We had dictation. We had spelling. We had essay writing. This was back in the 1970s when I was in primary school at Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Johor Baru.
We were taught verbs and nouns. We were introduced to Present (what you are doing), Past (what you did) and Future (what you are going to do).Then, there are the tenses, which are split into simple, continuous and perfect.
We were told to use two tenses to talk about the present and six tenses to talk about the past. And there are several ways to talk about the future.
So, what happened to the teaching of the English language?
Fast forward to 2009, Danial, my nine year-old nephew who is in Year Three at a school in Putrajaya, tells me he has spelling and dictation in English Class.
He proudly showed me his English test papers where he scored 100 per cent (his only drawback was that his writing was too small).
When I asked about grammar, his face drew a blank.
Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said he was shocked to learn that national schools no longer taught English grammar. Students were now merely learning communicative English.
In 1977, I sat for the Lower Certificate of Education. This examination was introduced in 1957. The one thing I remembered clearly about sitting for the LCE was the Malay and English Oral tests. It was my first taste of being interviewed, either in Malay or English language. The orals were abolished in 1983.
In 1979, I sat for the Malaysian Certificate of Education. In fact, my batch was the final batch that sat for the examination. The following year, it became the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia.
I was in the Science stream. With the exception of Bahasa Malaysia, Sejarah, Ilmu Alam (Geography) and Agama Islam, the rest of the subjects (Modern Maths, Additional Maths, Biology, Physics and Chemistry) was taught in English.
I sat for both the English 121 (Cambridge English O Level, now English 1119) and English 122 papers during the finals. English 121 was an elective subject but my late father insisted that I sat for it. I nevertheless scored in both papers.
When I was in Form Five and attending a cousin’s wedding, I was rebuked by another cousin for speaking English.
“Kat sini tak ada English English, semua cakap Melayu,” she said, to the laughter of those who heard her.
Well I had the last laugh. I am where I am now and she continues to work in the retail sector (in not too many words, a salesperson in a supermarket chain).
While I have moved on to acquire another foreign language ie French, she is still grasping with her English.
Danial, unlike his sister Mysara, is not ashamed to speak broken English. He learns when we tell him his mistakes. And he is a fast learner.
Whenever I call him on the phone, I try as much as possible to speak English to him and get him to respond accordingly.
We’re not born speaking the language. It is a skill we acquire by listening, speaking and reading. And of course we shouldn’t stop learning.
So, I can understand the government’s move to “memantapkan bahasa Inggeris”. There is a need to do so before one attempts to learn a subject taught in English.
A friend of mine tells me that when he was growing up, his father had taped the bottom screen of the TV, so that the children do not read the Bahasa Malaysia subtitles to the English programmes. That was how he learned the language!
But what interest me more is to find out what the so-called pejuang bahasa would be doing to “memartabatkan Bahasa Malaysia”.
Would it be sufficient to just have children’s programmes in English dubbed in Bahasa Malaysia? Would it be enough to translate children novels in English such as the Harry Potter series in the national language?