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Published:May 4th, 2011 21:56 EST
English Teaching in Malaysia: An Interview with Caroline Vimla

English Teaching in Malaysia: An Interview with Caroline Vimla

By Ernest Dempsey

English language is one reason why many Chinese high school students shy away from pursuing education in western institutions, as reported in a news post in the Malaysian paper The Star Online (May 1st, 2011) Special English language course for enabling such students to pursue western education are being made available in China now. In comparison, Malaysia already seems be running a balanced system of English language learning for students. Lately, newspapers and the Internet are being used as tools of help and guidance in improving English skills among students. Caroline Vimla has been teaching English to secondary students in Malaysia and is now close to publishing her first book on enabling high school students to carry out pre-university research. Here, Caroline tells about English learning and teaching in Malaysian schools.     



Ernest: Caroline thank you for sparing time for this conversation. How long have you been teaching and what subjects at what level of studies?


Caroline: I have been teaching for a decade. Since I did a double major, English Language and Moral Studies, I have taught both subjects in secondary schools. After graduating, I served in my alma mater, St. Bernadette`s Convent Secondary school, back in my hometown, for some years before getting a transfer to Kuala Lumpur. This is my fifth year of teaching in SMK Cochrane (Cochrane National Secondary School). I am currently teaching MUET "Malaysian University English Test "to Pre U level students.


Ernest: Is English the medium of instruction for teaching your students or is it taught only as a subject?


Caroline: English is basically taught as a subject. Other subjects are taught in Malay Language, which is the national language in Malaysia. Malaysia is making some policy changes concerning using English as the medium of instruction for Math and Science. Before 2002, the medium of instruction for Math and Science was Malay language for both primary and secondary levels. Malaysia implemented the teaching of Math and Science in English in 2002. At Pre- U Level, all science based subjects such as Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, Biology etc are taught in English. However, excluding Pre U level, the policy was reverted last year and the subjects were taught in Malay language for the other levels. There have been calls from various stakeholders of education to maintain the former policy. No concrete decision has been made yet, though there are hearsay and newspaper reports that the teaching of Math and Science will be in English again next year.


Ernest: How did you develop your English teaching skills and where?


Caroline: I did a degree in TESL, which stands for "Teaching English as Second Language`; so in other words, it was a training program for teachers. I obtained my master`s majoring in TESL in 2005, and my thesis was on using the Theory of Multiple Intelligences to enhance the teaching of English. I have attended various courses organized by the state education department related to the English language such as TBLT "Task-Based Language Teaching, Drama in Literature, Using Newspaper-in-Education, and a 14-week In-Service Course in English. I am currently doing PhD, focusing on the speaking skill.


Ernest: Is English spoken in Malaysia somehow different from the standard American or British or Australian English?  


Caroline: Malaysia uses British English. But since Bahasa Malaysia (Malay Language) is the main language used as the medium of instruction, it has a significant influence in the development of a more localized English variety. The multicultural and multilingual nature of Malaysian society has also contributed to the development of this particular variety of English. English is, after all, not indigenous to our soil. Malaysian English cannot be easily defined as one uniform "variety`. Three main types have been distinguished: first, the formal variety used for official and educational purposes which is the standard English language; the second is the colloquial Malaysian English, which is an informal variety incorporating localized features of pronunciation, syntax, and lexis; and the third is the Malay-influenced Malaysian English, which is characterized by a high degree of code-switching. The nature of Malaysian English used depends on factors such as educational background, class, region, level of formality, and medium (spoken /written).


In my school, Tuesday and Thursday are designated as "English Speaking` days. On both days, the school assembly is conducted in English, announcements are made using English and the English version of the school song is sung. On the rest of the days, Malay language is used. Among the teachers, Malay language is widely used by the Malay teachers. However, the language we choose to communicate in depends on the situation and who we are interacting with. Take me, for instance. I use English with the other English teachers in formal and informal situations. But with my Indian colleagues, I switch to Tamil language. With my Malay and Chinese colleagues, I use both English and Malay. 


Ernest: In workplace, especially schools and educational institutes, do you think that English has becoming a major competitor to Malay?


Caroline: English has many "competitors` not just the Malay language. Malaysia comprises a multi-racial population. Therefore, there are many dialects and languages used. Besides being the national language of the country and the medium of instruction of most subjects in school, Malay language is also the mother tongue of those of Malay origin. However, the Indians and Chinese, belonging to various sub-ethnic groups, use their respective mother tongue. Most Chinese students go through a Chinese vernacular education during their primary years between the age of 7 and 12, after which they switch to national public schools. Therefore, the affinity to speak in their dialects is apparent. There are Tamil vernacular schools as well.  For most, English is not even the second language. It could be the third or fourth language. Malay language is what unites us as a nation and English is the second language. Last year, the education ministry introduced a policy that emphasizes this aspect which, translated into English, means: Upholding Bahasa Malaysia and Strengthening English ". From my observation, English is hardly used in the workplace, except among the English teachers and those who use English as first language.


Ernest: At high school level, do Malaysian students find it easy to read classic works of literature, or other subjects, written in standard British or American English?


Caroline: Literature has a firm place at university level, especially in the education faculty and humanities/arts and social faculty, when English or Literature is chosen as the major. At secondary level, very few schools offer Literature as a subject. Though Literature is offered as an optional subject in the examination, very few students take the paper at "O` levels as it is not taught in schools and they have to depend on private tutoring. Literature component is included in the communicative English Language paper, which is offered as a core paper to all students. However, with the exception of poems, the short stories and novels/dramas used in the syllabus are simplified versions. If these genres are not simplified, it is beyond my doubt that most students, especially those in the rural areas, will not even be able to understand, let alone appreciate them. In my opinion, literature is losing its place in Malaysian secondary school education.


Ernest: Is the media there helpful in enhancing students` English skills?


Caroline: The media is very supportive in helping to enhance the learning as well as teaching of English. We have mainstream papers in English namely, "The Star` and "The New Strait Times`. They are the main sponsors of these papers to schools in an effort to encourage students to read in English, and for teachers to use newspapers as part of the "Newspaper In Education` (NIE) program. In this program teachers are encouraged to use newspaper as an authentic material to teach the language. Workshops on how to include newspapers in the classroom are held. Competitions, which involve the use of newspapers, are organized annually for students to participate. One example is designing a school bulletin using materials from newspapers. Attractive prizes are awarded to the first three winning schools and all participating schools; both students and teachers are given complimentary pizza vouchers as a treat. There is a column in "The Star` paper that addresses grammar aspects of the language and answers questions put forth by readers requiring explanation on particular usage of grammar , sentence structure, and even highlighting "humorous` errors made in posters or advertisements. We learn from mistakes, after all.


There are many programs broadcasted on TV, but most are American-based, so the exposure is more towards American English. Students are definitely influenced by this and tend to use American pronunciation and spelling. In the exam, if American spelling is used, marks are penalized. There are very limited programs shown that give good exposure to British English.


Ernest: Please tell a little about your upcoming book?


Caroline: My book is entitled Guide Book to Research and Development: For Pre- U Program Students at Secondary Schools ". Since this book is meant to help Pre U students to conduct a research within the duration of 5-6 months, which will ultimately lead to a colloquium, I have given simple guidelines on how to do so, within their means, focusing on issues related to the subjects they are taking and using students or teachers as respondents. I have provided insights on how to write a research proposal, different types of instrumentation that can be used, how to formulate questions for a questionnaire, how to analyze the data obtained etc. I have designed assessment forms that schools would be able to use to assess students` presentation during the colloquium as well as their R and D report. So, this book would be beneficial not only for students, but for teachers and the school administration as well. I wanted the book to be an "interactive` one rather than merely a descriptive one. It is my hope that by keeping the language simple, it would be easily accessible by students from all parts of Malaysia.


Ernest: What are some of the research related problems you have identified among students entering a university?


Caroline: Prior to introducing R and D in the Pre U program, which started just 2 years ago, students were not given any exposure to research. Pre U program is currently still using the term system with a terminal examination. Focus is very much exam-oriented. Therefore, students step into universities with zero knowledge on research. Next year, the modular system would be introduced with school-based assessment every semester. It would be compulsory for all schools offering Pre U program to ensure R and D is done as it could be included as part of the school-based assessment. My school, SMK Cochrane, started early as we wanted to prepare ourselves for the modular system. For our school, the transition would be smooth as I have conducted ample in-house training for teachers and students, on how R & D should be carried out.


Ernest: And how will your book help students in improving their research skills?


Caroline: Firstly, my book will help students to take "baby steps` into researching and help them comprehend the dynamics of research. In conducting a       research, basic knowledge is certainly necessary such as the different types of research, the meaning of terms that are peculiar to research etc. I have included these aspects but limited them and touched on only the relevant ones within the scope of the Pre-U program. Secondly, my book will help students to go through the "thinking process` while reading it. I believe it is crucial for students and teachers alike to understand the concept of research as a whole and not take a piecemeal approach to it. My book will help them see the connection between the different components of research. It is my hope that the book would help them come up with a research problem, do systematic reading on it (literature review), formulate research questions, write a research proposal, carry out the research successfully, write out the research report, and finally present it during the colloquium, confidently.


Ernest: Finally, do you encourage your students to use the internet for improving their English and research skills?   


Caroline: I certainly do. Furthermore, the students are highly dependent on information from the internet, especially where research is concerned. Most of my English lessons require my students to do some form of researching as well. For example, if I do a topic on prominent 20th century personalities or on the two world wars or the Holocaust, students have to read up about these on the net. Besides, I encourage them to stay in touch and communicate with me in English via Facebook or any other social networking websites. In fact, most of the classes have their respective blogs through which they communicate in English. Pre U students are allowed to bring their laptops to school.


Most schools in Malaysia have free broadband, which students and teachers have full access to. My school has a computer laboratory equipped with broadband, where classes can be conducted. The school library has an internet café especially for students. They are allowed to use it for recreational purposes (listening to music/downloading songs), as well as for academic purposes. The school provides a very positive climate to the usage of internet.      


Ernest: Thank you Caroline for sharing the view on learning from Malaysia!


Caroline: It is indeed my pleasure to share my views. Thank you very much!