Recently, the debate has heated up again with Dong JiaoZong (DJZ), the leading Chinese educationist organisation making frequent press statements, and the new Gerakan vice-president and Penang Chief Minister, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon joining the fray of those seeking to abolish the English language policy. I’d assume that the debate typically heats up towards the end of every year due to the fact that it would be the opportune time for the policy to be revised to meet the new schooling year.
The arguments for the teaching of Science and Mathematics using the children’s mother tongue has not changed over the last few years. I’ve also received some fairly well written brickbats (which can occasionally be pretty harsh - more on this later) from readers with regards to my stand on the issue. These arguments include:
1. Better ability to grasp mathematical and science concepts in mother tongue
In a Star report, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon was quoted arguing that2. That the policy does not at all help improve the competency in English[i]t will be more effective if Science and Mathematics are taught in the mother tongue in primary schools… this allowed the pupils of different communities to understand the two subjects better if they were taught in a language they were accustomed to.I actually do not disagree with the above argument at all. In the short term, students will definitely learn Science and Mathematics in their mother tongue. However, if we are always looking at things purely from the perspective of what’s “easier” and more convenient in the short term, then we’ll never be able to see the woods for the trees.
To quote Zainal Arifin in his Intermission commentary in the New Straits Times on the 9th November:My answer to that is never underestimate the sponge-like ability of children to absorb new information, whatever language they come in. It is often adults, driven by adult agendas, who have trouble sleeping on it.What I strongly believe is that once the initial teething issues have been ironed out, students will not have major issues coping with learning the two subjects in English. They are after all, still assisted with “translations” in their mother tongue. Take a very simple example across the border, the Chinese students in Singapore from the “heartlands” whose mother tongue remains Chinese, do not have any major issues or problems with learning Science and Mathematics in English at all!
The other argument against the policy commonly used is that teaching the subjects in English does not assist the learning of the language. The authorities should instead increase the number of class periods allocated for the teaching of English language.3. Preserving the character of vernacular schools
The argument that the number of periods to be allocated to teach English should be increased has merit. However, to claim that teaching the subjects in English do not help improve the competency of the language is totally out of place.
Once again, to quote Zainal:The idea of teaching Science and Mathematics in English is rooted in the belief that, as for most things in life, we get better at something if we do it often enough. A prolonged exposure to English beyond the language class will make our children more comfortable with it, and help them develop an affinity for it.There is only so much “Bahasa Inggeris” classes can help with one’s competency of the language. If the children are not exposed to the language regularly beyond the 2 (or 3 or 4) periods of English classes a week, they are never going to be fluent in the language. Exposure to other subjects such as Science and Mathematics in English will help the students gain additional familiarity with the language.
There are those who argue that the best way to pick up the language is really to “read and read some more”. And there have been plenty of instances cited on this blog by readers (e.g., here and here) who were able to ensure that their children are effectively bilingual (or even trilingual) through proper guidance and encouragement at home. I cannot agree more that these are probably the most effective ways to pick up the language.
However, we cannot forget that the likely majority of Chinese school students are not borne of English conversant families. My parents for example, barely knew twenty words of English combined. Without the additional exposure, the 2 periods of English classes a week are likely to be the only ever “sustained” exposure to the language for six years of their primary school life.
The third argument often cited is the fear that the English policy is an attempt by the Government to destroy the character of vernacular schools. I find such apprehension far fetched, as the policy is uniformly applied across national schools as well, much to the chagrin of Malay language nationalists.My personal issues with the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English have always been with its poor implementation and administration, not with its objectives. The “roll-out” of the system was too rushed and haphazard under the previous Education Minister, particularly with regards to the training received by the teachers, who had to conduct lessons in a language they themselves were not fully competent in. Some have also complained on the thickness and weight of the new biligual textbooks!
The Chinese vernacular schools have not lost any of its character in the past 2 years of implementation, and I don’t see them as being any less “Chinese” than it was before. All the other subjects continue to be taught in Chinese language and the medium of communication in the schools are almost certainly Mandarin or other Chinese dialects.
Now, lets say, for the sake of argument, that the “character” of vernacular schools is indeed “altered” a little bit with the introduction of the English teaching policy. The question is, if it does works out to the benefit of the children and their future – why should we be so blinded by the absolute “preservation” of "character" to deny improved opportunities for the children?
To me, this third argument is the weakest of all the arguments put forth to review the language policy in Malaysian vernacular (and national) schools.
To me, if the objectives are noble and right, but the implementation was weak, we should work to improve delivery and not instead, throw out the objectives.
As for the brickbats I mentioned earlier, quite a few readers have commented that due to the fact that I lack a background in Chinese education, I’m unable to understand the issues concerning Chinese vernacular education and that I’m biased against vernacular education.
One posted that:
You don't understand what DongZong is doing because you don't read Chinese newspaper, I doubt you read any of the paper released by the organisation. Your source of information on this issue probably comes from English or Malay medium papers, which only tell you what they want you to know and think.And another even argued that:
Your supporting teaching Math/Science in English sounds a bit too much like rationalizing for the official lines. You appear to have stopped thinking rationally out of despise for a culture that you have not learned well.Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!
The Part II of this blog post will cover my (hopefully even-headed) response to such criticisms, as well as my personal simple argument why the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English is the right move for Malaysian children. And in case you think that I'm anti-whatsoever-Chinese, have a read at this earlier post first.