What are some of the factors that contribute to the lack in English proficiency amongst Malaysians?
First and foremost, I think it's safe to say that for the vast majority of Malaysians, English isn't our first language. So we have to look at the issue from that perspective. It would be unreasonable to expect a person to be able to use their second language as well as a person who uses the same language as their mother tongue. Expectations need to be managed, in that sense.
However, it would also be reasonable to expect a person to have more or less an okay grasp of the language if they're supposed to have been learning the language for 11 years (as some Malaysians would, having gone to school from the age of seven to the age of seventeen). So there's that side of the equation that needs to be taken into consideration when managing one's expectations as well.
Through my own limited experience of teaching and listening to the people around me, it hinges a lot on how much one is exposed to the language on a daily basis. People who have limited opportunities to listen to, read, watch and interact with English material or media will most probably also have a limited understanding of the language. This is true of any second or third language user.
Think about a third language that you've been exposed to. For me, it might be Japanese. I know some Japanese phrases, but nowhere near enough to be able to carry a conversation in the language. This is directly related to how much Japanese I expose myself to on a daily basis, which is probably once a year. So it would be reasonable to say that my Japanese is terrible, because I am not exposed to the language nowhere nearly enough.
To illustrate a different example, I'll use my students. The ones who have a firm grasp of the language more often than not are exposed to the language. Their parents play them English songs, English tv shows, English videos, and get them English books. Compare this to the students that struggle with the language. More often than not, they aren't getting as much exposure to the language. Because of the lack of exposure, the opportunity for them to get better at the language is limited too, since they aren't able to engage with the language on a regular basis.
How does one improve their English ability?
Carrying forward the previous argument, I would say that one of the first steps to improving is exposing yourself to as much of the language as possible. Be in an environment that is conducive for a person to pick up the language. Read, watch and listen to English material whenever you can. Do that to the point where one can even think in the language without breaking too much of a sweat.
Then one can start producing English material. By that, I mean write and speak in English. Writing and speaking are skills, much like a bicycle. So if a person has limited experience riding a bicycle, one shouldn't expect to be able to participate in Le Tour de Langkawi after a week of practice. It'll take a long long time before one gets any good, but with hard work and persistence, one should be able to reach the level of ability that they desire, later, rather than sooner, might I add.
Who do we look to for role models?
I think that's a personal decision. There is no wrong answer, as long as one perceives that that chosen role model embodies something that the person wants to achieve someday in the future. It can be celebrities that one admires, it can be a father/mother figure in one's life, it can be a teacher, it can be a restaurant cook. As long as a person shows certain attributes that one would like to have, then there shouldn't be any reason that they can't be role models to someone else.
For myself, I sort of pick and choose attributes. I will admire Kendrick Lamar's song-writing ability, Yasmin Ahmad's optimism about life, my wife's passion and musicality, Michelle Obama's eloquence, Iñarritu's film-making ability, my friends' brains, etc. so that I don't fall into the trap of idolatry, where everything everyone does is positive, even the things that disagree with my principles. I am open to learning and understanding from people I admire, but if one is at fault and does something that calls for criticism, I want to be able to make that judgement call, even if they're my hero in certain aspects of my life.
What kind of English is acceptable? (Manglish or Queen's English)
I hold the belief that all forms of language, in their own way have something to offer. I made a video poking fun at the "ew" language used by certain people several years ago, and even though in principle I don't ever see myself using that variation of language in the future, I can better appreciate that it is used for self-expression, and if it's understood by both the transmitter and the receiver, then it shouldn't be too much of an issue.
The struggle happens when there's a misunderstanding between two parties because of the form of language. If one uses Manglish in a setting where formal English is expected of them, then a disconnect forms and effective communication is harder to achieve. It's the same the other way round as well. When the setting is informal, in Malaysia where people are used to speaking in Manglish, then the use of formal English isn't very suitable. People can still understand each other, but a barrier is formed that restricts effective communication all the same. So in answering the question of what type of English is acceptable, one needs to use the language that suits the context of the use. If the context calls for more formal language, then use that. If it calls for Manglish, then use that.
Where is the best place to improve? (home or school)
I think both the home and the school has their place in helping us get better at the language. We spend a lot more time at home, so it would be great to have a lot of exposure to the language there, find opportunities to expose yourself to the language at home. Similarly, at school one could practice as well. The added feature of learning language at school is the availability of a teacher to consult. So effective feedback can be received from teachers at school, which helps in improving one's language ability as well. In both cases, one has to be proactive in finding ways in which to improve their language ability. One can spend as much time at home or at school, but if one doesn't put in the effort to get better, chances are their road to progress will be slower than if they were to be more proactive.
When is it okay to talk to our friends in English?
When our friends are okay with us speaking in English. As I have said in answering a previous question, it weighs heavily on context. Who are we talking to? Are they receptive to the idea of speaking in English? How would speaking in English make them feel? Would it be helpful to both parties of one started to speak in English? One needs to make sure the environment is conducive for such interactions. One also needs to be clear about what they're doing, so as to not rub people the wrong way.
What are your current pursuits of knowledge?
I'm learning how to write songs. I'm learning how to be a better film-maker. I'm learning a little philosophy here and there. I'm learning comedy as well. I'm also learning public speaking.
What area of knowledge is opened to us with the use of English?
Most of the internet is in English, so if one wants to learn something through the internet, chances are, English is involved in it somehow. So much content is available in English and not available in Malay that it's sad that so much knowledge remains out of reach for some people just because of the language barrier. One either needs to find a translated work, or work on understanding English better to gain access to the barrels of information that is available to us in this day and age.