Thursday, November 24, 2005

The English Policy Disjoint

Much has been discussed about the policy of teaching Mathematics and Science in English in our primary and secondary schools. The latest post on this issue has also raised a fair bit of healthy debate in the comments section of this blog.

As declared, I'm a proponent of the teaching of mathematics and science in the English language in the schools. What I'm upset about is with the (almost) typical ineffectiveness and incompetency demonstrated with the implementation of the policy. One of the aspects of this ineffectiveness and incompetency is in the English policy disjoint between the primary and secondary schools, versus that of the public institutions of higher learning in Malaysia.

Thanks to a blog post by Cik Amoi, I was alerted to a Sunday Star education story which was entitled "Still struggling with English" on October 23rd.

The story highlighted the fact that students in public varsities are in a dilemma as science-based courses are still being taught in Bahasa Malaysia (BM) and some academics are also finding it difficult to switch to English.
With science-based courses still being taught in Bahasa Malaysia (BM) first year public varsity students find themselves in a quandary. Some lecturers switch mediums of instruction at their whims and fancy, and students feel that more needs to be done to ensure uniform implementation of the Government’s policy of teaching mathematics and science-based subjects in English.

Lecturers seem to be having more trouble coping with the switch in medium of instruction, compared to the students who studied the subjects in English.

...a first-year manufacturing engineering student from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) admits that she was not surprised when she was asked to submit her assignments in BM.
These criticism are not just coming from the students and the media. They are actually coming from some ministry officials as well. I couldn't agree more when one official was quoted saying that “[i]t is a disappointing scenario. So much money has been spent on introducing technology and training teachers in schools but so little has been done to improve the quality of lecturers."

And this is despite a stern warning issued by the Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Dr Shafie Mohd Salleh "that the teaching of mathematics and science-based subjects should be conducted in English from September."

A former lecturer disclosed that many lecturers possesses not the right attitudes to be an academic, but that of the lazy civil servant:
“Some lecturers just have closed minds and are not keen to learn anything new. They are so set in their ways that they do not know how, and do not wish to find out how, they can do things otherwise.”
Malaysia Academic Movement president Assoc Prof Dr Wan Abdul Manan Wan Muda rationalised that it is "near impossible task" to expect universities to make an overnight switch from BM to English because the lecturers’ different levels of proficiency in English. I find that a poor excuse, although he did add that "there is no excuse for any lecturer not to know and be able to use English."

Apparently, another interesting excuse for the use of BM, particularly in the submission of lab reports was to "prevent plagiarism". After all, there aren't going to be many BM websites with lab reports to copy from. Hmmm....

Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) has even invested over RM1mil to train lecturers to teach in English as long as 3 years ago.

While it's great that the universities are taking some form of action to improve the language skills of these lecturers (some of which are more effective than others), I seriously wonder what type of science and mathematics lecturers do we have teaching our undergraduates at the public universities? How is it that these lecturers who probably have at least a Masters degree and pursuing their doctorates, are not at least minimally "competent" in the English language?

Many of the "lecturers" obtained their science and mathematics degrees from foreign universities in the United Kingdom and the United States, and in all likelihood, uses English textbooks - why is it that they are not able to convey their knowledge and teachings in English? The fact that we have to spend extra funds to "train" these "lecturers" to speak competent English demonstrates the poverty of our academics in the country.

If the government is serious with regards to objectives of the English language policy - in particular, to improve students ability to research scientific materials in English, then it is important that the ability to teach and converse proficiently in English is set as a determining criteria in the recruitment and promotion of lecturers.

Practically all scientific and mathematical textbooks used in the universities are published in the English language. If these lecturers are not competent in the language, I cannot imagine what is it that they have been teaching our students. It is hence unsurprising that given such poor command of the language of science and mathematics, the ability of these academics to conduct in depth research is seriously hampered, justifying the poor rankings achieved at the world university ranking tables.


Wondering said...

Just wonder how the people in the far east asia countries like Japan manage to make such a great achievement in Science and technology, given that most of the people there are using their own mother-tongues in teaching and learning of these subjects. Hmmm....

kampongbouy said...

English is important but not more important than learning science and maths.

Instead of believes, maybe the debate should focus on actual facts and scientific studies. In primary schools, perhaps the mother tongue is still the best. This seems to be substantiated with exam results in Malaysia.

The bigger problem is still the underinvestment in our children's education by the government.

48 years after merdeka and most schools still have 2-sessions.

Instead of English for blah blah blah, I find the continued lack of commitment by the government to education to be the biggest obstacle to changing our society. Again, they have shifted our attention to the trivial.


okaywhy said...

Brilliant question, Mr. wondering. I've always been wondering why those countries like Germany, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Denmark etc are so advanced in science and technology albeit using their respective mother tongues in learning. How do they conduct researches since the scientific information are mostly presented in english? If it's so, why can't we do the same?

jason said...

I'm guessing countries like Japan, Germany and Russia have a very strong research institution to begin with.

My other hypothesis is: their researchers are apt in more than one language or has the strong desire to learn what the rest of the world is doing.

For example Americans often translate notable Russian scholarly works to English. Secondly, there are many co-research projects conducted between American and South Korean Professors. To my knowledge, English is used for communication between them. Thirdly, many German engineers are multi-lingual and know English.

Okaywhy's statement is correct. In my opinion, we too can learn science and math in our own mother-tongue. However, to succeed in science and math, as a country, we must:
a) have talented people
b) these talented people must know English

A question that begs to be asked is: "how good must one's English be?" Many South-Korean and German don't speak fluent English but they do very good research. I believe having a modest grasp of the language such that one can understand and communicate ideas is adequate.

It is my belief many Malaysians have that. Most of us struggle in English composition and public speaking. But we could still communicate the ideas that we have in our heads despite long preparations and some embarrassment.

But the most important question is: "do we have the idea in our head?" Surely the education system has produced graduates are creative, knowledgeable, motivated, well read... in short: talented.

Wondering and Okaywhy hinted at language not being the reason why Malaysia is so far behind. I agree completely.

I believe science and math should be taught in English to facilitate communication. However, a more pressing issue is to address our failed education system.

Anonymous said...

Please visit to read about the following news: In Singapore, this year's top scorer at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is Adil Hakeem Mohamad Rafee.

This news is well accepted by the population and people rejoiced with Adil and his family. There is no lingering doubt about the authenticity of academic excellence or meritocracy achieved by Adil. There is a feel good factor here.

Unfortunately, in Malaysia, such a news would invariably create doubt and sarcastic remarks over the authenticity of academic excellence or meritocracy achieved by a Malay. Many people in Malaysia have been conditioned by the government to think of social manipulation and engineering. Many people in Malaysia have no confidence and faith on the governance of the government.

Why? Because of the perception that most things that can be manipulated have been manipulated by the BN government, so much so that even a Malay who genuinely achieved something based on his or her efforts is viewed suspiciously by many. Such is the tragedy in Malaysia. In trying to promote Malay interests indiscriminately, the BN government has done a big disfavour to the Malay community.

Anonymous said...

excellence in research has little to do with the overall language ability of the researchers.

It is instead linked to investment in education, investment in building research institutions, a coherent long-term science and technology policy, an open and competitive system and most important of all, an underlying believe that science and technology will make our lives better.

Anonymous said...

Just my two cents.

Science is a field that overcomes the barrier of languages. I dont think that with Mathes and Science in English, our student will fare better globally. The problem lies within out own education system - the way and the environment the students themselves are brought up.

First of all, how can we expect that the students produce locally will be competitive if the teachers themselves are lacking the qualities as a education provider? I have met quite a number of teachers, mostly Malays that cant even solve or give a constructive answer when prompted by students. All they can say is either, "Esok saya bagi tahu" or "Bacalah buku. Dalam ada." Is that the appropriate attitude as a teacher whose main task is to nurture the future generations?

Secondly, our students are being spoon-fed since day one. This result in lack of self-motivation to ask questions (when our teachers cant answer too) or think! Not much has been done to stimulate their thinking or creativity during the growing up process (primary to secondary). This is bad because a person is usually shaped during that particular age. So how can we expect a university student to think and excel?

Lin Peh said...

The most important thing here is our teachers can't even teach English in English to begin with. So sad la !

Anonymous said...

I agree with Wondering, Okaywhy and Jason.

Japanese researchers learn their science and maths in their mother tongue and they have impeccable record of 12 Nobels so far..

And two-third of American Nobel winners are actually won by the decendants of immigrants.

These two fact speaks volumes for Dr Koh Tsu Koon, a US-trained scholar turned politician -- to advocate that Sci and Maths be taught in mother tongue in verncular primary school..

Doing science is much more than that!

It is understanding the concept, especially the abstract concept
in the actual sense of the word...

It is understanding the symbols, the derivation, and ability to replicate, distinguish and apply in new set of scenarios that count..

And the tenacity of try and re-try
amidst failures day-in and day-out.

Well..Scientific discovery is not something that comes with glitering thunders or slip seconds of whim and fancy..

but real effort...I mean real effort, day-in and day-out of
repeating the experiments...

And as far as role of teachers are concerned. They are responsible to impart the GIST of the syllabus..

They play important to stimulate the interest of students to be involved in science activities, and would consider careers that related to science..

In short, many factors come into play to bring out the sci and maths culture:

1. the social environment whether
scientist are being place in proper order in a society;

2. whether there is a scientific culture;

3. good scientific traninng that would ensure, select and groom promising young scientist;

and on individual level:
attention to detail, persistence, tenacity, good planning and certainly have strong basics to begin with..

that obviously explain why we need metritocratic university entrance system...

that obviously explain why we need to raise the standard of PMR and SPM!

P.S. Our down-south neighbour has a-star science projects for young scientists ??


johnleemk said...

I agree with Tony. Bear in mind that nobody is saying English is the magic solution to all our problems. Malaysia's troubles have far more deeper roots. But this step is a tiny movement forward. Let's be pragmatic and not kid ourselves. We've been slogging for decades with mother-tongue education, and we haven't gotten anywhere. M. Bakri Musa points out in The Malay Dilemma Revisited that turning our backs on English, intentionally or otherwise, has led to a decline in our country's performance. If we think that English is not too important, this will translate into a cavalier attitude towards the language, leading to further decline.

Furthermore, it is impractical to teach in different languages. This is an unnecessary waste of resources, and it'll be absurdly laughable when we have a new generation of academicians performing research in three or four different languages. We need to standardise on one language. We tried that with Malay, but as Bakri points out, it hasn't worked. English is the next best thing.

The implementation of the government's policy has been terrible. That cannot be denied. And I'm not satisfied with this half-step either - I am really hoping we will soon see the return of English-medium schools. Lest we forget, our country was built by English-educated Malays, Chinese and Indians. When we killed off English-medium education, what did we get? An obvious decline in academic standards.

Comparisons to the USA are inevitable, due to the latter's multicultural nature. However, the scientists there do not perform research in their "mother tongues". The universities there all use one language - English. It is pointless to split our country into scientific cliques, where different researchers carry out their work in different languages. Let us standardise on one language. Malay has not worked out, and has encouraged a rot in our academic standards. Thus, the only other logical language to use is English.

tanahputeh said...

I agree with the anonymous poster who gave his/her two cents. And I really think that it is because the system is too exam-oriented. Instead of teaching the scientific method and experimenting with science, we teach students to pass exams. The other point about the quality of our teachers is also interesting. Teachers' performances are assessed based on the results their students achieve. For example, if a teacher's students achieve 100% passes for SPM, he/she will be given a higher grade, and subsequently more cash incentives and benefits. So the system not only rewards students to pass exams, it also rewards teachers who can "engineer" their students to pass exams. This type of assessment will have to go. Emphasis has to be on learning, not studying. As for the debate on the use of English, although I don't think that will solve much, I agree with Tony too that English should be the way to go.

Wondering said...

Dear Johnleemk,

Your statement ‘Lest we forget, our country was built by English-educated Malays, Chinese and Indians’ is simply baseless and extreme. Can you cite any study or survey which shows that Chinese-educated or Tamil-educated people do not contribute to the building of this country? If what you’ve said is true, then why are there many Malay parents choose to send their children to Chinese primary schools?

I am not saying that English is not important. The reason I posted my very first question in this blog is to remind all readers as well as Tony that amidst the debate on the importance of English, we must not forget about other factors that contribute to the poor standard of our education.

The poor standard of English is not the only problem rooted in our education system. If all of us think that English is so important, then why don’t we convert all our schools to use English as a medium of instruction? Why not? Well, the answer lies in the unique composition of our society. Furthermore, learning an additional language is a bonus for it will increase our competitiveness to compete on the global stage.

I am one of those who have gone through Chinese education at primary level, Malay education at secondary level and a mixed of Malay and English education at our local University. I noticed that we actually spent quite a long time at secondary level. By the time we completed our secondary education in Malay, we were able to write reports and converse in Malay with very little problem. So, never look down on the effectiveness of our secondary education in shaping our language ability.

If that’s the case, why don’t we use English as a medium of instruction at secondary level? (Please don’t quote me as anti-Malay as I honestly do not mean to bring up sensitive issues here but merely for an open discussion). In doing so, our students will definitely be able to master English and fare well in other subjects too, given that there are unlimited sources of knowledge and aids written in English out there.

At the same time, we should preserve our vernacular education at primary level, so all races are given the opportunity to learn their mother tongue.

Chinese and Indian have in fact given up the learning of core subjects at secondary level using their mother tongue long ago. Still, they do not lose their own identity. So, I don’t think our Malay counterparts will lose their identity after six years of primary education in Malay. On top of that, we can set a policy to necessitate all students to learn Malay as a language subject at secondary level (just like learning English now).

Some may argue that this may lead to national disunity. Let me tell you the truth. The language does not necessarily lead to national disunity. If we look at the Chinese in Indonesia, they don’t’ even speak their mother tongue, nor do they carry Chinese names. Yet, when come any major political turmoil, they are targeted by the majority. Why?

Unity comes from mutual respect and fair treatment for all - not necessarily from a uniform education.

So, considering the above points, I wonder (again) if teaching Mathematics and Science in English at primary level the only remedy to the declining standard of English of this country?

Shah Andrew said...

Personally, I think that Malaysia should revert back to English-based education system.

To balance the high usage of English, ALL students must learn Malay, Mandarin and Tamil languages.

That way, every single Malaysian will be able to speak English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil.

Anonymous said...

My thoughts is, one who learns more language is always beneficial. Be it Malay, English yada yada yada. But the problems about Math and Science rest in the attitude and characteristics of a person. What one of the opinions mentioned here is true. You must have the tenacity to learn, to fail, to learn again and again to grasp the concepts you are searching for. So the teachers in school who are poor in liguistic skills, I would say the root of the problem is their attitude. For science and maths, well we have inadequate good teachers with the proper knowledge and attitude to steer the students to the right path.

I dont blame the teachers in a sense they are poorly paid with very poor working enviroment. They have to attend to teach 50 students in class and do grading of 50 students's homework day in and out. With this kind of repetitive work it is darn depressing and you do it for 2 decades or more, you would be sick of life as well. I know it is just labour work and easy, but put yourself in their shoe and I think you would go cranky in no time.

Bear in mind, I go for quality as well, I am not saying all these teachers deserve to be praised. Only a small fractions of them are. Most of the teachers are simply there in class for the sake of being there. Most of them dont have what it takes to actually teach science and maths. What is the easiest method to learn these 2 subjects? You got it, MEMORIZATION. It wont get you far though but it will pass your exams for the time being. So the partial solutions I can see from this problem is, give better pay and start taking it dedicated people and reward them for it.

The other part of the problem is students themselves. Let's face it, not everyone can be scientist and lawyers and what not. That is just impossible. If so Japan or Singapore would have achieved it long time ago.
For the lower level education system, I havent been able to think of the solutions yet. For higher level, I would say allowing the students to switch class or take the classes they want would be good. That way you are giving them the opportunity to try what they think they can do. If they failed in science or math, they can switch. Should the students chose to embark on the difficult path, the teachers must put in their part of the effort to help them to reach their destination.

So in conclusion, I would say learning English proficiently is an edge. Learning other languages is fine by me. Changing from BM to English to teach science and math is fine by me because the students must be able to do so. Hence the word adaptability. If they are learning it in BM but unable to grasp or convey it in English, it is highly probable that they themselves havent master the concepts they needed themselves. As for the students and teachers, students, should have the right attitude, that is willing to try and not giving up. Teachers, make sure they are fluent in communications be it BM or English and willing to teach and share. As for science teachers, I think they should grow more teachers in this field and give them higher pay or more benefits, since they are the cornerstones of growth to the young minds of students.


Rajan R said...

kampongbouy: How many students speak Standard Mandarin, Bahasa Melayu Baku or Standard Tamil as their first language? BTW, don't use exam results, most Chinese school students choose the escape option in UPSR - taking all their papers except BI and the two Chinese papers in Malay.

Anonymous said...

My dear friends,

I am a mat-salleh who has been working as academe for many years in your beautiful country. You are speaking a lot. The truth is that there is no space for intellectualism and inteligence in Malaysian University. Good and productive lecturers will (if not with correct genes) will be quickly identifyed and will be the innocent victims of enormous pressures and mobbing from the whole academic system. The nasty ones, gossyping and shity fellows will silently but systematically shoot you down with the silent blessings of Deans and VC's who will not give a shit about the good ones, and they will leave.
You are not able to keep the good ones, you do not want to see them. In the contrary you are wasting millions with complete idiots. I believed in Malaysia, I was wrong.

You are finished.


xenobiologista said...

Having studied overseas doesn't automatically confer the ability to speak English well. One of my friends who's an alumnus of Carnegie Mellon and was a JPA (Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam) scholar there says the other JPA kids tended to clump together socially and avoid mixing with the locals - so much for the "immersive" language learning.

Anonymous said...

Hi Baba @ mat-salleh, I'm 100% agree with you remark... those got a distinction award (cemerlang) in their yearly assessment isn't any good at all... instead they are the 'apple polishing' & that is why they got the award... those really good lecturer treated badly & labelled as abnormal & need to be ceased from their idiot organisation.... anyway, I strongly think that english is the only way forward for our education... tell me how they can communicate their (lecturer) idea without a competent english...

robston63 said...

An article in the Borneo Post July 23 attracted my attention and curiousity. According to DUN speaker Dato Sri Mohamad Asfia Awang Nassar stated that "we must never treat the language as our enemy or else we will go nowhere"(referring to the English for global competition in Science and Mathematics).

Do we ask why are people in Malaysia treating English as an enemy? Don't blame the students. Look at the media, how they portray the West. The words and specific captions used to undermine the West or English speaking countries. And how the media raise supportive sentiments towards their own Eastern counterparts in contrast with the West. Where the media is concerned, it is supportive to government internal policy and therefore continue to survive.

For example, the Utusan Borneo 21 July with a heading "Israel ampu Abbas, bebas 256 tahanan". What is the message sent here? We know Israel is always accused of having Western support, and the heading will send negative feelings towards the West. What if the heading was "Israel mengorak langkah kedamaian membebaskan 256 tahanan?" Would it not give positive feelings and stir people to be hopeful and peaceful? Of course there are hundreds of examples everyday in the media - what do you expect future students to grasp? Pretend to honour the West in front of them while still needing their guidance and at the same time finding a way to kick them off? Now you know why students tend to treat English as an for them to study then, as our dear Dato mentioned.

English as a second language is taught everyday to students, but if they cannot cultivate love towards this language it will be difficult to learn then- no point in academic only, it should also be a global view, and the media doesn't help. One look at the media, you will see all negative about West. West is not great okay, they're just there and we are on the way too.

Anonymous said...

I'm a six former student who will be taking the STPM examination on this November. Previously, I was studying in a chinese national-type school. Started from Form 1, I entered the SMK and studied science subjects in BM. Now, I'm learning Chemistry, Math T and Biology in BI. Personally, I'm a strong supporter to the government policy to use BI as the instruction medium for Science and Math. However, I've undergone a lot of hardship learning Science and Maths because the teaching medium is constanly change from Chinese to BM then to BI. I did very badly in my science subjects when I was in Form 1 but luckily I manage to overcome the hurdle. Same thing happened to me when I was in lower six. I don't blame the government for my hardship because it was my own weakness which caused me lagging behind. Nevertheless, I hope the government would be more consistent in implementing every new policy and try to learn from the other succesful countries. Furthermore, before anyone carry out a plan or policy, could they please listen to the students' opinions first? We are the one who are studying here. Who else would know our needs better than ourselves? Then, I strongly suggest the government to give more space and time for the students to try more things and conducts more experiments to fully utilize our creativity. Honestly, I can learn more things from watching Discovery and National Geographic channels than the text books. I'm also very frustrated that what I learnt from these television programmes are mostly useless in the exams. Is there any way we students can scream out our thoughts?

Anonymous said...

well,the implementation of science & mathematics in bm will only make students' to suffer more. The government should at least have a poll for students whether they want the students to learn bm or english. The government should at least consider the students' decision before they take a decision because we're the one studying here. Nowadays,some school teachers are opting to teach these science & maths subject in bilingual...but this is only some..what about the other school teachers??