Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Lecturers Can't Speak Inggeris

Further to an earlier article published in the Star a few months back and blogged here, the Star reported today that lecturers at our public universities continue to be using Bahasa Melayu to conduct lectures for science subjects despite practically the entire secondary school syllabus using English to teach the relevant subjects. The first batch of the English policy-based students have already enrolled into our universities this year.

If the primary and secondary school system can go cold turkey with the conduct of lessons in English, I cannot understand it when universities need to implement a snail-paced policy of conversion of Mathematics and Science programmes to English - with the most convenient excuse being the students are not ready for it.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Mohd Salleh Mohd Yasin said that because of various constraints, implementation would be gradual.

“Our target is to have at least 30% of the first-year Maths and Science degree programmes in English, gradually increasing to 50% and then 100%. It was never going to be entirely in English from the beginning as our students come from various backgrounds.”
However, a survey of several undergraduates in Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), UKM and Universiti Malaya reveal that "some lecturers' English is so weak that what they say is practically incomprehensible", the lecturers were politely requested to teach in the national language instead.
At the start of the first semester, students had asked two lecturers to teach in English, but their command of the language was so poor that the students implored them to revert to Bahasa. “We couldn’t understand half of what they said,” a student said.
This probably relates back to one of the criticisms by Dr Ng Swee Choon blogged here earlier that the conduct of lectures in Bahasa Melayu instead of English for the medicine faculties is affecting the quality of the graduates as practically all materials and advances in medical science is published in the English language.

In my earlier post, it was reported that UPM had invested some RM1 million to train lecturers to conduct lessons in English as long as 3 years ago. It is clear that the outcome of the training appears to be ineffective.

I cannot understand how these lecturers were appointed in the first place as practically any credible masters or PhD degrees in science and mathematics from reputable universities around the world would have been conducted in English. It does present a fearful picture about the quality of lecturers we have at our local universities and their academic intellect - do they even read?

Maybe instead of passing the irrelevant civil service "Efficiency Level Assessment Test", as well as the new arbitrary "Standard of Academic Excellence Test" for university lecturers (blogged here), all lecturers and academics must pass the simple 'O' levels English test to determine recruitment and promotion prospects. And for those who don't obtain at least a 'D' - a pay cut!


Anonymous said...

Tony: Your comment here contradicts your earlier statement saying that smart students many As should enrol in local Us if not ....


Anonymous said...


Tony, maybe they can write english but cannot speak well. When they speak, they have tongue tide problems. But, when you speak to them they can understand you. So I guess when the lecturers speak to them in english, they write notes in malay. and they mix around with malay friends only. And they memorise notes in Inggeris instead of understand them. So they actually got good powerful memory but not a very analytical brain.

There is a difference between reading and remembering, and reading and understanding. I bet they can utter the exact words from the text books, but actually they do not understand completely and beyond what's in the text books. Sigh!

Anonymous said...

What do you mean lecturers cannot speak English? They (a high percentage) also cannot write properly in English. I had seen a professor writing "Please donate to the fund to support his operation so that he can leave longer" instead of "Please donate to the fund to support his operation so that he can live longer".

Visit our local universities, go through some theses (Final year undergraduate, Master, and Doctorate) there and you will invariably be appalled by the poor standard of English used in writing the theses. Whose fault?
Candidates? Supervisors?

These theses are permanent records of the substandard English used in our local universities.

Golf Afflicted said...

hey anon 4.57,

No it doesn't contradict my earlier stand.

I actually do believe that the quality of the top 5 local universities are better than the bulk of the private colleges out there.

My criticism as per the newspaper reports that quality of some of the lecturers being poor doesn't mean that the private colleges are any much better. Nor does it mean that all lecturers at the public universities are equally poor. There are still good ones around.

Tony :-)

Howsy said...

Malaysians in overseas are known to form race-based political parties a.k.a Malaysian Kingdom Overseas (MKO). So I won;t be surpised the only time they communicate in English is during lectures/research but after that it is MKO again. But one thing which surprises me is that how could they finish their thesis in English if the command of the language is so poor? Their supervisor must have a hard time editing their work.

Kian Ming said...

Firstly, we should note that the command of English among Malaysian lecturers varies a great deal. There are some who speak the language masterfully such as Shamsul AB, professor of social anthropology at UKM. I'm sure there are also others who are at the other end of the spectrum, which is what the Star article is talking about. My sense is that the mean or median is not as bad as some of us might think. IMHO, most lecturers would be able to teach their classes in recognizable and reasonably understable English.

Secondly, not all Malaysian lecturers at public universitieis are overseas trained. Many of them get their Masters and PhDs locally. So it must not be assumed that all of them have had exposure to an English speaking learning environment.

Thirdly, for those who have had overseas exposure, again, there is a amount tremendous variance in those experiences. There are some who just stay in their Malaysian 'kampungs' without much exposure to other non-Malaysian colleages and friends. This might be a reason for the poor command of English of some of the lectureres that have been trained overseas. (For those wondering about thesis writing, you can easily hire someone to brush up the language of your thesis, check for grammatic errors etc...) There are also some who immerse themselves in the foreign environment and as a result are able to not only improve their English but also broaden their scope of ideas and way of thinking.

My sense is that we're probably overstating the case based on a few exceptional cases (students at local unis might disagree with me on this). I'd be much more concerned about the quality of the work that lecturers are producing rather than their command of the English language (though the two often go together).

Anonymous said...

PhD a la trade agreement with developed society but not employable there, export commodity only.

Anonymous said...

Haven't you guys use Microsoft Word? It can check spelling as well as grammar mistakes! Tada... riddle solved!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the clarifications.

hey anon 4.57

Anonymous said...

Despite the Ministry of Higher Education's assertion that the science courses in universities are taught in English, i can assure you that it is not the case. Universities have written several letters to the Minister and his ministry asking for a clearcut directive on the language of instruction in universities. The spineless Minister is not courageous enough to put the directive in writing since it will be against the constitution. Unless and until the MOHE issues a directive in writing, no IPTA will teach the science subjects in English. I challenge anyone who does not believe that the courses are not taught in English to go to the nearest IPTA and investigate my claims. The Senate of the universities dare not commit for want of instructions from the Ministry. Then what is this fuss about teaching science and maths in poor English?

Maverick SM said...

Tony & Kian Ming,

I know both of you are graduates from UK Ivy League U. Both of you seem to share the same believe/contention that there are some very good English speaking lecturers in the top 5 local U. I do agree, but about 10-20% only. 80% have secondary school standard English.

I just wonder, Tony said:"I actually do believe that the quality of the top 5 local universities are better than the bulk of the private colleges out there. ...Nor does it mean that all lecturers at the public universities are equally poor. There are still good ones around." (Tony: how many lecurers do you have contact and communications with them?) Your point of contention seemed anecdotal, not empirical.)

Private colleges are commercial institution. They would not survive if their level of competency is below par. At such, they will have to get good lecturers. The fact is that private colleges also conduct their courses in Bahasa Malaysia for their local degree/pre-U. At such, those lecturers are BM-based and poor in English too. Those others teaching in MBA or twinning program, they are OK and have good English.

Tony & Kian Ming, do some research and interviews with the professors and associate professors and find out the level of proficiency in English. You may be surprise!!!!! Try University Utara (UUM), UTM, UKM, Unimas, UMS, and UiTM.

Anonymous said...

It takes two to tango.

While I do agree that some of the local uni lecturer's command of spoken English is poor but we also have to look at the standard of English among the students as well.

I have personally interviewed some of of our local uni graduates. Some can't even understand simple questions or instructions, what more a lecture conducted in English.

Let's not get too critical on the lecturers.

Anonymous said...

There are many science-based public university lecturers who are not proficient in English, to the extent that they are incapable of delivering their lectures in English.

This also means that these same English-deficient lecturers are not reading regularly current scientific journals (predominantly in English) published in their respective fields of specialization. How can these lecturers survive in the academic world in term of their teaching and research when they are unable to keep up their knowledge? Even if they give their lectures in BM, they must read the current journals in English in order to deliver current stuff in their lectures to their students and to conduct research. How many of our public university lecturers ever visit their libraries to read scientific journals in English, I wonder?

This naturally implies that many of our public university science-based lecturers are substandard in their knowledge – in fact their lecture notes may be outdated and plagiarized from some sources. We should do an audit. We have to ensure that our children are taught by competent and inspiring lecturers, and not by incompetent and out-dated lecturers who are wasting taxpayers’ money.

I just can’t help feeling that these days we are not having the right kind of people as our public university dons – many of them are there simply to cari and curi makan, while making a mess of our children’s education!

Anonymous said...

If Maverick is right, that you guys are from a UK Ivy League U, then I want to prove a point:

Even if you receive education from the UK (in your case, an Ivy League U), your command of English can still be poor. You guys, just like most lecturers, may be good in your field of studies. But when it comes to communicating with people - written or verbal - it's a different story altogether.

For example, the first paragraph in this post alone has a number of errors.

Golf Afflicted said...

Hi Anon 08:58

Sigh. Yes, I'm a disgrace to my alma mater due to my frequent carelessness in adding a 's' or missing one in my sentences, plus of course, occasionally missing a "to" in my sentence. And I'm guilty of often not re-reading my write up before posting it. I have also admitted often enough that English wasn't a subject I received an 'A' for during my 'O' levels.

Thanks to the reminder, I've edited the paragraph. But you got my point right? (I sure hope so, or I'll quit writing :-)) But given that my English isn't a top-notched 'A' standard, what does it "prove" in relation to the points I was making in the article again?

Golf Afflicted said...

Hey Maverick,

I don't disagree with your comments that lecturers with good English are likely to be in the minority at our public universities, particularly those out of the top 4-5 schools. And yes, the evidence from Kian Ming and myself are indeed anecdotal - but our point is just to say that there are good lecturers at our universities, nothing more than that. I believe Kian Ming who's more of an academic than I am, have collaborated with many at our public universities who are competent in the English language.

As to your point that competition naturally makes private colleges better, I disagree. Private colleges in Malaysia at this point of time have it easy because there is a huge demand from students who wants degrees, are willing to pay for it but are not "worth" one. With such a ready market demand, the local private colleges really don't have to be too concerned with quality - which from an anecdotal perspective, have gone further down due to pressure to increase intake and make more profits.

To put it in a generalised fashion, and to a certain extent paradoxically, "competition and liberalisation" instead of resulting in better quality, has done the exact opposite, as they lower standards to be able to accept more students.

I'm not referring to some of the public unis you named - I don't hire from them as well (barring exceptions). But I'll definitely take someone with a strong 2.1 honours from UM compared to someone from Inti or Sunway or TAR or...

Elizabeth said...

I think that too many Malaysians place an overimportance on the English language (the colonial mentality, perhaps?). You mentioned this: "practically any credible masters or PhD degrees in science and mathematics from reputable universities around the world would have been conducted in English"
That's certainly far from the truth. From time to time, we get guest speakers from foreign universities in France, Germany, Italy, etc, who give talks in our Geology Department. They are perfectly credible professors with fantastic research qualifications, yet a lot of them can't speak English very well. Some even stutter. Yet that doesn't make them bad at research.

As long as they are good in ONE language - be it BM, or Chinese or Tamil - I say that they are good to go as lecturers. But the Ministry really needs to make up its mind on which language that it wants the citizens to be proficient in.

Anonymous said...

It's surprising to see that the lecturers of our M'sian public medical schools cant speak english well. I'm a M'sian currently doing my 3rd yr med in Indonesia, when i first arrived here i was afraid that i'm going to get stuck in between lecturers who cant understand english, suprisingly ALL lecturers right frm my 1st yr till now could speak extreamly fluent english, as if they were brought up in the UK or US but the fact is that most of them have not even stepped out of Indonesia.

Anonymous said...

Well, while being able to speak English well during university days is good, it would not help a doctor very much in his actual career. I have seen many foreign doctors who have good english but are useless as they couldn't communicate in Hokkiens or Hakkas or the Malay language as their patients couldn't understand english!

Anonymous said...

None of the Malaysian public universities are really good for the following reasons:

1. The examination results of students at entrance level (STPM/foundation) vary widely. When good and bad students study in the same class, it is difficult to realise the potential of the good students. An average performance is expected.
2. The quality of lecturers is an open question, especially when most of them are not PhD holders. A lecturer holding a master's degree is capable of teaching first degree students, but may not have the knowledge to supervise students beyond the first dgree level.
3. The local universities adopt evaluation systems which are not oriented towards challenging the students to think. Rather from day one, the students are overwhelmed by examinations and assignments. Local universities have been rolling out degree certificates, which do not appear to be valuable, if employability of the graduates is a guide. This possibly explain why medical and engineering degrees have become the choices of the best STPM students. In good universites, the spread of the best students among the faculties is likely to be more even than that of the Malaysian universities.
The main advantage of studying in local universitis is that they provide low-cost education. The private colleges vary in admission standard. It is a fact that the admission standard is generally lower that that of the local universities. In the case of the UK and Australian universities, the feedback I have got is that most if not all do maintain a reasonably high academic standard in relation to passing out students through external monitoring and research grant control. For example, one of the criteria for evaluating the performance of an UK university is the rate of students, who manage to complete their degree successfully. Another point is that the local universities all have facilities better than those of the private colleges. It is also a known fact that many of the families who could afford the fees of private colleges make pre-STPM decision not to send their children to local universities.

Anonymous said...

See the old movie "My Fair Lady", an academy award winning British movie from the 60s and you would understand why we shouldn't take language professors seriously!

The best way to promote the usage of English is NOT to frightened / ashamed people from trying!

So what if it is broken English? After all, the language isn't for the elite!

The same reasons apply too to the Malay language "extremists".

Anonymous said...

Lecturers can't speak english.....not Inggeris... :p

Anonymous said...

While I do agree that it is no excuse for some lecturers to have a poor command of English (especially for those with a PhD), a lesson conducted in English are more often than not as good as the students themselves. Even lecturers who have mastered the language would find it extremely difficult to teach in English if students can't read, speak or write in the language. Interestingly enough, this problem prevails even with the implementation of English as the medium of instruction for Maths and Science classes in schools. What can lecturers do for students who don't even have an inkling of what a 'noun' or 'verb' is? Can lecturers who are good at English magically 'transform' these students in the space of 3-4 years... practically a miracle if you take into account English is taught in schools since Day 1. I think it's high time we discover for the REAL causes behind the problem, and then work towards REAL solutions. Finger-pointing will not get us anywhere.