Thursday 23 April 2009

A first language dilemma

A friend of mine just went for the IELTS exam as she needed an English qualification for the Masters in an UK university that she is applying. For that particular course she applied, she needed an IELTS score of 7.5 (out of a max of 9) to get in. Do you think it’s tough?

She said it was tough. I did English 1119 during my time so I have no idea how tough IELTS is. Anyway, she managed a 7. To me, that is quite good. Unfortunately for her, that’s not good enough.

She now has 2 options --- she can either re-sit her IELTS or; opt for a telephone interview. Of course, there is the unwritten 3rd option of foregoing her Masters which is not what she wants. She prefers not to do the former as IELTS fees are paid in ₤₤₤. Hence, a re-sit is expensive, very expensive! So the telephone interview sounds like a good escape clause.

But!... there’s always a but…

The telephone interview is only available to those whose first language is English.

My friend is a Chinese, but just like many of us here, she doesn’t read or write Chinese. At home, she communicates with her family members in Cantonese. Certainly, she can declare that English is her first language and the IELTS people should not be able to verify it. I mean, how does one verify such things?

Notwithstanding the above, can she consider English as her first language?

For many of us banana Chinese, we don’t read or write Chinese. But at the same time, most of us are able to converse in a particular dialect. Then, most of us attended national schools where subjects were taught in BM. Not to mention, major exams such as SRP / PMR / SPM / STPM were all done in BM.

From such background, there are some who can then sit at a mamak store under a tree next to the drain drinking cheap coffee but… will converse only in English. And when they head home, the mother will shout…

“Sui chai, kam yeh hui pin to ah?” (Idiot, go where so late?)
“Yum char lah!” (Drink tea lah)

For those who fall within such category but at the same time, have close to perfect command of spoken and written English, perhaps they can safely say that English is indeed their first language.

But for those who can’t read or write Chinese and at the same time unable to construct simple grammatically correct English sentence… unable to remove the “lahs”, “mahs” and “ahs” from their colloquial English, and attended school in BM --- what is our first language? Manglish?

Quite a dilemma, isn’t it?

2 years go…
Is the world going faster?


Kim said...

1119 is peanuts. I don't understand why we have to spend $$ just to take 1119 and MUET and then end up with taking another English exam to study abroad. If our English standard is not qualified in UK or Aus, having 1119 and MUET shouldn't be considered in the first place.

Theodwyn said...

Back in my sister's day (circa 10-15 years ago), their 1119 exam was accepted by UK universities as proof of proficiency in English. Come 2004, when I applied to go to university in the UK, it was no longer accepted. I had English, English Literature, and 1119 at SPM, and yet none was accepted. I had Thinking Skills A-levels as well, and that was not accepted as proof of proficiency either. I had to take IELTS.

Why? Because the education ministries of US/UK/AUS no longer trusts our education system. Where has our good English gone? Well.. it has gone the same place where good teachers have gone... ie into the land of retirement. When teachers are bullied, unmotivated, bogged down by bureaucracy and racism, forced to teach subjects they're not interested in, guaranteed passes in teaching college.... and the list goes on... Whither good english??

Didn't want to say much... and said too much already... you know what I think of our standard of english... my opinion is on fallen patriots.

Anyway... when're you going to ozzieland?

Theodwyn said...

Forgot to say...

Your first language normally refers to the language you think in. So if your head functions in English... your first language is English.

Your mother tongue refers to your mother's language... and the language you converse with at home, and vice versa with your father tongue.

So... if one thinks in manglish... then their first language IS manglish..

day-dreamer said...

Then what's the point of scoring an A1 in 1119??

leyaw said...

Hahaha...this is very the interesting subject. I speaking good chinese but no write or read in chinese.

Jack of many languages but master of none and never proud of it. I think this is a big problem with Malaysian Chinese who was brought up in major cities as many received their education in SK schools instead of S(J)K.

While student like us do not face any problem communicating in english, many from the chinese school lack in confidence when they find themselves having to communicate in english.

Though I am not against chinese ed schools, something should be done regarding this. Glad that you have brought this up in your blog.

missX said...

a dilemma. arggghhh laaaa makkkkkkkkkkk!!!

Anonymous said...

Coming from Asia (or Malaysia in this case) alone disqualifies one from being a native speaker so even though we speak and write in English daily, we still have to sit for such exams. Even those who are contemplating migrating to Australia for eg. have to sit for an exam not withstanding they have been working for quite a number of years!

taxy said...

What if your parents were deaf and the first language you learnt was sign? O_O

Winn said...


Purple~MushRooM said...

We suck at language! Not everyone could speak good english, that is, proper english. Not manglish. We can't compete with hongkees in cantonese. We can't compete with chinese in mandarin.

Seriously.. i think i suck being in china. There isn't a language which i can speak proficiently...

Anonymous said...

I believe the IELTS is conducted quite frequently. You can check the availability of seats on exam dates and location of test centres. In Penang, I believe, the exams are still being conducted in British Council or IDP ( for prospective students pursuing tertiary/advanced studies in AUS/NZ ) There are study guides available for the exam. If you miss the passing mark, you can retake the exam... approx. 60UK pounds. One needs to get familiar with Brtish accent in the listening part. Hopefully your friend will do better next time.

ven said...

I was asked what is my first language for one too many times over the 4 years in the UK. I can never answer that question.

My English, proficient to a certain extend but was in a way crucified by my project supervisor when he read my thesis draft.

My mandarin, although I can speak fluently in a non Malaysian way, my one month in Taiwan had told me that my mandarin can do with a lot of improvement.

My cantonese, is no longer that Malaysian but my friend from HK still says that it sounded weird and different.

I agree with Theodywn that the language used within one's head is the first language, but I think in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay and even Hokkien depending on the scenario. So what should my first language/languages be?

By the way, I got into university with my 1119 results. Only 1/6 university in my UCAS application required an IELTS from me.

lynnx01 said...

This has always been my problem as well. I sat for IELTS back then. In our application form, we were asked what is our first language. I was unsure because I speak broken mandarin at home. I am BM educated in school but I hardly speak it. Majority of the time outside, I converse in English. So what is my first language?

tieroflife said...

The IELTS was really tough. However, the Academic module should be easier than General module.
I was also having problem with this when applying for UK visa. Malaysia is not of a majority English speaking country and the degree in malaysia university is not considered taught in English though some courses were taught in english, therefore I have to sit for IELTS and must score at least 6.5.

tieroflife said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

academic module is tougher than general module...reason being it is the higher standard imposed as one of the prerequisite qualification to entering university. some may argue that it is good to maintain the repu of a good uni while others finds it ridiculous to have such requirement especially when one is somewhere near/between the borderline margin set.

msian born chinese who doesnt read and write but can only converse and listen will never have first language if...the first language is defined as:

1. the language speak within home
2. the language that you think with
3. the language that you've failed to score incredibly well and make you screw any other english test(s) despite admitting that english indeed if your first lang

if by not achieving a good ielts results is equivalent to not having proficiency in english does it means that every UK citizen will eventually /definitely score 9/9 because english is indeed their first language and whoever that falls below such category can never have english as their first language??

Yvonne Foong said...

English 1118 us 0 Levels lar. My cousin did O Lvels in Dubai when he was 14. We take O Level English 1119 zt 17! Worse still, university wants college level English, or at least high school level. As you have earlier indicated, in an earlier post, our SPM is only middle school not even high school.


Anonymous said...

then wat u suggest jek?

all shud indeed adopt one language aje? even in daily chitchatchat? 1 bangsa 1 language ya? >.<"

namewee had some tots n a song 4 this dilemma too...hehe

foongmei said...

yeah! totally understand. the definitions of first language is so debatable and sometimes telling them english is indeed your first language actually makes life a lot easier. but they would probably think otherwise once they start speaking to us because our spoken english command can not match up with theirs just because we're so used to speaking several languages. but i think the lahs and mahs can be omitted unconsciously when you speak with a foreigner.

telephone interview is quite risky i think. IELTS is probably the safer choice.

foongpc said...

They don't accept 1119? Why not?

Anonymous said...

Anyone trying to compare the standard of English or any subject taken in SPM exam with O levels should refer to the original SPM certificate. In your SPM original certificate, there is a footnote that reads "equivalent to O levels". The standard/quality of the exam result was on par with O levels, up to the late eighties or maybe early nineties. For IELTS exam, just fill in your mother tongue ( whatever it is -- but definitely not English )for first language section. You wouldn't be taking this exam if your mother tongue is English or holding a passport from certain countries.

lynn-w said...

hhmm.....good post! i'm wondering my first language english or chinese? aha..

I did think of taking IELTS after my SPM but the cert only valid for 2 years.
Agh! I dont think I can write a proper English essay.

Melyong said...

Well I won't mind to say my first language is National Language if they would not screw up the local uni and save all the out-flowing education fees. Even a management university here can't manage themselves. Its a shame. Talk about brain drain?

Btw, it was nice to see you at my blog. Sorry for the intolerance of confusion. lol! my other non-confusing one is :)

Bee Ean said...

In France first language = mother tongue. I thought my mother tongue was Chinese but the French said it should be Hokkien, the language I first learned to speak.

Anyway, for me, first language should be the language you are most at ease with among all the languages one speaks.

Anonymous said...

want to get high score, we need to learn tactical skill to tackle oh...i used to take IELTS preparation really good! anyway, isnt the exam fee rm500? ...

kyh said...

That's the case with M'sian Chinese. Every language we learn is only half-bucket full. There's a need to reform the system else proficiency in either language is just a dream.

Huei said...

ahh..the "beauty" of a "multiracial" country huh? =P

i was from an international school, and yet my english dilemma oso lah =P

zewt said...

Kimmy - when i was doing 1119, it was outside my SPM :) ... that time, 1119 is of high standard. but i agree with your opinion, the current system is quite worthless.

Theodwyn - those were during my days :)... OMG, i feel so old now! i did english literature while for my SPM too! that time, i got an A1, so proud of it! hehe... yes, our english standard have lost the trust of foreign university, and the authorities are trying to go around it, very disappointing. i will be going in probably 3-4 years time. and i dont think manglish can actually be a language hahah

day-dreamer - 1119 now is... of not much standard i am afraid.

leyaw - yeah, they should speak more. sad to say, some of them just choose to speak mandarin amongst themselves and are proud of their "english" already.

justjasmine - so how? :)

Mei Teng - personally, i dont think anyone from this part of the world should make english their first language. i dont think i want to.

zewt said...

taxy - errr... sign language is still... a language...

Winn - alamak!

purple mushroom - we are like jack of all trade and master of none right? and worse... we are proud of it.

anon @ 24/4 10.10am - it's not the frequency but the price of it... rather expensive.

ven - yeah, we are a confused bunch isnt it? always struggling for our true identity, to which we dont really have one unless we embrace true malaysian-hood and say BM is our first language.

lynnx01 - bahaengdrin.

zewt said...

tieroflife - hello there, welcome to AZAIG. i guess 6.5 is not that tough compared to 7.5? :)

anon @ 24/4 1.29pm - very good point. i dont think brits or americans will ever score 9/9, at least not in written form. but i would expect them to score at least 8.5?

Yvonne Foong - the standard of english taught at school is just getting lower and lower... that's the real problem.

anon @ 24/4 3.24pm - haha... that's not the notion lah... first language doesnt mean all must adopt one language mah... right or not jek?

foongmei - indeed... which is why i told my friend she cant really say english is her first language becos it will all sound too wrong as soon as we open our mouth.

foongpc - not the current paper, no.

anon @ 25/4 7.18am - yup... our SPM now is just... sigh. a very good point on english not being our first language.

zewt said...

lynn-w - makes us all confused souls isnt it? :)

melyong - oh... shall check it out later. :)

Bee Ean - i thought a tongue isnt exactly a language.

little jennifer - not sure, think more than that now... every year it increases.

kyh - well, we are definitely more and more efficient in manglish, dont u think?

huei - your english where got sux... very good already lor.

neno said...

IELTS is tough..nv took it bfore..might haf to if i were to go elsewhere..but from my fren's results i can say it's tough..

kekeke..i think i fall into the Manglish language..wakakaka..

Christine said...

IELTS is not a difficult English exam. It's a sensible one that measures a person's level of proficiency based on their ability to communicate i.e.
- listen correctly,
- speak clearly,
- understand what they read and communicate their thoughts and ideas in writing.

After all, it is for a postgraduate degree (after Form 5, after Form 6, after a bachelor's degree) - she may need to produce a thesis and defend it at a viva voce.

As Yvonne Foong has pointed out, 1119 is O Levels only i.e. after form 5...

Do tell your friend to bear in mind that she is applying at the same time other UK residents and other international students are applying.

The unis need a standard with which to admit qualified students, one of which is an English prerequisite to ensure that she will be able to successfully attain her masters.

If your friend is serious about doing a master's in the UK, she should resit the exam.

If I were her, I'd examine my test score to see which component I scored the lowest. Then, I'd go to the British Council, practise with past IELTS exam questions and do it again!

After all, she's already a 7 - chances are high she'll meet the minimum 7.5 the second time around.

She could try to put English as her first language and attempt the phone interview if her spoken English is good. If not, the interviewers may strike her off the list from the first few sentences...

With a solid IELTS score, she can choose to go to any university in the UK and be proud of herself that she aced the exam. That's better, isn't it?

I have a good friend from mainland China who did her masters in the UK. It's even harder for them because English is a foreign language while English is our second language.

If she can do it, I'm sure your friend can too. I hope this helps!

zewt said...

christinejalleh - hello there. yeah, she finally decided to resit becos she wont make it via the interview. so, you reckon english is not first but second language eh?

Daphne Ling said...

Hi Zewt,

I'm gonna pick a bone here (sorry, haven't read the other comments to see if the bone has been picked).

I don't agree when you call 'us' who don't read or write Chinese banana (I'm assuming you refer to yourself too, here)...

If you were to read up the history of 'banana', it refers to people who don't IDENTIFY or ASSOCIATE themselves with the Chinese, despite being Chinese (Yellow on outside, white on inside).

This means that not speaking or writing the language does NOT make us bananas. We're Chinese and we call ourselves Chinese, and heck, many of us even speak a dialect or two or three or however many!

Of course many people go the extreme and refer to anyone who doesn't speak MANDARIN to be bananas. Just as long as you speak Mandarin (even if don't read and write), you're considered Non-Banana!

I think it's an insult to call people banana, just because they speak a dialect different from the most popular one. It is the basis of superiority.

Don't give them more fuel for their fire by agreeing with them!

zewt said...

Daphne Ling - hmmm... where did you get the definition of banana? :) my understanding of being a banana is not that deep though...