The exploration of different ideas, knowledge, experiences and perspectives is made possible through the study of English Literature.
By Mak Kum Shi
While the study of English Literature as an academic discipline was originally intended to force people into a single cultural mould, the world that we live in today is not the same world as when the subject was shaped several decades ago. The study of English Literature today enables people to appreciate diversity in ideas, knowledge and experiences. This appreciation is due to many different acts of interpretation that we bestow on a literary text. Since literature and language are closely intertwined, the study of English Literature naturally enables improvement in proficiency in the language.
In Malaysia, English skills are rather lacking among young graduates. As English is not the primary language of instruction in the national educational curriculum, the younger generation would be lacking a conducive environment to learn and practice their language skills. However, there are avenues to improve their English skills, such as watching films, attending short courses and gaining public speaking experiences.
What is English?
The formal study of English have been linked to the view that people need to be ‘civilised’ and provided with English or Western values through the study of literature. Looking at the development of English as an academic discipline, it is clear that this idea was intended, subtly but firmly, to force people into a single mould of ‘civilised Englishness’. However, while the founders of English wanted people, especially British colonial subjects to be culturally similar, now we appreciate and celebrate differences. Where they offered certainties and definite answers in interpreting literary texts, we are aware that there are rarely clear-cut solutions and final judgements. If our world-views are changing, so must our expectations of English. These changes are most clearly explained and explored by looking at the crucial issue of interpretation (Eaglestone).
Reading and interpreting
Understanding literature isn’t a natural process: it doesn’t just happen. We ‘do’ something when we read, we use certain tools to find meaning in a text, whether we realise we are doing so or not. What you make of a novel, poem or play is exactly that: what you make of it. Another way of expressing this is to say that to read a literary text, to think about it, or to write about it in any way, is to undertake an act of interpretation. Rather than reading in a vacuum, we take our ideas, our tendencies and preferences – ourselves – to a text. Because interpretation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, no interpretation is neutral or objective. Whenever we interpret a novel, poem, play or anything else for that matter, our interpretation is shaped by several presuppositions (Eaglestone).
From a media practitioner’s perspective, the events that we watch, hear and read are references for the news stories that we put together. Such references allow us to develop the theme, key idea, supporting facts and the structure of our news stories.
Similarly, from an educator’s perspective, our ideas, tendencies and preferences shape the way we interpret texts and convey our interpretations to our students and peers. As we learn from the learning experiences of our students and peers, we revise the ways we make our interpretations and to the ways we convey our interpretations.
State of English in Malaysia
While Malaysia is ranked 12th out of 72 countries based on English skills in a proficiency index done by Education First, a global organisation founded in Sweden, there is still much room for improvement for English skills especially among the younger opulation in Malaysia. The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan has said that there was still a major problem among job seekers, especially fresh graduates, SPM and diploma holders. There is a need for students to improve their English communication skills both orally and in writing. One of the ways is to take up short courses, which will involve some funding, but if they cannot do that, they can try watching some videos and try to improve their English (Tan).
Another way for students to improve their oral communication skills would be for them to gain public speaking experiences. By learning to speak to their audiences, students can build their confidence in communicating, not just with their peers, but also their prospective employers and future colleagues. Practice in public speaking also encourages students to use the language and gain confidence in speaking without inhibitions or fear of making mistakes in grammar or pronunciation.
Impact on the study of English
Studying English involves not just reading works of literature, but learning to interpret them in different ways. It also involves understanding how different ways of interpretation work, as this can reveal what other people consider to be significant about literature and central to their lives. This has the potential to create new readings of text, but also to make us think about the way we see the world and our place in it.
Consciously reading from different perspectives can change our ideas about the text and even about your place in the world. In this way, the subject of English can bring to light and even challenge ideas we take for granted. Because of this, many critics and educators say that this sort of questioning and reading from other perspectives is central to doing English and to the enjoyment of reading (Eaglestone).
For example, a comprehension assignment with four different pictures with key words as captions could be interpreted and written in different ways by different people. Although the same assignment is given, the text would be written and arranged in different manners, because different people would have different perspectives and interpretations.
In addition to having wider perspectives, by having an all-rounded education in English, students will acquire the soft skills needed to communicate with their peers and perform well in their academic studies, as well as their careers.
Eaglestone, Robert. Doing English Today, in Doing English (3rd Edition). Abingdon, New York: Routledge, 2009. Book.
Tan, Royce. “English proficiency still a big problem for many M’sian grads.” Nation, The Star 21 January 2017: 6. Newspaper.