Is English or Mandarin the language of the future?

By Jennifer Pak

English has been the dominant global language for a century, but is it the language of the future? If Mandarin Chinese is to challenge English globally, then it first has to conquer its own backyard, South East Asia.

In Malaysia's southernmost city of Johor Bahru, the desire to speak good English has driven some children to make a remarkable two-hour journey to school every day.

Nine-year-old Aw Yee Han hops on a yellow mini van at 04:30. His passport is tucked inside a small pouch hung around his neck. This makes it easier for him to show it to immigration officials when he reaches the Malaysian border. His school is located on the other side, in Singapore, where unlike in Malaysia, English is the main language.

It's not your typical school run, but his mother, Shirley Chua thinks it's worth it.

"Science and maths are all written in English so it's essential for my son to be fluent in the language," she says.

An estimated 15,000 students from southern Johor state make the same bus journey across the border every day. It may seem like a drastic measure, but some parents don't trust the education system in Malaysia – they worry that the value of English is declining in the country.

Since independence from the British in 1957, the country has phased out schools that teach in English. By the early 1980s, most students were learning in the national language of Malay.

As a result, analysts say Malaysian graduates became less employable in the IT sector.

"We've seen a drastic reduction in the standard of English in our country, not just among the students but I think among the teachers as well," says political commentator Ong Kian Ming.

Those who believe that English is important for their children's future either send their kids to expensive private schools or to Singapore, where the government has been credited as being far-sighted for adopting the language of its former colonial master.

Nearly three-quarters of the population in Singapore are ethnic Chinese but English is one of the national languages and very widely-spoken.

Many believe that this has helped the city state earn the title of being the easiest place to do business, by the World Bank.

TOC thanks Jennifer Pak for her contribution, view full article on BBC News here.