Thursday, November 17, 2005

The English Language Debate Continues… (Part II)

I’ve written on the Part I of this post with regards to the arguments most often presented by the Chinese educationists in support of reverting back to teaching Science and Mathematics in the students’ mother tongue, particularly for Chinese vernacular schools. I’ve also presented my views with regards to why the arguments are not completely sound.

I’ve also been criticised by several readers (who, I must say, write really well) in some of my earlier post with regards to this topic, with a few who 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 of the readers have 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.
So, I’ll spend the Part II of this post to give a quick reply to the criticisms I received above, as well as to present very simple straightforward arguments why the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English is beneficial to the students.

Firstly, my supporting the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English is indeed pretty much along the “official lines”. My only qualms with it are its implementation and execution, not its objectives. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being part of the “official lines”, if the “official lines” are indeed the right thing to do. Irrationality comes in when one thinks that everything “official” is by definition, suspicious and wrong.

Secondly, I'll be the first to admit that my grasp of “Chinese” philosophy and culture is not at the level which I really wish I had. However, to say that I “despise the culture”, ooh… that’s just a little bit too harsh isn’t it? :) If you have read some of my other posts, I should hope that you’d be able to see and know that:
  • My mother tongue, i.e., the language which I communicate with my parents is Mandarin and nothing else.

  • My current lingua franca at home with my wife and daughter is Mandarin

  • I’ve written on the importance of the Chinese language

  • I wrote to my parents in Chinese while I was at university

  • I wrote to my wife-to-be in Chinese too regularly for 3 years while she was at university, after I have graduated :-)

  • As recent as last year, I took Chinese tuitioin classes to strengthen my Chinese technical and business skills to communicate with Chinese businessmen in China.

  • I took Confucian Studies (and aced it) for my ‘O’ Levels in Singapore.
I must have been torturing and despising myself for many many years, in fact, all my life, if I really “despised” the culture and language that much.

Both the Chinese and the English language (and even Bahasa Melayu) are extremely important, particularly for Malaysians who live in the Malay archipelago in between the modern English and the growing Chinese world. There is hence a need for balance. My arguments to continue the pursuit of the objectives of the policy are fairly straightforward.

“I not so agree(?)”

The standard of English among students originating from Chinese primary schools are extremely weak, often atrocious.

I know this purely from hiring some of the top students from the top local universities. These are students who scored more than 5-6 As for the SPM and achieved a cumulative grade point average (CGPA) of at least 3.3.

The “I not so agree” statement is just a direct transliteration from the Chinese statement “wo bu tai tong yi” (我不太同意). This statement is at least, understandable. There are many many other examples of emails and reports that I can cite, which unfortunately need to be heavily edited and re-written before I am able to submit them to clients. Feel free to study more examples here and here.

If these are the standards of the bulk of the top students from Chinese primary school background, then I cannot imagine the state of English language skills among the typical average (or poor) Chinese school students.

And the practical reasons why the English language is so darn important? Here’s just two for your consideration.
  1. The bulk of communication, written and verbal, done in large local and multinational companies in Malaysia, particularly in the higher management levels is undeniably, English.

  2. Barring a few exceptions, the top 50 universities in the world (using whichever rankings table), uses English as the language medium.
The Chinese educationists and their supports are just failing to see the magnitude of incompetence in the English language of the typical average Chinese school students. I see it because I actively recruit fresh graduates by reviewing plenty of resumes as well as conducting (too many) interviews.

As quoted by many readers, there are always going to be successful exceptions i.e., students who did well in vernacular Chinese schools, who were able to still switch and pick up new language skills successfully later in secondary and university education.

My wife, Ting Fong herself is proof of such exceptions. She did her 6 years of Chinese primary school education, 5 years of Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan (SMK), 2 years of Junior College (JC) in Singapore, and 3 years of Law at Oxford. She literally 'aced' all her subjects (and puts me to shame). But she'll be the first to admit that she struggled badly during her first 3-6 months in Singapore with the language switch, and once again, the first 3 months at Oxford. In JC, she had her history essays literally thrown back to her unmarked because the tutor said he couldn't understand what she was writing - and she was the top English student (and the President of the English society) for some 10 years before that!

I for one, would never have had the opportunity to study at Oxford if I wasn't fortunate enough to have switch to a completely English medium in Singapore immediately after primary school (giving me, a slightly slower language learner more time to adapt).

But as highlighted, those like Ting Fong are exceptions. They have managed to do well despite the challenges they faced in the language. Many others who did well were fortunate enough to be based in large urban centres whereby the parents were already competent in English to aid their children. However, there are probably more than 80% (guesstimate) of Chinese school students who are not part of these exceptions, who should be provided with as much exposure to the English language as possible so that the opportunities for them in the future will be brighter both in terms of obtaining top quality further education as well as career advancement and prospects.

In this English language policy debate, we should appraise the system based not so much on what's good for the "Chinese schools", but what's best for the students and their future. In this respect, I'm happy that the Prime Minister has emphasised that the policy to teach Mathematics and Science in English is here to stay.

7 comments:

nUtZ` said...

To be honest... I don't care if the medium of communication is english, manderin, tamil or BM. Please be consistant. These poor kids are getting confused with stupid ideas from the politicians who has never thought a group of children before.

I remember when i was in school, the malay language changes as often as i change my underware... From bahasa malaysia.. to bahasa melayu.. to bahasa melayu baku.. to normal bahasa melayu... and then back to bahasa malaysia..

The language was never the problem. It is the implementation and the institution itself..

Anonymous said...

Why don't someone come out and say it. The crux of the matter is the government policy that has caused deep racial mistrust that has caused no room for compromise in such area as language and education. The ruling party betrayal time and again of the original ideals of this founding nation means that any problems that arise from a difficult policy would be fought over tooth and nails. The agenda of Malay hegemony is the crux of the issue here. It has to go first before people are willing to give up such a deep and personal thing as cultural language, identity and comfort. The PM claimed support for the vernacular schools two years ago but until now, nothing is done about the incredible tight situation of the Chinese primary school. You don't win people over by insulting them and you don't gain trust by insulting them.

Anonymous said...

There is this guy who wanted to rent a place from an association. He heard that the place is not as ideal as he wanted to. So he told the landlord that he wanted to rent the place but wanted the landlord to make some structural change before he moves in. There is another guy, who has not plan to stay there but heard about the same place, and he thinks it is not as ideal as he wishes, so he suggested that the landlord make some changes.

There are so many places for rent but for some unknow reasons, these two guys felt that this place should be changed to suit their preference instead of looking for a place elsewhere that suit them.
They think that whoever rent the place is going to get very uncomfortable or sick if the landlord don't make the changes.

They have either heard or seen some peoples get sick or uncomfortable after staying there. But there were hundreds of thousand of people have stay there before. Many of them felt extremely comfortable with the place that they recommended others to stay there. Unfortunately, these guys who ask for changes doesn't seems to accept the fact that most people had stayed there like the place, they only sees that some people feeling uncomfortable staying there. They think there can only be one perfect place provided it is as what they have in mind.

Have you seen a coin with only one side?

Have you seen any successful peoples who were Chinese educated?

Have you seen peoples who don't speak proper English doing billion ringgit projects?

Do you know there are many ways to achieve an objective?

Why insist your will on other?

Say aloud said...

The ‘first’ Anonymous, thanks for coming out and said it. But why don’t you elaborate your points and let everyone know about the situation faced by the Chinese vernacular schools?

Indeed, for countries like Singapore where majority of the people are Chinese, it is by nature not a problem to have a Chinese education system in place in these countries.

Having travelled to many countries myself, I must say no-one in this world can beat the Malaysian Chinese for having and maintaining such a good Chinese education system in a country where Chinese is a minority. This is undoubtedly the result of the sweats and bloods of the Chinese educationists in the past. The fruit we are enjoying today did not come by easily. I am therefore thankful for the opportunity of having been educated in the Chinese vernacular school. Otherwise, I can imagine how many business opportunities I would have lost as China is becoming stronger now. For that, I extend my respect and sincere gratitude to those educationists.

Having said that, the Chinese vernacular schools are facing many problems and threats, as a result of the unfair policies in place. Recently, it was reported that the funds allocated to these schools are out of proportion, which is far less than most of us would have expected. Coupled with the lack of protection by the law, some of these schools are faced with the threat of closure.

The Chinese educationists certainly acknowledge the fact that the standard of English among students originating from the Chinese vernacular schools is indeed very weak. Therefore, English language courses are being conducted in many colleges in Malaysia, one of the few, for instance, New Era College, which is populated with students mostly from Chinese vernacular schools.

Nevertheless, teaching Mathematics and Science in English is not the only solution to the poor standard of English. The problem can be tackled in many other ways. In fact, the government can increase the number of class periods allocated for the teaching of English language in these schools.

Unfortunately, past events have made these educationists lose faith with the government in handling problems of the Chinese vernacular schools. It is obvious that more and more Malay parents, especially in the urban areas, are sending their children to Chinese schools. As a result, the number of students allocated per class in these schools has become too large. Contrary to the National schools where the number of students per class is far lesser, the attention received by the students in the Chinese primary schools is considerably low. Instead of opening more Chinese primary schools to handle the ever-increasing demand, more and more national schools and religious schools have been opened.

On the other hand, some of the Chinese primary schools, due to its location or for some other reasons, are struggling with the very few students enrolled, hence facing the fate of closing down.

Besides that, the number of teachers trained to teach in the Chinese primary schools is barely enough to support the increasing number of students enrolled.

All these issues are just the tip of the iceberg. So, when the government tries to introduce a change which is perceived to be a threat to these schools, these educationists will fight over it with no regret. Their reaction is therefore understandable for all the things they have achieved today are not easy to come by.

It’s also why the Chinese organisations had called out to strengthen the existing laws in providing better protection for the Chinese vernacular schools. But, this plea has been constantly ignored by the authority concerned despite many attempts have been made.

It’s sad that these educationists have resorted to this action in order to safeguard their rights and to ensure that their offspring will not lose the opportunity for learning Chinese in these schools.

The objective of teaching Mathematics and Science in English is certainly a good one. But, when faced with a possibility of running a risk for the Chinese vernacular schools, they would rather choose to oppose the change.

Anonymous said...

A recent trip to the phillipines has sown me that the usage of English as the medium of instruction in schools definitely has its benfits, For those who have visited Manila, they will agree with me that 99% of the population can speak English at least at some reasonable level with no detraction to their mother language of Tagalog or whatever other dialects are native to them. The people of the phillipines are exposed to many things which are only made available to them by their fluency in English. Unfortunately this all looks frankly rather dismal on poor old wheezing Malaysia, with its nationalistic cries and national anthem piped directly into our fucking eardrums every time we turn on the TV (Just in case we forgot what it sounded like), considering the average wage of a Malaysian would be many times that of a filipino, yet out people are unable to string together a full sentence in English.

kampongbouy said...

Dear Tony,

You justify the Englsih for Science and Maths in primary school policy by stressing the importance of the English language in general.

The weak link in your argument is then

Why not allocate more time for actual English teaching? Would this not be more direct and effective? It would be more logical.

Following that, Maths and Science use very little English. In fact, sejarah or geografi or moral studies etc. would involve more "use" of the language.

To emphasize the importance of English with your Top 50 University argument is also not a fair comparison. These universities did not "choose" to use English, they are "in" English speaking countries. Since there are many other reasons besides language that led to their dominance, it is not fair to compare in this manner. Simply adopting the English language does not mean that we could absorb the culture that nurtured these successful institutions. If we compare UM and the top Phillipines University, can we arrive at the same conclusion? Furthermore, despite the importance and global dominance of English, Japan managed to develop to be top 2 economically and a S&T power house without adopting widespread use of English within its borders.

A fairer comparison would be to compare countries which adopted widespread use of English and countries which stuck to their mother tongue. A good gauge would be the Asian dragons:HK, Taiwan, Singapore and Korea. If we look at these countries, then there is no clear winner.


I accept your point that English is very important, being a global language etc. However, you have not yet appreciate the argument that there is a question of choice involved. English being important globally does not mean that societies that does not adopt widespread use of English is doomed to fail or perish.

You have yet to link the importance of English logically to the policy you support. Perhaps the main motivation is actually to increase English's usage in any way possible? S&T or otherwise? Just increasing exposure? Regardless of the whether it is a more effective language of instruction for primary school kids?

If so, DJZ does have a point doesn't it?

Datin Freida said...

I actually wrote this article for The Star newspaper but they decided not to print it. So here it is for your comments:

I refer to the above in the Sunday STAR (10 December, 2006), in particular to the views expressed by four former Directors General of Education.

With the notable exception of Tan Sri Murad Mohd Nor, the views expressed not only miss the fundamental reason for Cabinet’s policy decision to have Science and Math taught in English, but also do an injustice to the capacity of our students to rise to the challenge.

I disagree with the view of the retired educators that English is being reintroduced to make children “conversant” in an additional language. It is an attempt at “making children conversant in English, beginning with Math and Science,” as one of them put it. Another said, “I don’t think that teaching and learning Math and Science in English is a good way of improving students’ proficiency in the language.”

They miss the point. The former educators had failed to grasp the real reason for teaching the two subjects in English.

To put it simply, it is in our national interest to do so. We need to equip our next generation to access the wealth of knowledge in science, and to penetrate the technological, financial and commercial world of the 21st century. We can no longer afford to remain ‘jaguh kampung’ and oblivious to the rapidly changing world around us. Instead our children, if we truly care for their future, must work hard, gain an edge, and emerge competent, competitive and confident. It is a question of our future survival in a highly competitive world.

I agree, as mentioned in the article, that a number of our students have succeeded in gaining admission to famous ancient universities. That much is true. But at what cost? I know for a fact that Malaysian students abroad handicapped by poor English, struggle through professional courses such as Medicine, Engineering and Architecture.

Their success came despite their handicap in English, not because of it. It is hard and brutish. They had to struggle hard, to master both the language as well as the content of their courses. They have to put in double the effort of their peers. This is an unnecessary and self-inflicted hardship, and an unnecessary degradation of our human capital resource. On the other hand, an early acquaintance with English would have resulted in many more students being admitted to the better universities, and coming out with even better results.

Clearly, then, it cannot be denied that a working knowledge of English is exceedingly useful in important courses at university level, and would enhance our human resource asset.

I now wish to touch on this issue at another level. There was a time when our students were among the most proficient in English in this region. Today we have lost that important edge against our ASEAN neighbours. They are now doing much better. Our Government is trying, rightly, to regain that relative advantage.

Since it is for our own good we, as a nation, must unite and support that policy. We have to be technically proficient and business savvy. We have no choice in this. We must recognize that our national unity, and the dignity of every community in this country, will depend on competitiveness, real economic growth and material wellbeing. Not on false pride and sentiment.

We must also recognize that a working knowledge of the international language of science and commerce does not make one any less Malaysian or less patriotic. Far from it. Our top leaders today are fluent in both Bahasa and English, and they are respected at home and abroad for it.

I now wish to touch on our children in school. I am disappointed to note that, except for Murad, the retired educators interviewed show no confidence in the capacity of our children to rise to the challenge. Instead, they despair and mentioned a litany of ‘problems’, displaying an air of tired defeatism. Is this a reflection of their personal opinion, or that of our teachers as a whole, simply arise from a lack of leadership? Is it simply a failure to define our objectives clearly, and articulate the reasoning that supports our policy?

Whatever the reason, our children deserve better. They deserve strong and intelligent leadership. They have the energy, resilience and intelligence of youth, just waiting to be unleashed. They deserve our active encouragement, not benign resignation and excuses. Our senior educators, in fact educators at all levels, should make a serious effort to understand and appreciate the farsighted Cabinet policy decision, and work together to achieve its objective. I am confident that we can do better for our next generation, and I say from many years of experience and observation.

My father, now 89, came from the kampung in Kuala Pilah. He learnt English the hard way, sat the Cambridge School Certificate before the War, and joined the Police Force. He served with distinction during the Emergency, attended Staff College in England, and rose in seniority in the Force. My mother, also from the kampung, learnt English the hard way. She went to night classes to learn English and is today fluent in Malay, English and Arabic. Thus, I do not accept the postulate that we Malays lack the character or the capacity.

I am an educator, with over two decades of experience with children. Today, I educate over 2,300 Malaysian children from all backgrounds, urban and rural, the rich as well as those on financial assistance. I find that all children, Malay and non-Malay alike, respond well to challenge and encouragement. If they are weak in English, we should strategize measures to help them improve in it. We should not complain and whine about it.

Adults play an important role in children’s self-perception and self esteem. Children everywhere are naturally smart. We must never underestimate them. Have faith in them. They know instinctively when we truly care for their development and future, and they respond accordingly. Have no faith in them, and they will have no confidence in themselves.

To all educators I say this: have faith in our national policy, have faith in our children, and have faith in ourselves. If there are problems in policy implementation, let us analyze them and together solve them. Let this be a test of our national resolve. Problem should drive us to seek solutions: they should never cause us to pause, whine, complain or backpedal.

A nation that backpedals will never move forward

Datin Freida binti Dato Mohd Pilus,
Chairman, Cempaka Group of Schools