For non-native English language speakers in Malaysia, learning English as a second language is a great challenge. It is quite interesting to observe how English is learned in Malaysia. Before Malaysia’s Independence in 1957, the English language was considered as important as the national language, i.e. the Malay language. Most educated Malaysians were bilingual.
English remained as a Second language in Malaysia until 1975 when a new language policy was introduced in early 70s that the medium of instruction in all schools should be carried out in the Malay language. As a result, English became a subject course instead of being used across all subjects.
Following this turning point, a requirement for students to pass the English examination paper was also dropped off, and yet students could continue their education at high school level even if they failed their English paper.
For the next 20 years, English was perceived as a foreign language rather than a second language to the Malay language. Hence, the status of English language in Malaysia has declined since then. Later in response to economic recession in 1997 in Malaysia, the Malaysian government took a few drastic actions to reform the economy in Malaysia.
The needs for more graduates and k-workers who could speak English well and who are able to work in multinational companies were listed as important strategies. To meet such needs, the government reversed the English language policy in schools. Beginning 2003, the medium of instruction for Math and Science subjects started to be taught in English. It is no longer second to Bahasa Melayu but Second. The term “Second” carries a connotative meaning, i.e., important and survival.
Recently, due to continuous strong protest against the use of English as a medium of instruction in Mathematics and Science by many prominent individuals and NGOs, the government reverted the policy that the teaching of Mathematics and Science will be in Bahasa Melayu beginning 2012. Here, English will become a second language again. To some students in rural or remote areas, English may be a third or foreign language.
English is considered “Second” when the target language is the language is needed in particular contexts. It means that a person has to master the language in order to survive in the given context. Therefore, a Malaysian who speaks the Malay language as his/her mother tongue has to master the English language in order to survive in an English speaking country or community or organization or company. He may have to speak English like native English speakers. In some private colleges and companies in Malaysia, English is “Second” to the students and workers respectively.
English is considered “second” when the target language is an added advantage to a person whose English is not his/her mother tongue. In other words, English is second to his/her mother tongue. He/she can still survive in a country or community or organization or company even if he doesn’t speak English like native.
English is considered “foreign” when the target language is not a must in any country or community or organization or company. In government agencies, English is foreign to most government servants.
In a nutshell, English may be “Second”, “second” or “foreign” to an individual, depending on the need and demand of it in his/her particular contexts. It doesn’t mean that a country is the only determinant in this issue.