Wednesday, December 17, 2014

English proficiency among law graduates on the decline, research shows

Published: 17 December 2014
Lawyers say fresh graduates lack important soft skills, including proficiency in English. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, December 17, 2014.

Lawyers say fresh graduates lack important soft skills, including proficiency in English. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, December 17, 2014.
Malaysian lawyers believe that English proficiency among fresh law graduates is on the decline, with many worried about rising grammatical errors in written documents, according to a study on the communication skills of law students in Universiti Malaya (UM).
Lawyers interviewed in the one-year study by UM’s Faculty of Law and Faculty of Language and Linguistics also said that those who recently entered the profession lacked important soft skills.
“While some senior lawyers bemoaned the declining proficiency of English among recent graduates, many legal professionals took a more practical approach to the problem, saying that the students and new lawyers would naturally improve their spoken English over time as they gained more experience with their work,” said the study’s principal investigator, Dr Nurjanaah Chew Li Hua, in a summary of the findings made available to The Malaysian Insider
“It was found that many students struggle with a lack of confidence in speaking English.
"Deficient soft skills among law graduates were highlighted by the lawyers interviewed. Many of them put priority on skills such as public speaking, politeness, workplace familiarity and professional etiquette.”
The study, which was completed last month, involved interviews with 22 academicians at both the university’s faculties, nearly 400 UM law students as well as 20 pupil masters and new lawyers in the legal profession.
According to Nurjanaah, the study found that many of the undergraduates preferred to stick to the language they used at home, making them less confident about speaking in another tongue.
“While it was found that the older students are more likely to be multilingual, the younger students tend to use the one language that they feel comfortable with,” added Nurjanaah, who is a senior lecturer at UM’s Faculty of Law.
However, researchers were surprised to see that the vast majority of students (85%) scored enough to be considered good or competent users of the English language in a test designed to identify their level of general academic English proficiency, said Nurjanaah.
“The students are better at speaking and listening skills compared to writing skill. This finding is supported by the fact that many of the lawyers interviewed are more worried about the increase in grammatical errors in written documents than the level of spoken English.”
The study also found that for research and revision, the majority of the students preferred using English, and over 98% of the students interviewed said if given the choice between either English or Malay for writing reports, they preferred the former.
She said that this may be due to the fact that most materials are in English, and that students may feel that a good grasp of the language was necessary for a successful career.
But Nurjanaah said that while UM’s law students were using more English than students of two decades ago, senior lawyers widely reported a declining level of English proficiency among those recently entering the profession.
“Most law lecturers in UM tend to rely more on English during their lessons as many of them feel more comfortable teaching in English, and this also reflects the preference of most students.
“There is, however, no evidence that the use of English as the main medium of instruction has significantly improved the students’ communication skills over the years.”
On the contrary, there was a high probability that the emphasis on using English as the medium of instruction would hinder the students’ ability to use Bahasa Malaysia in their workplace, she said.
New lawyers interviewed in the study said they struggled in their job initially as they were unfamiliar with legal terminology in Bahasa Malaysia, which is predominantly used in the lower courts.
Interview data from young lawyers also suggested that Bahasa Malaysia was the more useful language in the initial period of employment.
“Considering that many legal firms expect their new lawyers to be fluent in both English and Bahasa Malaysia, this suggests a need to reconsider the use of English as the primary medium of instruction at tertiary level education.”
Nurjanaah said that a bilingual teaching policy at the faculty could ensure and help the students gain confidence in both languages.
“It may also help to put more emphasis on skills that replicate work experiences, such as mooting and presentations based on remedies drawn from research across multiple areas of law, rather than essay-writing focused on a particular legal area.
“Given time, effort and focus on communication skills, the students will be able to improve their communication abilities to become well-rounded, well-trained professionals with the ability to articulate convincingly in both English and Bahasa Malaysia, orally and in written form.” – December 17, 2014.
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