Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

English in Science and Maths is Not the Issue

Written by johnleemk on 6:02:22 pm Mar 19, 2009.

The policy of teaching science and mathematics in English is under fire again, and all the ugly politics of language and race have come to the fore once more. But the big problem here is not with the policy—it is with the way we have carried out the policy. Our education system has many major problems, but going back to teaching science and maths in Malay, Mandarin and Tamil will not be solving more than a few short-term difficulties. Ultimately we learn languages to communicate, and no language is as important for global communication as English—but none of the proposals on the table right now do anything to address the fundamental failures in how we teach English.

Although I think I personally benefited in school from learning science and maths in English instead of Malay, I have never had a very strong opinion on the question of the right medium of instruction. A lot of the concepts in science and maths are expressed in their own unique language, and so it's not a big deal whether we speak Malay, Mandarin, Tamil or English in the classroom. The important question is whether teachers and pupils can communicate effectively using whichever language we wind up choosing.

I don't put a lot of stock in other arguments for or against the present policy of using English. The argument that using English in science and maths somehow improves English-speaking and –writing skills is completely preposterous; maybe it applies at the secondary level, but in primary schools where the students have no English skills to improve, all they will do is sit in the classroom completely ignorant of what's going on. The argument that using English in the classroom will destroy the rich linguistic and cultural heritage of our country is equally preposterous; most Malaysians do not speak English as a native language. It is ridiculous to think that learning new things in a different language will somehow make us forget our real mother tongues. No, the most important question when it comes to the language debate is which language will help our children learn better.

And while we can argue about the answer to that in theory, the big problem here is that the government chose to implement this policy without adequately preparing anyone for it. Pupils in Year One who have never spoken English before in their lives should not be expected to learn science and maths in English. And teachers who can barely speak English properly themselves should not be expected to teach science and maths in English. Yet these impossible demands are exactly what the government expects of students and teachers.

I think that under ideal circumstances, at the primary level, students should learn the basic necessities of daily life in their true mother tongues. Those who speak only Punjabi or Teochew or Malay or whatever at home should learn in their mother tongue, while also taking (at a minimum) English and Malay remedial classes. As they progress, more English and Malay should be introduced into the curriculum up to the point when they are sufficiently comfortable in both languages to learn in either of them. That is what we would ideally do.

In the real world, we can't do this; catering to the individual language idiosyncrasies of each family is impossible. But we can come close: we can still at least focus strongly on the poorest students' language skills while they are still in primary school, so that at some point they will be able to cope with regular classes. The problem with the present English policy is that we do not have remedial classes to fix students' English, and so they can easily go through the whole school system without actually learning any useful science or mathematics.

And reverting to the old policy will not solve this problem. It will not change the fact that the quality of English instruction in our school system is so horrid that even most of our teachers cannot string a proper English sentence together, when the whole reason we teach English is because we want a nation of people who can at least handle the basics of both Malay and English. And it will also not change the fact that even among the Chinese and Indians of this country, there are many other dialects and languages which constitute "mother tongues," and that for many people, Mandarin and Tamil are as foreign as Swahili or Japanese. Both the present policy and the old policy are not suited to the diversity of our country, because they appear to have been dreamed up by people completely ignorant of how real Malaysians live.

I don't care what language you teach science and maths in; I only care that it is one which students and teachers can communicate effectively in. Right now, English does not meet that criterion—but neither do any of the other languages we are considering. Our history ensures that no language has a 100% penetration rate; the closest we have to that is the national language, Malay. So regardless of which language we pick as a medium of instruction, we are going to need a lot of intensive classes to prepare students to learn in that language.

For a lot of people in the upper- and middle-classes like myself, this is a problem that is easy to ignore. We have kindergartens and pre-schools to ensure that our kids know enough rudimentary Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, or English to cope with their schooling. But a lot of lower-class families do not have this advantage—and ironically, their children are the likeliest to need this extra help. As long as we ignore this problem, no language policy is going to be truly effective.

What seems likely right now is that the government will switch back to the old policy for primary schools, while maintaining English in secondary schools; I think this is maybe the best compromise we can hope for. We are fully capable of teaching students how to communicate using Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, and by the time students transition to English in secondary school, they will have had enough exposure to it at the primary level to not be completely lost in the classroom. Ideally, since students have six years of exposure to Malay and English in primary school, they would be able to use either language in secondary school.

And so if this exposure is sufficient, I see no objection to using English to teach science and maths at the secondary level: it lets students continue practicing their English skills. But I remain worried, because ultimately, our present level of English instruction is not sufficient: we can't prepare teachers capable of teaching in English, so can we really hope to prepare students capable of learning in English? And even if we finally revert to teaching in Malay or another language instead of English at the secondary level too, that just shoves the problem of English under the carpet. This problem will not go away: we need to fundamentally improve the quality of English instruction in our school system.

First published in The Malaysian Insider.

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