The part I personally found most interesting, though, was this paragraph, which I think really gives us an insight into how big a deal learning English has become for Chinese:
China has been in the grip of "English fever," as the phenomenon is known in Chinese, for more than a decade. A vast national appetite has elevated English to something more than a language: it is not simply a tool but a defining measure of life’s potential. China today is divided by class, opportunity, and power, but one of its few unifying beliefs—something shared by waiters, politicians, intellectuals, tycoons—is the power of English. Every college freshman must meet a minimal level of English comprehension, and it’s the only foreign language tested. English has become an ideology, a force strong enough to remake your résumé, attract a spouse, or catapult you out of a village. Linguists estimate the number of Chinese now studying or speaking English at between two hundred million and three hundred and fifty million, a figure that’s on the order of the population of the United States. English private schools, study gadgets, and high-priced tutors vie for pieces of that market. The largest English school system, New Oriental, is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.It's hard to say whether Li Yang himself is a quack or a pedagogical genius, so I won't pass judgement on his methods. I do think it's rather strange and extremely interesting how excited (though obsessed might be a better word) the Chinese seem about learning English.
One thing I have pointed out before in the comments of another post on this blog is that it seems to me we in Malaysia have a bimodal distribution of English proficiency. We have one huge population of Malaysians whose English skills are poor to non-existent, and a smaller but sizable population whose English skills are very good. (I help answer questions from international students for my university's admissions office, and the quality of English in most emails - yes, even those from China - is abysmal compared to the English in emails we get from Malaysian applicants.)
To confirm if my initial impressions were right, I looked up the number of English speakers in Malaysia (Wikipedia makes it easy by compiling international figures from a number of sources). Apparently, Malaysia is 14th in the world when it comes to the number of people who speak English as a first language (such as myself), with about 380,000 native English speakers. We are 19th overall when it comes to total population of English speakers, with another 7 million Malaysians who can speak English as a second language. There are about 27.5 million Malaysians, so only about 25% of us can speak English, with the rest largely cut off from the world of opportunities English can open.
Our educational policy should try to cater to these vast differences instead of covering them up and adopting a one-size-fits-all philosophy. To me, it makes no sense to assume a level of English that most Malaysians clearly don't have, and neither does it make sense to hold back those Malaysians who speak English well just because most cannot speak English.
The main reason teaching English in science and maths was a foolish idea in the first place is that most of our schools fail at preparing students to use English properly, and that most of our teaching institutions fail at preparing teachers to use English properly. Many students probably cannot understand enough English to follow science and maths lessons given in English, and most teachers probably don't have good enough English to give those lessons. It is crazy to argue that the policy of teaching science and maths in English can bring up the overall quality of English when you have teachers with poor English often teaching pupils with poor English.
At the same time, it is hard to argue that we should permanently confine English to English classes; especially at the higher levels, it is probably more useful for students to familiarise themselves with English terminology at an early stage. The proper thing to do is neither to permanently roll back the policy nor to pretend that it is working; the right thing is to improve the quality of our English instruction, and give schools a choice about using English and other languages in the classroom so that the schools can adapt to changing circumstances.
Chinese educationists (the ones in China, not here) take English seriously enough to require a strict minimum standard of English for university entrance. How seriously do we take English? We're so lackadaisical about it that we let the standards for SPM English fall to the point that on our SPM certificates, we give a separate grade for papers marked according to GCE O-Level standards, because we all know an A for SPM English is mostly meaningless. How can we hope to introduce let alone expand the use of English in our school system when we are so complacent about learning English?
For the vast majority of Malaysians, the focus must be on improving the quality of English instruction, and allowing schools to opt to use the mother tongue in the classroom. This way, as the schools and parents become more confident in the conditions required for a successful transition to English instruction, schools will naturally switch over. On the other hand, if the government fails in fixing the core problem of learning English, the schools can just keep doing their own thing.
For the minority, we should likewise allow more extensive use of English if the schools find it desirable or necessary. There is no reason to hamper the promotion of advanced English skills amongst those who have already learned some English. We should encourage them to find schools where they can practice their English and improve it, instead of forcing all schools to conform to a uniform policy of either all-English or all-mother tongue.
Some proponents of teaching in English might object because they believe parents and schools will be too short-sighted to recognise the benefits of English. I think that just calls for improving awareness about the importance of English; I don't see the need to force a decision on anyone. There's no use forcing students to learn in English when they barely understand the language; the important thing is to help them learn English first.
If the schools or parents want to block English learning, that's a different story; the government should impose rigorous standards for English instruction. English, like Malay, should be a mandatory subject which all SPM, PMR and UPSR candidates must pass; the grading standards should also be tightened. That's the very least the government could do if it wants to improve the standard of English.
Ultimately, we need to take English seriously. It's an important language to learn, and one few people can do without. China has looked to English as a source of empowerment; we look at English and become complacent. There is no quick fix to the problem of English in Malaysia, but neither can we ignore the problem and hope it goes away. The government needs to recognise that most schools are not ready to teach science and maths in English, and implement a system which will facilitate a gradual transition based on improving standards of English.
Letting schools decide for themselves will ultimately be the best compromise. We cannot ignore the 80% of the country which can hardly speak English, nor can we ignore the 20% which speak it very well; the only solution must be to let both sides decide for themselves which language to use in their local communities. The ultimate objective should be to improve the quality of English among those 80% so that eventually they will be ready to use English in subjects like science and maths.
We have to treat the problem as a serious matter, instead of airily dismissing it, as both the Education Ministry and mother tongue education proponents often seem to do. We can neither keep the status quo by forcing the use of English in science and maths, which assumes we know more English than we really do, nor can we permanently return to the old status quo ante of mother tongue education, which assumes we don't really need to know much English. The situation calls for new and bold measures to uplift the quality of English across the board.