Category Archives: learning about learning

Barking Up The Wrong Tree Twice Over.

How is a lack of proficiency in the English language for a country where English is not a native language and a dismissive attitude towards a national language, a defining factor for unity – even related ? How does one who makes it to CEO and MD of a major newspaper like The Star be of such limited maturity to make such a simplistic and unrelated connection?

First, if any country is to be justifiably worried about a lack of proficiency in English, it’s the USA. English is supposed to be their native language and for a lot of them it’s probably the only language they know. In a way their native speakers are as illiterate in their first language as the Malaysians in our country that do not or cannot read and write proficiently in our national language, Bahasa Malaysia. (The issue was politicized by a local right-wing politician from a Southern Peninsula state.)

I have mentioned several times that I honestly believe that those who do not attempt to learn Bahasa Malaysia to a level of at least being able to function in daily life deserve to have their citizenship revoked.

The reason?

Their barriers to learning BM is a reflection of their prejudice towards the majority ethnic group. Their continued existence in our country, passing their prejudice down to their children, will breed disunity and disharmony and in the long-run, those who cannot assimilate into the Malaysian society become a threat to national peace and progress.


Whenever I come across Malaysians I have to translate for I will add, “How old are you by now? Even migrant workers who have been in our country for a few months can speak conversational Malay and understand what’s going on. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself that you have a right to vote and enjoy the peace and infrastructure and opportunities in this country yet cannot speak its language? Do you know that if you did not speak English or any native language of a foreign country you or your children would not be considered for citizenship? How will you integrate with the community and add value to the collective if you cannot assimilate?”

Let’s hold on for a minute before we get to why people hate learning Bahasa Malaysia and associating themselves with Malays through a common language. I’ll address that later.

First, why we have to keep an open mind when it comes to learning Bahasa Malaysia.

I am a language lover. “Bahasa itu jiwa bangsa”. Language and identity (Ego) is intertwined. “Tak kenal maka tak cinta”. You cannot respect or love an identity outside of your immediate Ego if you do not attempt to interpret the world through their filter and language is a HUGE lens in how we view the world.

When I started teaching in a Chinese school many of my friends asked me, “How can you stand being in a ching-chong environment and dealing with the mindset of Chinese-educated people?” –  I love languages. I’m good at them. It’s not personal!

A lot of my old friends made fun of the fact that I am now an “Ah Lian” for associating with Chinese-speaking people. They say I am mixing with “rough people without decorum and manners, lack ethics and are tactless and unprincipled, unscrupulous and selfish.”

My point ?

Many English-speaking people especially those from an urban upbringing discriminate against those who don’t speak English well.  They are pretentious and ignorant and greatly disadvantaged when it comes to maturity in how they think but they don’t know it. English-speaking, Western-leaning people, discriminate against Chinese-speaking people and the Chinese culture (including other-language speaking people and their culture) the way Chinese-speaking, Chinese-leaning people in Malaysia discriminate against Malays and thus, the learning of Bahasa Malaysia.

I will not deny that there is a hierarchy of language and because of its economic and social currency, English ranks the highest. It does not mean the possession of proficiency in that currency makes one superior by association with it but unfortunately way too many short-sighted people believe a proficiency in the colonial master’s language affords them prestige or status by mere mastery of the desired language.

To be fair, the problem is not the former colonial master’s language. History has seen how other languages (Latin, French) have had their days of glory as the language that ranks top in the hierarchy of languages. “Got Latin, can travel.”

The problem is the negative associations we make with any language that has very little social and economic value in a local or global context. Not being proficient in English may cost you in the employment marketplace. Not being proficient in Bahasa Malaysia will not.

Among linguists and language lovers learning a language is primarily about expanding ourselves by learning from the worldview of others and exploring and appreciating their culture, beliefs and habits. Language learning of a non-native language has always been the luxury of those with surplus time, money or verbal-linguistic prowess. That is how language should be learned – to understand the viewpoints of someone else. And that is what the Malaysian government is hoping to achieve – to defend the identity, significance and value of the Malay culture and to expand on them and impress them upon others if possible.

In Malaysia this intention has become misplaced when Bahasa Malaysia was forced upon everyone and made a mandatory subject and medium of instruction. The Bahasa Malaysia agenda has turned into a Nazi-like propaganda.

It is definitely a wrong approach to force Bahasa Malaysia unto both Malays and non-Malays while displays of the ineptness and retrogressive ways of “Melayu” exists all around. The Malay culture as a whole and how it is projected by media is unappealing to progressive minded people. An affinity for gossip and rumor mongering, belief in the supernatural, use of black magic, obsession with sex and porn / rape / incest culture, illegal racing, drugs – these dominate our perception of Malay culture.

A Democratic Approach to Bahasa Malaysia.

At the core of my language learning philosophy is the Affective Filter or AF hypothesis. And here is how we can finally tie, the problem of a lack of proficiency in English and Bahasa Malaysia in a Malaysian context, together :

Malaysian citizens or those with PR status that cannot or will not learn the national language have a huge stigma against the Malay culture. Malaysian citizens, both rural and urban, who lack a proficiency in the English language are reacting to the discrimination they feel English-speaking people have towards them. Both problems are connected to each other through PREJUDICE against the other.

How can Bahasa Malaysia become a desired learning objective for a Malaysian if the Malay culture as a whole needs a major revolution? The Malay culture looks a lot better from a foreigner’s point of view because unlike Malaysians, foreigners taking Bahasa Malaysia as a Foreign Language do not face the same penalties Malaysian do for not being proficient but more importantly foreigners don’t inherit the wounds inflicted unto Malaysians who feel so ashamed for being forced to associate with a culture they are too close to for comfort. Familiarity breeds contempt.

Bahasa Itu Jiwa Bangsa 

That means, “language is the soul of a people”.

The problem with Malaysia is we marry personal identity with language to such an extent that to be multilingual can be associated with being “polygamous” at best or worse,  a “traitor”.

It is exceptionally true that you cannot understand a person until you understand 3 things about them : their language filters, their money blueprint and their attachment style.

And we’ll focus only on the first of the three.

The Solution 

My opinions are often counter-intuitive. First, on the lack of proficiency in English :

The Capitalist’s Approach

We need to stop looking at Socialist approaches to solving the problem of a lack of proficiency in English. We need a Capitalist approach. I’ve written several times over the years about why the entire multi-billion dollar global ESL industry has been and will remain a colossal failure in its attempts to bring language competency in English to the world. This more recent news article with a local context explains the reality of the ESL landscape in Malaysia and why complaining and blaming is just futile.

A capitalist approach means that instead of pumping hundreds of millions or billions into attempting to “train” more teachers to teach English the way Pavlov trains dogs to salivate on cue we should just 1Malaysia-voucher the entire sincere initiative – give citizens cash vouchers that will allow them to pay for their own private lessons with tutors of their choice. Allocating about $200 – $300 RM a month would solve the ESL problem in 1 schooling generation (of approximately 15 years). This does away with the argument that only those who are “better off” are in a position to get better, which is true of what is happening today. The ESL students I’ve had in the past come from families with a very comfortable margin of surplus income.

We do not lack people who have a very high proficiency in the English language and are capable, though unwilling, to teach others. They are sitting at home doing nothing because these are law, engineering and graduates of other disciplines who have chosen to downshift in order to find more balance and meaning in life and to have time for their family. I speak for myself even when I know there are thousands like me languishing in their pile of unfolded laundry out there.

All people like me need in order to contribute to nation building is to make it worth their time. Like it or not we already have cuckoos and functionally-suspect individuals going around calling themselves “English teachers”. We might as well liberalize and monetize the industry’s potential to the max. And two motivating factors would lucrative opportunities that make margins from flipping properties look like child’s play and personal pride in being part of a progressive, lucrative collective.

And second, on why Malaysians are so shameless in not being able to converse well in Bahasa Malaysia.

I have always wondered whether the language itself is the problem or the perception of it is. I remember when I used to teach English at a Private Chinese School I asked my students why are they responding so much better to English lessons than they are to Bahasa Malaysia classes and their answer is, “BM is useless.”

Economic currency and social status is one reason but if you dig deeper you realize that non-Malay speaking students have a very negative association with BM. I know this because my first task in every ESL class is to assess how high the barriers to learning is before even conceptualizing a teaching approach – as long as students are not allowed to address their “language wounds” they cannot hold two opposing thoughts at the same time i.e. be motivated to learn something that is out to get you.

When I teach ESL to teens and children above 8 gears old I have found that in 100% of the time a learner’s language learning becomes fossilized because of the negative associations they’ve made towards a target language.

Fossilized. Yes. And I need to “warm them up” to learning by bringing down their AF.

Malaysians who lack a proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia are not lacking in it because of the level of difficulty of the language itself. They fossilized because of all the negative things they hear about Bahasa Malaysia. And here are the top ones that will come out of almost every Chinese-speaking individual :

1. Bahasa Malaysia is useless unless you’re going to apply for a government scholarship to get a government job. But those opportunities are almost exclusively reserved for Malays. We don’t stand a chance anyway. However, just in case we can’t afford private college and need to get into a public university, we have to make sure we get a good grade in Bahasa Malaysia.

2. Nowhere else in the world uses Bahasa Malaysia. If we leave this country we’re not going to have any use of it. We might as well invest in learning English. It’s a global currency.

3. Bahasa Malaysia is the native language of Malay people. And Malays discriminate against us.

No. Bahasa Malaysia DOES NOT belong to the Malay-Muslim people. The etymology of Bahasa Malaysia is completely separate from Islam. But it is very difficult for the average non-Malay, non-Muslim to understand this although Indian-Muslims can distinguish “Malayness” from “Islam” very well.

The Answer Lies in Sambal Tempoyak, Ikan Bakar and P. Ramlee movies and songs.

How do we bring desirable qualities of Malay culture to the forefront? How can we contextualize Malay culture in a positive light before we shove Tatabahasa, Sastera and Karangan down people’s throats?

Let them savor the flavors of Malay food that can only come from the willingness of people that will take forever to get something done – or at least five times the time it would take for a Chinese or German to get it done.

Let people enjoy the humor and creative and artistic  excellence of P.Ramlee rather than stupid, over the top Malay skits and “drama”.

And we should have another national holiday – A durian eating day. Eating out to unite everyone.

The idea may sound ridiculous : “We simply don’t have the time to make people know Malay culture and love it. We want them to pass a mandatory exam in language or penalize them.” But it may the only shot we’ve got towards national unity.


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It’s either Thriving, or it’s dying.

The Child is a part of nature. It’s either dying, or it’s thriving. People ask me all the time, “What’s your program like?” finding it necessary to compare one commercial program to another.   On the surface, there’s a plethora of choice on offer in the market; accelerated this and intervention that and multiple this and creative that. How different really is one over another? Is there an advantage one offers over another? One that matters? One that counts?

Look, a child is all that already, within. They are intelligent, they are creative, they are gifted, they are loving. There’s nothing more we need to do TO them. We just need to provide them the soil to grow. So, there’s no program – there’s only going with the natural unfolding of the child. Language is such a medium that it allows you to do anything with it – anything that supports love and meaning.

a child is part of nature. Where there is love, everything thrives.

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Filed under ESL in Asia, learning about learning, Up the ante on teaching

Early reading : good or bad?

I have recently been introduced to a guy called RUDOLF STEINER, at least, to his philosophies and since he has at least 100 years of experience behind him  more than I do and he is at least 1,000 schools ahead of me, I should do a bit of reading up on him.

Come to think of it I was told about this approach by one of the readers of this blog from Australia who eventually became a personal friend. (We met up in July, 2010, in Malaysia.) It just never occurred to me until now why my writings interested her : they were not so far off from her informed ideas of Steiner education – her son goes to a Waldorf school in Sydney.

Day 2 of honestly reading up on him I’m compelled to discuss his idea on childhood reading.  – I have to say that I am not fully informed of the Steiner philosophy at this point in time but if I waited to read everything there is on him before having an opinion then I am afraid I would no longer have original thought but simply be rehashing a bunch of things I happen to, innately, agree with him on.

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Self Actualization through language learning? Pt. 1 :Paradox of education.

  • We should teach people to be authentic, to be aware of their inner selves and to hear their inner-feeling voices.
  • We should teach people to transcend their cultural conditioning and become world citizens.
  • We should help people discover their vocation in life, their calling, fate or destiny. This is especially focused on finding the right career and the right mate.
  • We should teach people that life is precious, that there is joy to be experienced in life, and if people are open to seeing the good and joyous in all kinds of situations, it makes life worth living.
  • We must accept the person as he or she is and help the person learn their inner nature. From real knowledge of aptitudes and limitations we can know what to build upon, what potentials are really there.
  • We must see that the person’s basic needs are satisfied. This includes safety, belongingness, and esteem needs.
  • We should refreshen consciousness, teaching the person to appreciate beauty and the other good things in nature and in living.
  • We should teach people that controls are good, and complete abandon is bad. It takes control to improve the quality of life in all areas.
  • We should teach people to transcend the trifling problems and grapple with the serious problems in life. These include the problems of injustice, of pain, suffering, and death.
  • We must teach people to be good choosers. They must be given practice in making good choices.

Would you agree that those should be the goals of EDUCATION? And if so, which subjects are the best to teach these and if none are suitable, how must education be restructured in order for us to be able to teach these things?

The above points would be much easier to deliver if the goal of second language acquisition focuses on Language Acquisition, the bits of language, instead of a focus on Language Teaching, the atoms that build up our idea of language instruction. But is self-actualization the responsibility of the language teacher? Should it be?

Abraham Maslow believes that the only reason people would not move well in th direction of self-actualization is because of hindrances placed in their way by society. He states that education is one of these hindrances. He recommends ways education can switch from its usual person-stunting tactics to person-growing approaches. Maslow states that educators should respond to the potential an individual has for growing into a self-actualizing person of his/her own kind.

It is a paradox that education is a hindrance to Self-Actualization. “The current education system, in fact, has dissected and inverted Maslow’s hierarchy of needs so that belonging has been transformed from an unconditional need and right of all people into something that must be earned, something that can be achieved only by the “best” of us.”

“The perception that we must earn our right to belong permeates our society. A central tenet of our culture is that we value uniformity, and we make uniformity the criteria for belonging. Moreover, we exclude people because of their diversity.” [the full article here.]

Our schools, being a reflection of society, perpetuate this belief.  – When a school system makes belonging and acceptance conditional upon achievement, it basically leaves students with two options. They can either decide that they are incapable of attaining these expectation and therefore resign themselves to a feeling of personal inadequacy, or, they can decide to try to gain acceptance through achievement in a particular area (i.e. sports, academics, appearance). In either case, there are potential serious negative consequences for the students.

The question of attaining proficiency in ESL cannot be resolved independently of the problems facing education. Students wish to acquire English so that they feel a sense of belonging to the rest of our increasingly global and inter-connected world. But students should come into class equipped with the knowledge that the right to belong is already theirs and that pursuing a second language as part of a larger global community  is recreational as well as reflecting an innate motivation to learn for the sake of learning.  It is because students enter ESL classes with a sense of shame and failure that it becomes so much harder to immediately work on the language acquisition. My job as an ESL tutor becomes so much harder because I have to be counselor, therapist, motivator, role-model, instructor and surrogate parent all at once.  If I ignore the need to play all those roles, instruction alone would do nothing for learning. Isn’t our job as educators not to make sure teaching / instruction happens but instead to make sure learning happens?

However,  the things I have to do are negated in the wider scope of things because those hours of healing for learning are not reflected immediately in the barrage of standardized testing and world judgments students face on a quarterly or annual basis. I can understand that a student with low self-esteem would feel that a lack of outward representation of achievement (distinctions in certification, awards, etc) would mean they have actually failed in language learning. But what if the goals of education is about healing learners from their miseducation about learning, about life? If society becomes aware about the paradox of education and parents become aware of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs then only will the true meaning of education have value.

Should our goals, even as ESL practitioners, be about the bits that make up wholistic learning instead of the atoms that currently structure curricula around the world?

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Filed under Education 2.0 for 2020, ESL in Asia, learning about learning, Rethinking Parenting & Teaching, schooling

Fallout in ESL and education throughout the world.

I believe that the fallout in the ESL-industry is inevitable. First, there are pockets of people who are pushing for Esperanto but more importantly, there is now a critical mass of non-native English speakers who are effectively bilingual and proficient in the language. I believe that the number of non-native English speakers who can read, write and speak at a level of a professional, educated native speaker has exceeded the total number of native-English language speakers. Continue reading

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Can anyone teach you how to do your job?

Let me tell you about this batch of young people I’m teaching : they have absolutely no initiative. I gave them a list of to-do lists while I went away to Singapore. They would’ve been able to at least come up with some learning or some questions. Nothing.

I am really wondering how these people are going to adapt and survive in a very near future where you can not get trained to learn your job, you cannot get trained to learn. Why not? Because wouldn’t I rather hire or partner up with someone who already knows how to get a particular job done or already knows how to at least learn by themselves how to get it done?

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What e-learning is not.

Here’s a video I found which adds some dimension to some of the things I was saying here.


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