Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Don't Memorise Languages, Learn Them!

Written by johnleemk on 8:53:19 pm Dec 15, 2007.
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There are so many things wrong with Malaysian education. But few are probably as critical as altering the approach we have to learning, shifting from a rote memorisation mentality to a paradigm that emphasises understanding and analysis.

If there was one word I had to use to describe Malaysian education, it would be "facade". We have built an entire education system and sunk billions of ringgit into creating the appearance of education and learning, without fostering actual education or learning.

We obsess with maintaining the marks of an education, but we never focus on the substance of being educated. We crunch the numbers and obtain impressive literacy rates, impressive school attendance rates, and impressive university graduation rates, so we give ourselves a pat on the back. Meanwhile, we never to think to ask: what on earth are our students learning?

Memorisation has always been a good example of focusing on the appearance of learning while ignoring its substance. If students can regurgitate what we expect them to on a test, surely they have learnt what is expected of them?

Usually when we are talking about something like history or mathematics, the emphasis on memorisation is at the expense of a greater goal: imparting analytical skill. We don't necessarily care if people can recall the date Melaka fell to the Portuguese or if they can factor quadratic equations twenty years down the road. What's more important is that they can analyse historical and political circumstances, and that they understand the rational and logical principles underlying mathematics. Focusing on the show of understanding, at the expense of actual comprehension, means these ultimate goals are never achieved.

But when it comes to languages, the ultimate goal is not even unclear. What we want is for people to be able to speak and write fluently in that language. One defining aspect of the Malaysian education system is the immense role language learning has played in the debate over education — surely we all know what we want.

Yet, when it comes to this fundamental goal, our schools are failing. Not too long ago, at a dinner with some Malaysian friends in my university, we reminisced about memorising "words and phrases nobody uses in real life", as one friend put it, to pass our Malay exams.

Indeed, Malaysian language assessments are incredibly predictable. Malay essays in particular always fit some mould, and require some flowery and bombastic prose that I have never seen outside sample examination answer papers.

Regardless of whether it is Malay or English, the process for scoring an 'A' is relatively straightforward. First, you learn the precise types of question that will be posed, and how to answer each type. For a Malay rumusan (summary), you learn how many sentences to devote to each aspect of the information being summarised. You learn how to express the data given in a bar chart or newspaper article, but not how to understand the data.

After learning the precise types, you practice writing. It does not have to be particularly good or interesting. It just has to fit the mould of what the examiner desires. If you are writing a literary analysis, you have to spend this precise amount of space on this aspect of the work.

We have gotten learning languages down to such a precise science that textbook publishers make a bundle out of summarising the salient aspects of literary works, packaging them into a neat little book, and selling them to students. Rather than being study aids, these books become what students study — they learn what phrases to use, what the motivations of a novel's characters are, everything, from these books.

There is no need to learn how to read a piece of literature or a non-fiction work and extract meaning and information from it. God forbid that we properly educate our young and teach them how to examine the motivations of characters, or the symbolism of a work of art. No, let us dumb them down as much as possible so all they need to know can be processed and compiled in neat little colourful books, supplanting the actual need to read something meaningful in the language they are supposed to be studying.

Let me ask you: can you say you have truly learnt Malay if you are unable to express your own views on a topic (as opposed to reciting a bullshit list of talking points you have memorised from reading every sample SPM essay on the planet)? Can you say you have truly learnt English if you have to rely on one of those handy summaries to understand Shakespeare? Can you truly have analytical skills if all the things you put to paper in the exam come not from your mind, but from the summaries you read?

Why do we teach languages in this way? What use is there? Our people may be functionally literate in some sense, but in the true sense, most of us probably are not. Our examination system has effectively created an incentive to memorise useless lists of talking points and phrases so we can show off our analytical and verbal prowess, but when it comes to actually using a language to express what we mean, and understanding what others mean to say, how successful are we?


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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