Decline or Rise in English Proficiency in Malaysia? by Christopher

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Few people would argue against the importance of English language today. It is the lingua franca in cyberspace and in international science, politics, business, and entertainment.

A study in 2011 by English First (EF) showed just how important English is to a country. This study was conducted on 44 countries (including Malaysia) where English was not their first or native language. The study found that English proficiency generally correlates (relates linearly) with a country’s wealth and export-dependency. EF study suggests that when the people in a country become increasingly more proficient in English, the wealthier the country becomes and the more the country could participate in international trade.

Surprisingly, Malaysia scored the highest in English proficiency in the Asia region. Unfortunately, Singapore could not be included in the final analysis due to the inadequate sample size from that country. Overall, Malaysia ranked ninth in English proficiency among the 44 countries!

Malaysia’s high score is certainly surprising considering the much talked about decline of English proficiency among Malaysians and the issue of reverting to Malay from English language as a medium of instruction in schools. One complain about the EF study is the possibility of a large sampling error. English tests were carried out online by people who were interested in testing their English proficiency. Volunteers also tended to be younger than the average population age. Since the tests were all carried out online, I suspect this kind of tests would most probably attract more urbanites than the whole population.

Consequently, this possibility of biased representation of Malaysia’s population by the urbanites may explain Malaysia’s inflated high score in English.

However, I do not doubt the overall validity of EF study results. As stated earlier, English is an important global language. But back in 2004, David Graddol, in an opinion article in Science (Feb 27, 2004), delivers a startling news: English is in decline in the world. In the 19th century, people once believed in the indomitable embrace of English and that the entire world would eventually speak in English.

Graddol’s study, however, show that the population growth among speakers of languages other than English is increasingly more rapidly than speakers of English as their first language. In 1950, for example, nearly nine per cent of the world’s population spoke in English as their first language. But this proportion of English speakers is declining at a rate of about 0.4 per cent for every ten years. By 2050, it is estimated that only 5 per cent of the world’s population would be speaking in English as their first language.

In contrast, Spanish, Hindi/Urdu, and Arabic languages see an increase every year in the number of speakers in the world. By 2050, Graddol predicts, Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi/Urdu, and Arabic would be equally ranked with English as the world language. Mandarin remains the native language by more than a billion people in the world. China’s population is about one-sixth of the world’s population, and when China’s economy overshadows that of the U.S., Mandarin may likely be the new must-learn language. Together with China, countries such as Russia, Brazil, and India are expected to be in the top six largest economies in the world by 2050. In such a scenario, would English language remain as useful as today?

The decline of one language and the rise of another is not new. Latin, for example, was the language of science before it was gradually replaced by English.

Consequently, I wonder if Malaysia is fighting a losing war in improving English proficiency among the people. Malaysia’s neighboring countries, Philippines and Hong Kong, also witness an alarming decline in English proficiency. A recent official survey showed that nearly half of the Filipino high school graduates could not speak English at all. And although Hong Kong high...
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