Sunday July 22, 2012
English challenge at IIUM
By AMINUDDIN MOHSIN
Proficiency in English is a prerequisite for enrolment at the International Islamic University Malaysia, and many foreign students are taking two years to learn the language just to gain entry.
OUR debates and complaints over the use of English in the education system tend to be fiery and emotional, but take a step back and imagine what it’s like for a person with no English background whatsoever to learn the language in under two years.
This is the reality for foreign students who want to enrol at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). They have up to two years to become competent in English before they can enrol in any course offered by the university. More importantly though, these students are proving that it can be done.
IIUM Centre for Languages and Pre-University Academic Development (Celpad) dean Prof Nuraihan Mat Daud said that over the years IIUM has nurtured many students with zero English proficiency into confident speakers.
She added: “It’s a reality our university has to deal with. We have an Islamic niche and the students that enrol here come from different parts of the Muslim world and beyond.
“We have to be prepared to receive students who come from certain parts of the world that do not speak English at all.”
Prof Nuraihan said the stringent language requirement is a necessity because the university’s medium of instruction is English.
She added: “All students have to attain a band of 6.5 and above in the Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or equivalent.They have to grasp the language before they can learn anything here. We’ve caught many who are so eager to enrol that they buy fake certificates.”
Celpad cross-examines all certifications with their examination centres overseas to ensure they are legitimate. But the major concern for Celpad is cramming what is a lifetime of English for some into two years of study, with academic English to boot.
Said Prof Nuraihan: “Our approach has to be relevant and it must suit the needs and wants of our students. We have to keep up with the times.
“Lots of students today are more active in the night and our lecturers have to be prepared to receive queries and work online at night.”
She added that incorporating online gaming and virtual worlds as a teaching tool is also very helpful in bridging the divide between Gen-Y students and lecturers.
“During an education conference overseas, we came across Second Life; an online virtual platform where institutions and organisations can set up islands for the benefit of their members. It doubles as an online gaming platform, so there is a gaming feel to it and students can enjoy a different approach to study,” she said.
Celpad lecturer Shahrizal Idzuan Wahab Abd Rahman demonstrated how students interact with each other and access the university’s resources on the virtual platform.
He said: “We know that students today play all kinds of games and Second Life provides an alternative way to enjoy learning English. First, students have to create an avatar. After that they are free to walk, run or fly wherever they want in Second Life, except for some exclusive zones.
“Our island is a non-exclusive zone where anyone can visit. But it’s specifically designed for students who want alternative access to study material and also an alternative to face-to face discussion.”
He added that students who prefer to meet and hold discussions online could readily use the platform instead of doing so in real life.
IIUM’s head of Post Secondary Studies, English Language Department, Centre for Foundation Studies Aishah Low said it is not easy for older generations of lecturers to adapt but it is a necessity.
“I consider myself among the older generation of lecturers who are used to using conventional methods to teach. But the leeway for that is narrowing as students expect you to be online and accessible any time of the day,” she added.
Aishah said it falls squarely on the shoulders of lecturers to get students, both foreign and local, to be enthusiastic about learning English. “We have to be upbeat and make sure that the methods we use when teaching clearly show them how they benefit from learning the language in daily life or academically.”
She added that local students have to understand that if foreign students with no English background at all can grasp the language within two years, so can they.
Said Aishah: “Not only do our foreign students have diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, they also vary widely in age, some are 16 while others are 50. We’ve had some older students learn the language very late in life and still succeed in mastering it and completing their studies.”
IIUM student Halil Ibrahim Dagli who has mastered several languages, including Bahasa Malaysia, said picking up a new language helps open up all kinds of new horizons.
He said: “There is no loss in learning a new language and there is no language that lacks beauty and depth. Nobody should discard a language or look down upon it.
“I find that understanding cultures and behaviours is much easier if you understand the native tongue of a person. The words available better describe events or things.”
Prof Nuraihan said Celpad is working toward developing an Arabic language equivalent of TOEFL. She added: “There is no standardised examination body for Arabic, and with our experience in English we hope to come up with an examination of the same standard for Arabic.
“Some courses here are carried out in Arabic and applicants interested in those courses must be proficient in the language.”
Aishah said that despite the hardships as an English lecturer, the job is fulfilling. “Even though it can be hard to keep up with the latest technologies and having to cope with the different students in IIUM, it’s still a very satisfying job because of the students themselves.
“They keep you entertained and I really have to try hard not to laugh when they come up with sentences like, ‘I can’t come to class today because my body is not delicious’,” quipped Aishah.
■ English for More Opportunities is part of The Star’s on-going efforts to highlight the importance of the language in helping people get ahead in life. To share your views and inspiring stories or give us feedback, please email