestigious universities in Kuala Lumpur, the UK, Australia, and the United States. But for the majority of Kelantanese students, the wall blocking their proficiency in English seems insurmountable at times.
But the question now becomes: What can be done?
How can these circumstances be improved?
How can I, as a single person, attempt to put a dent into all of the negativity listed above? There is no point in sugar-coating it, there is not much I can do on a large-scale level. Systemic problems are systemic because they have built up so much momentum that derailing their progress requires an army of dedicated individuals. No one can singlehandedly transform the cultural norms of a state, city, or even a single school.
However, small progress can be made. And this is the progress I will fight for. Regardless of the circumstances that my students may face, I’m going to give everything I have and hope for the best. Maybe my message and attitude about language learning will successfully resonate with a single class. Or a small group or students I work with during our after school programming. Or maybe just a single student who feels moved enough to take advantage of their opportunities.
This is what I want.
My role as an ETA is a unique one. I have been afforded the opportunity to work in a public Malaysian school without the requirements that all other Malaysian teachers encounter. If given the teaching freedoms to do so, I can pretty much do whatever in my classes and co-curricular clubs as long as my instruction bolsters my students’ English proficiency and confidence levels.
However, even though my outlook is optimistic, I also acknowledge that this is not the solution my teaching colleagues are hoping for. Whether it is fair or not, I have been labeled as the crusading knight, arriving to increase the language proficiency levels of my students simply with my presence and possible teaching background. Everybody is looking to me for all of the answers.
And as we all know, I cannot simply provide the fabled answer key.
So I return to my previous statement: all I can do is fight for small victories. Instilling an excitement towards English language instruction. Establishing a classroom culture of risk taking and celebrated miscues. Modeling an engaging teaching style that centers on student discussion, critical thinking, and intrinsic motivation. This is what I can do. Everyday. This is what I will do.
I do not know if I will be successful, but regardless of the outcome, it will not be for lack of effort on my part.
Small victories matter.