Failure to launch: Why students in certain countries have trouble learning English

Failure to launch: Why students in certain countries have trouble learning English
Having English in their arsenal of skills can benefit students in their studies and future work opportunities. Source: Shutterstock

One humid Friday afternoon in February, some eighty 14-year-olds were gathered in a small hall at a government school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. These students from the school’s top classes were engaged in an external English programme that aims to improve their command of the English language via a series of activities that differ from their typical English lessons in school, in addition to building their confidence.

While Malaysia’s national language is Bahasa Malaysia (BM), English is also widely spoken, with varying levels of fluency. English is a compulsory subject in Malaysia’s national schools and is taught throughout primary and secondary levels. However, over the years, the command of English has deteriorated, and this school is a reflection of that problem; hence the reason for the programme, created to supplement students’ learning of English in school.

Despite that, the programme didn’t get off to a smooth start. Students were initially reluctant to participate; whenever the trainer spoke to them in English, the students, lacking confidence, responded in BM instead, meaning their vocabulary was weak.

According to the teacher, students have five periods of English lessons per week, or about two and a half hours each week.

While there are students who can speak fluent English, they’re often concentrated in urban areas. Despite that, it’s clear that something is very wrong with the education system for producing students who aren’t fluent in English, despite being taught the language since primary school.

But Malaysia isn’t alone in this problem – other countries such as Japan and Thailand are also in a similar predicament. In the latter, students study English for at least 12 years at both primary and secondary school level, but are often unable to communicate in English fluently anyway.

The ceiling is falling

English is a global language, and globalisation bolsters the need for students to be competent in English as it’s also an important language in business. As the world becomes more competitive, the need to be bilingual or multilingual can be something that sets students and graduates apart from their peers.

However, a lack of fluency in English for those who live in countries where English is widely spoken will find themselves lagging behind – be it in social integration, their grades in school and university, or limiting job prospects, especially when the private sector can offer a more competitive salary and benefits for those fluent in the language.

A common complaint among employers within the Malaysian context includes the poor command of English among today’s graduates. Unsurprisingly, their inability to communicate in English puts them at a disadvantage in the job hunt, as most vacancies require candidates to be proficient in English.

Who’s doing it right?

Exposing students to English at a young age is only part of the solution. Source: Shutterstock

According to the 2018 EF English Proficiency Index, which measures the language proficiency of non-native English-speaking countries, Sweden has emerged as the nation with the highest English language proficiency. Singapore is the only Asian country classified among the top five ‘Very High Proficiency’ countries at third place, while the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark are second, fourth and fifth place, respectively.

Malaysia dropped to 22nd place from 13th in the previous year, but is classified among the countries having a ‘High Proficiency’ in English. The country still lags behind the Philippines (14), but beats several Asian countries, including India (28), South Korea (31), Vietnam (41), China (47), Japan (49), Indonesia (51), Thailand (64), Myanmar (82) and Cambodia (85).

So, how do Swedes and Danes produce citizens who are fluent in English? And what can countries with lower fluency rates, such as Malaysia, Indonesia or even Thailand, which dropped 11 spots from 2017, learn from them?

Scandinavian countries may have a leg up when learning English, as their languages share similarities.

In Forbes, David Nikel explained that English and Scandinavian languages are members of the Germanic language family, adding that they “share some important linguistic features that result in familiarity. For example, the way verbs are conjugated in English is similar to Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, but very different from the Romance languages like Italian and Spanish that have their roots in Latin.”

Similarities in languages aside, he notes that other potential reasons for their fluency include English being taught in Scandinavian schools to students at a young age, while young Scandinavians are also exposed to “a lot of international content”. In Norway, Nikel notes that “English shows are almost never dubbed”, which can play a role in exposing students to the language, while many Scandinavians also choose to study abroad and immerse themselves in an English-speaking environment.

Meanwhile, a Business Insider report noted that “Scandinavians recognise that there is a need to learn foreign languages, particularly if they wish to maintain relevancy on the global stage. As English is considered the main international language, there is a particular emphasis put on learning this language, above all others.”

What are  the factors that impact students’ ability to learn English?

While there are many factors at play, numerous reports suggest that students’ poor English attainment across several countries has to do with how English is taught in schools.

The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) notes that: “Lower student performance in [the] English language appears to be driven by low proficiency among English language teachers.”

“When a sample of over 7,500 English language teachers took the Cambridge Placement Test (CPT), a significant number did not meet the minimum proficiency standard required for teaching [the] English language.”

It added that “Malaysia’s 15 percent to 20 percent instructional time in [the] English language may be insufficient for students to build operational proficiency”.

Meanwhile, Thailand, which was classified as ‘Low Proficiency’ in the 2018 report, where teachers are reported to have low proficiency in English, faces similar challenges.

In Japan, Ikuko Tsuboya-Newell wrote for The Japan Times that “there is too much classroom emphasis on grammar with very little time devoted to actual conversational practice. The emphasis is mainly on the silent skills of reading and writing. Listening is rather passive as opposed to being an active part of a conversation.”

She added that teachers do not have adequate English communication skills – over 70 percent of junior high school English teachers have a TOEIC score lower than 730, compared to Japanese tutors at English Tutor Network who have a TOEIC score above 900.

Changing the way students learn English

In some instances, English language teachers need to be upskilled if they are inadequately trained. Source: Shutterstock

Back in KL, in just a few weeks, students at the school showed signs of improvement during their English activities; they were more participative and confident, suggesting that time and proximity play a role in boosting performance.

On a larger scale, countries that are serious about boosting their students’ English proficiency will need to look into upskilling their English language teachers if they are inadequately trained, granting students greater exposure to the language. Meanwhile, parents and students who fail to realise the importance of becoming proficient in English risk losing out on opportunities in life.

While the results of these efforts won’t materialise overnight, it’s a stepping stone towards reversing the mistakes that have led to the erosion of the proficiency of the English language.

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