Monday, September 22, 2008

I want English, lah

This is a letter I wrote a few weeks back, supposedly for theStar. I mailed it to the editor, but it never saw the daylight of publication :(

Too long? Too controversial (haha, I'm beginning to reek of controversies)? You be the judge. Censure me in your wisdom, and all that. I wrote the letter in about an hour, so it's not exactly Martin Luther King. All the same, I put my views forward and if you like, you can do so too. There's a handy little 'comment' button down there :)

As of late, much has been said regarding the role of English as a teaching medium for Science and Mathematics in our current education system. More recently, we’ve had many worried parents expressing their concerns on the apparent indecisiveness of the government on the medium of teaching for the two subjects.

In 2002, the government announced its decision for the introduction of English as the medium for teaching Science and Mathematics, two subjects that were constantly evolving and changing. The decision was based on the justification an English medium would better prepare Malaysian students for a world that was rapidly being globalised. The teaching of Science and Mathematics in English, while not a new concept has only been implemented since 2003 and already there is talk of reverting back to Bahasa Malaysia for teaching.

If we are indeed to revert to Bahasa, let us first examine the rationale for this decision. Firstly, it has been claimed that many teachers are incompetent for the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English. This comes as no surprise, as even veteran teachers would have initial difficulty in adapting to the new method of teaching. Moreover, the younger and less experienced teachers would have even greater difficulties adapting, considering most of their training was facilitated in Bahasa Malaysia (verify claim). However, should these teachers truly be competent and well-versed with their knowledge of their subjects, it should be a relatively simple to acclimatize themselves to the new teaching environment.

Unfortunately, many parents still have qualms about the standard of teaching being imparted to their children. Clearly, the issue of competence among our school teachers has to be addressed. It is foolhardy to abolish the current system because of this. Put in perspective, the move could be likened to refusing medicine simply because it was difficult to swallow it. Furthermore, if there is a genuine inability on the part of the teacher to teach adequately in English, reverting back to Bahasa Malaysia is definitely no cure. In all probability, the teacher’s inadequacy stems from the fact that as a student, he or she did not receive as English based education, hence the inability to express himself in English as a teacher. Hence, it is critical that we realize this is a self-propagating cycle that must be broken. And if not now, when? Simply put, reverting back to Bahasa Malaysia for Science and Mathematics will only compound the problem, not solve it.

With this is mind, I see absolutely no reason for reverting the medium for teaching Science and Mathematics back to Bahasa Malaysia. Proponents of the move might justify it with the most recent examination results, in which it was shown that many students chose to answer the papers in Bahasa Malaysia, compared to English, or that students generally performed better when the Science and Mathematics was taught in Bahasa Malaysia. However, I believe this issue is closely entwined with the competence of the teacher. Given time and proper training, the teachers should become familiar teaching in English, and the performance of students should follow suit.

Returning again to the original vision of the government in its 2002 declaration, the situation has not changed. It is still imperative that Malaysian students are well equipped for the globalized world. Knowledge is power, but practicality helps a great deal as well. To be brutally honest, Bahasa Malaysia has no value where Science and Mathematics are concerned. In the world today, a large portion of the advancements in technology are carried out in English. Hardly anywhere in the world is research being done where Bahasa Malaysia is the language of instruction. For this reason, it is totally impractical to further the teaching of these subjects in Bahasa Malaysia. Countries such as Japan and Germany are still able to maintain the teaching of Science and Mathematics in their own native tongues because it is of some use. These countries are bustling hubs for research and development of new technologies, while Malaysia, unfortunately, does not even come close in this regard.

However, one cannot doubt the role of Bahasa Malaysia as a unifying subject, as common ground on which the races can build their foundations of harmony. As the national language, it will be used for the teaching of most of the non-science subjects, but with the continuation of English based Science and Mathematics subjects, a healthy balance of both languages can be introduced, and hopefully this will encourage a proliferation of English proficient students.

In recent years, many of our local graduates have found difficulty in getting employed, chiefly because of their poor command of English. If we examine this retrospectively, we find that these are the students who have been subject to a wholly Bahasa Malaysia based syllabus. As a result, there is practically no room for the development of their oral and written English skills. They may be able be score A1s for their SPM English, but in reality any grasp of a coherent sense of the language is lost to them. A language is not something that can be mastered through the teaching of the language alone. Consistency and regular usage are necessary to be English proficient. At least, with a few subjects taught in English, students will have to read, write and speak it on a regular basis, which will help them better grasp the language.

For the reasons I have stated, I wholeheartedly advocate the teaching of Science and Mathematics in the English language. In a world being shaped by rapid globalization, we cannot deny the fact that English has become one of the most important languages in the world. Teaching in English will not result in the corrosion of our culture and our national language. Let not misguided patriotism blind our judgment. Let us not politicize our education, as it has been oft done in the past. All we want is for Malaysia to advance as a country, and I believe it begins with education.

Hai, it's me agein.


Tenkiu very much :)


Yi Siang said...

See Jon, this is where I disagree with you.

I had my Science and Math in Malay, and it doesn't say a thing about my level of proficiency in the English language.

1. If these two subjects were to be taught in English, I have no doubt that the standard of Malay would plummet like a delinquent's grade. Where are students going to get exposure to Malay considering that even most local channels play programs in the English language?

2. Knowing another language is always beneficial in the globalizing world, be it Malay, Slavic or Elvish, for this is, also knowledge.

3. The fact that English is the main medium of communication in the world of Science and Mathematics can only strengthen the argument for, and not against Malay being used as the language of conduct. This way, almost all Malaysian students will know Science in two languages, or three for people like me, who went through 5 years of mandarin education. Would this not give our students an advantage in the globalizing world?

Alright there is the comment that you asked for. Now I am off to work.

Bye, take care!

Jonathan Mah said...

Heheh, looks like my subtle strategy to fish for comments worked.

Anyway, I still disagree with you. We have to realise that there are two main groups we're dealing with when we bring up the subject of teaching in English - those who've spoken it for all their lives, and those who haven't.

Fair enough, the level of Malay (for those who don't regularly speak Malay)would drop, but for those who do, it won't really make a difference. I could turn your argument around and say that for those who DO learn science and math in BM, their level of English would drop.

And for the rest of the points you brought up, I have to ask - which is more practical for the globalized world, knowing Science and Math in English or in Malay? (Btw, this is rhetoric - the answer should be obvious, lol)

Tenkiu again.

Winson said...

That said, Jon, I believe that you have to take into account the rural student population as well. Too many a time we are focusing our arguments on our urban-based background.

Yes, in urban schools, English is a far more practical language, but in the rural areas, Bahasa is the only language that they know of.

However, I am indeed a proponent for English in our education because I believe things can be done if the government has willed itself to execute all its policies well. Too often our ministers offer lip service. Not enough research are being done, and we draw a conclusion that is too early to draw.
I propose that in primary schools, mother tongues are used as the medium. In secondary schools, we adopt the English. That way, students understand the concepts, it is just a matter of mastering the technique to express the concept in English, which is difficult, but man, do you have a better idea?

Jonathan Mah said...

Of course it will be difficult for the rural students to adopt to english. but like i said, it's a cycle, you gotta break it somewhere. Plus, if you don't introduce English in primary school, it would be near impossible for them rural folks to pick up once they're in secondary. See, it's tough, but you have to start somewhere.

Poor rural kids, they'll be like 'eh, apa itu microscope? Oh. . . sama maksud dengan mikroskop. Cakaplah lebih awal!'

Haha :D

Yi Siang said...

Alright so let's summarize your arguments hence far:
Benefits of Science and Mathematics in English:

1. An increase in the standard of English,
2. which will help students fair better in a globalizing world.

(Correct me if I am wrong.)

Item #1
I took Science and Math in BM for 5 years, and I dare say my proficiency in BM is still as atrocious as it can be.

There are better ways to improve language skills and clearly learning Math and Science in the language desired for improvement plays a meager role.

Item #2
This is perhaps incontrovertible - that a better proficiency in the English language would benefit students in a globalizing world.

But for the sake of arguing with a friend who refuses to reply my emails, here goes:

I would argue, counter-intuitively, having an upper-hand in Malay would indeed be more desirable.

1. English is the most used language in the globalizing world.

2. Hence it follows that, after high school, if students wish to engage with the global market, they would have to utilize English.

3. Hence, students would have plenty of opportunity to improve their English post-high school.
(Example: there is no indication that, by the time of high school graduation, students who came from Mandarin elementary schools fail to match the English Standards of those with an English background. Substantiation: from our circle itself, we have John Lee and myself.) [Obviously there is a sample bias here :P]

Since due to pressure from globalization, by time "t", irrespective of the initial proficiency level of english, students from Malaysia would end up with the same level of proficiency, students who have a strong background in Malay at initial point would have an advantage over those who don't.

This is the most twisted argument that I've come up with. :P

But it keeps you entertained I suppose.

Jonathan Mah said...

Meh, i skipped to the end. Arguing for the sake of arguing has no appeal for me. Keeps me entertained? haha. I'll mail you soon.