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THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN MALAYSIA
The influence of the English language in Peninsular Malaysia can be traced to as far back as the nineteenth- century. The British, in the hope of expanding their empire, travelled to and colonized various parts of the world, including Malaya. In the beginning, they communicated with the locals using sign language and English. Gradually, they started to assert control and intervene in the local affairs of the traditional Malay states. The increase in government services and the introduction of the Resident System in the 1870's further established the presence of the British and facilitated the Spread of English among the local people. British officers were employed to head the various departments involved in the collection of revenues, road construction and the supervision of mines. These officers recruited a small number of Malays who were able to understand and, to a certain level, speak some simple everyday English to assist them in dealing with the locals.
Later, with the expansion of commerce especially in the urban areas, the English language began to be more widely used among the people. For instance, early traders from different places, and of different races, came to the port cities of Singapore, Malacca and Penang to conduct business. In the sixteenth century, Malay was the lingua franca of trade in the Malay Peninsula. However, with the growing influence of the British in the region, this soon changed to the English language. In time, the British began formulating various rules and regulations pertaining to trade and commercial activities in this language as well.
There was a marked increase in educational facilities during the British rule. By the 1950's, there were many types of schools opened for the local people. As part of their strategy to "divide and rule", the British established vernacular schools to meet the educational needs of the various races: Malay medium schools for the Malays, Chinese medium schools for the Chinese and Tamil medium schools for the Indians.
Another factor which helped the spread of the English language in Malaya was the introduction of English medium schools by the British. The medium of instruction in these schools was, of course, English. Reference books for these schools were brought in from the United Kingdom. These English medium schools resulted in the emergence of an elite group of educated English-speaking locals. The members of this elite group were highly regarded in society and were given the chance to hold important civil service posts in the government. However, not many Malay students enrolled in these schools. Those who did were mainly from aristocratic and upper-class families.
After independence, the spread of English in Malaysia was facilitated by the mass media. National radio and television networks produced and broadcast both Malay and English programmes. There were also English newspapers like the New Straits Times which contributed to the wider use of English among Malaysians. Many believe that the influx of English films was also an instrumental factor in spreading the use of the language in Malaysia. At a time when going to the cinema was the norm, people from different walks of life and racial backgrounds thronged the theatres to watch English films. Many picked up the language just by watching these films.
Language is the most traditional medium of communication that man has maintained over the centuries and will continue to use. There are thousands of languages spoken by the 6.9 billion people throughout the world. However, the English language has emerged as the major international language. Today, the importance of the English language in Malaysia can no longer be disputed. The influence of English has reached almost every house in Malaysia.
Adapted from "English language and the language of development of
Malaysian perspective" by Faisal Hanapiah, UPM International Conference