One thing Malaysians pride ourselves in is being multilingual. I think most of us would at least know Bahasa Malaysia (since it was taught in primary school and secondary school), and then there's either English, Chinese or Tamil that we would know as an addition to BM. Some of us who are gifted in languages even learn other foreign languages as part of our studies and can easily speak 3 to 4 languages. While this is something Malaysians are definitely proud of, I've come to realise from working with the communities that not every Malaysian is as privileged to be multilingual. And here's why.
In our Pusat Bimbingan Pelajar (PBP) programs, we have students from the community of different races. One student in particular was always a concern for us because her command of English was so weak that she could not even remember simple phonics. We would spend the 2-hour session just pronuncing syllables with her in hopes that she would remember and be able to pronunce more complex word groups. But each week after she has learnt some phonics, the next week she would come back like a fresh sheet of white paper, with no trace of anything from the previous week retained in her memory.
Now you might think so what's the big deal about being unable to read English right? BM is the main medium in schools anyway and she would still be able to do well. Wrong. While some people are gifted in languages, some students like this girl find it really hard to learn a language, which means while she might seem to only have difficulty learning English, in actual fact she is having difficulty learning BM too!
Then comes the argument of, "But language is not the end all be all, there are other subjects that she might be really good at and she would still be able to do well." Well I'm sorry to say that most subjects in public schools are taught using the English or Malay language and without a good command of the language, her ability to understand what is being taught for other subjects will also be limited due to the language barrier.
Let me give you an example of this situation.
A colleague of mine was teaching a Form 5 student Mathematics, thinking he was purely weak in the subject. Little did he know that this student was actually a top scorer for Mathematics back in primary school and the only reason why he was weak since coming to secondary school was because he didn't understand BM or English enough to be able to do well in the same subject.
And this boy isn't the only one, there are many students out there who are unable to read the questions given, let alone answer them! It made me realise how some students just want to do well but are simply unable to. It made me realise how important languages are in the education system, and it made me realise how necessary it was for us to help these weaker students gain confidence in first learning the language so that they can do well in other subjects.
"The capacity to learn is a gift, the ability to learn is a skill" - Brian Herbert
If only more of us Malaysians who are multilingual are willing to volunteer ourselves and help these struggling students, we could perhaps fill the gap by helping them break the language barrier, show them how fun learning another language could be, and encourage them to be more confident in school. Just seeing their faces light up when they discover they can solve a simple question is a priceless reward for us and a gift no one can take away from them.