Dialects and Languages in Numbers

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Over 60% of Penang’s 654,828 Chinese population speak Hokkien. The Hokkiens not only dominate in Penang, they also constitute the largest Chinese group in Malaysia. The proportion is smaller in Malaysia as a whole when compared to Penang, but at 41%, it is still the predominant spoken Chinese dialect in the country (Figure 2).

The Population and Housing Census is carried out every 10 years by the Department of Statistics Malaysia. Figure 2 demonstrates the proportion of top five spoken dialects in Penang and Malaysia from 1991-2010. It is interesting to note that while other dialects showed a downward trend in Penang, the Hokkien-speaking community swelled by a growth rate of 2.6% annually from 1991-2010; this rate outpaced Penang’s population growth rate of 1.5% annually.

Penang and Malaysia seem to share the same top four dialects among the Chinese community. Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Khek (Hakka) represented the top four most spoken dialects in Penang and Malaysia. In terms of proportion, the Khek (Hakka)-speaking community ranked the second largest population in Malaysia, followed by the Cantonese, Teochew and Foochow/Hokchiu, whereas the ranking by most spoken dialects in Penang are Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Khek (Hakka) and Hainanese.

In terms of gender, Penang’s Chinese population comprised a slightly larger number of males than females. Females recorded a marginally higher percentage than males in the Hokkien-speaking group. As can be seen in Figure 3, Hokkien-speaking females stood at 64.1% compared to males at 63.7%. Likewise, the Teochew-speaking group had a minute difference of 0.5% among males and females. The Cantonese, Khek (Hakka) and Hainanese speakers recorded small differences of 0.1-0.3 percentage points between males and females.

Languages in School

We looked into major language exams held in the Malaysian primary and secondary education systems. Primary education is completed after students sit for the Primary School Evaluation Test (Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah, UPSR) which is usually carried out in September every year. Government and government-aided schools include national schools and vernacular schools – Chinese and Tamil curricula that are in line with the national school curriculum.

Figure 4 illustrates the performance of Malaysia’s UPSR candidates by language subjects in 2015: 29.3% and 28% of the total UPSR candidates who sat for the Chinese Language paper scored A’s in the Comprehension and Writing components, respectively. The majority of the candidates scored B’s for these components. Meanwhile, most of the candidates sitting for Tamil exams scored A’s in both Comprehension and Writing components.

Interestingly, candidates of vernacular schools performed slightly better in the English paper compared to their counterparts at national schools, and the grades are more evenly distributed. About 19% of the candidates in vernacular schools scored A’s in this paper while about 18% of the candidates in national schools achieved these results. However, it is of concern that about 16% of candidates scored E’s in vernacular schools. Furthermore, vernacular schools recorded less favourable results in the Malay Writing component compared to national schools; only 20.9% scored A’s at vernacular schools but more than half of candidates from national schools achieved the same grade. Additional efforts need to be emphasised on improving the overall performance of vernacular schools, specifically in English and Malay languages.

Students complete secondary level education by sitting for the Malaysian Certificate of Education (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, SPM) in November every year. Figure 5 shows the performance of SPM candidates across various language subjects in 2015. There are a total of 11 language subjects available. Apart from English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil subjects, Kadazandusun, Iban, Punjabi, French and Arabic are also available.

Candidates who took the Punjabi exam outperformed other language subjects. About 64% of candidates achieved A+, A and A-. In contrast, one third of French candidates failed the subject. However, the number of candidates sitting for these exams were small; only three sat for French. Students who took the Literature in Tamil and Tamil papers performed much better compared to their cohorts in Malay and Chinese languages.

At 416,000 candidates, Malay and English had the highest number of students taking the papers, and 24.5% of Malay language candidates scored well while only 15% of candidates scored the same grade in English. It is worrying to mention that there were more candidates failing the English language paper than those who scored excellent results. Remedial measures are important to address the improvement of English in schools to prepare candidates for the workplace and/or further studies.

The Malaysian Higher School Certificate (Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia, STPM) takes about two years to complete. This is equivalent to the A-level qualification of British education. There are six language subjects in STPM. These include Malay, Literature in Malay, Arabic, Tamil, Chinese and Literature in English. Out of 35,000 candidates who signed up for the STPM languages exams, 79% of them took Malay, followed by Literature in Malay (14.5%) and Arabic (4.4%) (Figure 6).

Due to insufficient available data, the majority of the language subjects’ candidates attained relatively good results in STPM. More than 80% of candidates taking Malay, Literature in Malay and Chinese scored full passes (Figure 7). Arabic had the lowest proportion of candidates accounting for full passes; the subject also reached the highest proportion of candidates failing across all other language subjects. However, the number of candidates who took Arabic was small.