Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The English Language Debate Continues… (Part I)

Two years after the policy to teach Science and Mathematics in English has been implemented, the great debate on the use of English language, particularly in the Chinese vernacular schools continue. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve commented at frequently on the issue, and I’ve attracted plenty of responses on my posts. The readers will also know that I’m pretty much in favour of the policy to continue the teaching of the two subjects in English.

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 that
[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!

2. That the policy does not at all help improve the competency in English
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.

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.

3. Preserving the character of vernacular schools
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.

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.

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!

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.


John Lee said...

Finally, a blogger who actually agrees with me on this policy. I always found it a bit perturbing that my father, whose parents till this day know not one word of English, was able to learn every subject in English right from primary one until the end of secondary school. His peers were all like this as well (he grew up in the kampung).

What worries me is that our current system does not have the right teachers. Our teachers have a very poor proficiency in English, and the government's implementation of the policy has been dismal. The new teachers I have seen do not appear to be any better in English than their senior counterparts, and don't tell me the schools are expected to rely on those stupid CDs and overhead projectors to teach science?

I would not mind a more progressive policy with science and maths taught in the mother tongue and English concurrently from primary one until primary three, and then a switching to pure English. This would prepare the teachers and students more easily, and eventually when teachers are fluent enough in English, the classes can be held fully in English.

There's no question that we're going to have to return to a pure English or mostly English policy when it comes to education. The only question is when and how.

Anonymous said...

How about leadership by example in education - deserves further systematic exploration for Malaysians to see through Umno's hypocrisy, hubris and folly.

One, these Umno elite themselves have no confidence in the so-called 'national' system of education they promote and defend. That is why for example, Najib and Hussein studied in British universities not local ones.

That is also why the children of all our prime ministers, including those of Dr Mahathir and Badawi, were overseas for their secondary or tertiary education.

Two, increasingly even ordinary bumi parents have realised that the Chinese-language education system is better for intellectual quality as well as for the inculcation of discipline among children and youths.

There are now more than 65000 bumi children studying in Chinese primary schools.

The government has to admit that our national schools have a lot of shortcomings, which is why the Chinese prefer to send their children to the vernacular schools. The Chinese schools also have better discipline levels and tend to be better in the teaching of mathematics.

A lot of my Chinese friends also had the same regret in not being able to learn to write and speak Chinese due to their parents' obsession in enrolling them into English-medium schools.

The answer as to whether the glass is half empty or half full will depend on who asked the question.

Of course, the MIC, MCA, Gerakan and the other Barisan Nasional component parties cannot evade political and social responsibility too for the failure of the 'national' education system.

It is indeed time for a serious national introspection and national renewal. It's time also for the removal of the rotten systems in Malaysia.

The government must realise that they have to accommodate both national and national-type schools. No one should call for the abolishment of vernacular schools, as they are there to provide an alternative and also to keep the national schools on their toes.

After all, it is just like the case of Malaysian sports. We used to be quite good and proud of our standards, but after decades of institutional mediocrity in the administration and selection process, we are now mediocre.

We cannot have the cake and eat it anymore. Just like sports where many of us have given up, we can also forget about trying to be a nation of academic reputation if we continue to institutionalise mediocrity.

There is a solution to the current problems in our public education system. We just have to take political considerations out of the equation.

There should also be no racial profiling for public schooling and communal sentiments do not supercede the importance of a quality education.

Spending on public education should be increased and the syllabus content streamlined for quality. Take control of the schools, weed out poor teachers from the system and retrain them if necessary.

Make teaching a more attractive position and have efficient school administrative policies to let teachers enjoy their freedom to educate rather than to teach for exams.

The road towards a quality public education system would require huge political and economic commitment from the government, the people and the private sector.

Today, we can and must create a quality education system for all.

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Anonymous said...

I stand to state my opinion as one who has been through a Chinese vernacular school, and perhaps in so doing, I might be able to shed some light from a different perspective.

I come from a English-speaking family background where my parents, who could not read or write Chinese, chose to send me to a Chinese primary school. For six years, I studied all my subjects (of course, with the exclusion of the languages) in Chinese and though there were always difficulties as I did not speak Chinese at home, I managed to pull through.

Point #1. My condition is reversed. English-speaking background studying subjects in Chinese. But I did it, scoring a string of A's for my UPSR. Who's to say that the young ones in similar yet reversed roles will not accomplish the same?

After my six years of Chinese primary education, I opted instead to attend a national school. In switching from having all my subjects in Chinese to having them all in Malay, I think I did well. It was a smooth transition in the language medium of teaching for me, as well as for others who were previously from Chinese primary schools.

Point #2. Kids pick up fast. And they adapt well. Sure there will be stutters here and there, but any transition in the language medium is not going to seriously halt a kid's education, unless of course they themselves choose to give up.

Now I am 18, having finished my SPM well, and am currently studying in a local private college where my lessons are all in English. How's that? Throughout my entire life, I've already had a trilingual education. Let me tell you first-hand, its great. Perhaps I might have French or something else in the future, who knows.

Back to the topic, I understand why certain people may feel that the culture of Chinese schools will be eroded with the implementation, as it is what led to the formation of them in the first place. But they've got to move with the times. Its not the end of the road just because kids are having to learn a new language more practically.

China is one heck of a nation, and the great dragon is really awakening now. What sets most of us apart from them in terms of employability is not the fact that they are any less skilled or any less intelligent. Just ask any ASEAN student down in one of the Junior Colleges in S'pore, they're kicking the @sses of all down there, esp. in Math and Science. The only advantage we still hold is that of language and communication. If we ever lose that, what's going to happen? And mind you, they've already started their English lessons.

While we sit here and bicker on whether the kids should study subjects in this or that, what's most important is the objective. Are we really acting bona fide, in the kids' best interests? Or are we just fuddy-duddy grown-ups, arguing for the sake of resisting change and the fear of uncertainty.

Relax, and take it from me (cue: Trilingual Education), it's gonna be fine.

Anonymous said...


I agree with you 100% because I am in the similar situation too. All the culture erosion stuffs are excuses to me. If one has the heart to learn, one can learn. If one has the will to seek, one will find. So what if the Chinese culture or what not is toned down in school, they can always learn from the mass media or from parents and friends.

The point here is, hey we are implementing Math and Science in English. Even the Chinese students told me that they learn those in English in university level that is or lower level education. Even back in China they teach it in English.

How about they do this, make Chinese or Malay or what not as compulsory but teach Math and Science in English. Making 2 subjects or 4 (in form 5) wont kill you. If you claimed that children will get confused, they adapt fast or send them for tutoring. If this work in other countries, why cant it work here? I dont see the reason at all.

So lacking in Chinese education, that can be solved. Open more schools then. Get more teacher. Getting more teacher is not rocket science right?

So main point here is weak weak weak implementation. I wonder why.


PS: I am not saying Chinese is not important. I hold the believe that more language equal to more tools at your disposal.

Anonymous said...

Those Chinese educationists arguing that learning these two subjects in mother tongue has higher effectiveness must have neglected the fact that most Chinese in Malaysia do not speak Mandarin at home but dialects like Hokkien, Hakka or Cantonese.

I come from a background where my family and relatives speak Hokkien and a little English, but my father chose to send me to a Chinese vernacular primary school. I struggled hard during my days in primary school because the Chinese written language was too difficult for me. When I started secondary school where all subjects were then taught in Malay, I excelled tremendously, and subsequently passed SPM with flying colors.

If politicians back these Chinese educationists based on this flimsy pretext, they are representing only a small part of the Chinese community.

If they were to carry out a survey asking all students studying at Chinese vernacular schools whether they prefer English or Chinese (Mandarin) as the medium of instruction for those two subjects, I believe they would choose the former. With all the confusing Mandarin scientific terms translated from English, English as the medium of instruction possess more attractive qualities.

Let’s not deprive our young ones of the opportunity to learn things in English!

Anonymous said...

Learning ones mother tongue is a human right, no dispute. Teaching thing in Bahasa Malaysia has never been made a racist agenda by the non-malays.

On the other hand, the Umno flyers (Utusan, Berita Harian etc) are the culprits.

What is racist agenda?

Closing down schools that teach mother tongues without letting chance for expansion, rebuilding, relocation (all using private funds on private donated land) is racist agenda.

Up and coming Umno politicians (especially Umno Youth) often cash on racial issues. In fact, it has evolved into some kind of peer pressure amongst them. Today one wave the keris, tomorrow another must bring on the parang. If you take out a butter spreader, you are not a defender of the noble race.

If there were no non-malays in Malaysia, these keris and parang flaunters will become political bankrupts.

What will happen then? There will be more episodes of Dr M and Rafidah APs skirmish coming up.

And the poor malay nelayan still remain as poor malay nelayan in kampung (where is this place? who cares?).

tanahputeh said...

In my opinion, people who call for science & math to be taught in their mother tongues are those I'd label the 'kiasu' ones who want their kids to pass exams and get good grades. This whole debate is pointless because whatever language we use to teach science in schools, NO science is being taught in Malaysian schools!

To quote Richard Feynman - "I couldn't see how anyone could be educated by this self-propagating system in which people pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything."

Where are our Nobel prize winners? Where are our world-renown scientists? Is teaching math & science in our mother-tongues going to start producing these world-renown scientists? Obviously not! Changing the language is not going to solve the problem.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Tanahputeh

I think your comments were extreme, if not downright bloody inconsiderate. Sure you may be lamenting from the viewpoint that students these days focus on exams and not on the knowledge, but there is no justice in saying that we are a bunch who have learnt nothing. Tell me, if we really are airheads who just focus on 'getting the marks', what does that make you?

Need there be any 'Nobel prize winners' or 'world renown scientists'? You yourself are guilty of using a wrong yardstick; just as you have criticised examinations as a false measure of intelligence, you seem to advocate another measure - that of fame and glory.

The teaching of Math and Science in school has definitely imparted knowledge in students, albeit all the drawbacks in the Malaysian education system. But using these drawbacks as a springboard to say that 'NO science is being taught in Malaysian schools!', I would be surprised if you weren't being pelted by more than brickbats if you declared this in any school. For starters, what are your expectations, that Primary One students be taught the reasoning of Newtonian Laws?

Also, education is not so much about knowledge as it is about moulding the mind. The History and Moral crap and nonsense that I used to detest (I still do very much actually); I look back in hindsight and see that it could be seen as a training of the mind's memory powers. Similarly, while all who learn Science do not necessarily become scientists, if they have gained the analytical and thinking skills that are imparted by the study of it, and are able to think empirically and scientifically nregardless of the task at hand, then the teaching of the Science subject has more than met its purpose.

Perhaps you, Mr. Tanahputeh, did not go through such an education, and hence make lopsided extreme remarks without processing it through the grey matter in scientific fashion?

John Lee said...

Perhaps I am uniquely placed to set forth how badly screwed up our education system is, for I have recently dropped out of form three (just after my PMR) so I can do my GCE 'O' Levels, which I have been preparing for. I can attest that our approach to science, at least, is failing. Why? You have to read Feynman's quote in context to understand. I have reproduced the full passage where he details the education system that fails utterly in producing scientists of calibre. Here, science is all about memorisation. I think every statement of Feynman's, if you switch "Brazil" for "Malaysia" is 100% accurate.

History and Moral here are also utterly useless. I've actually been inspired to write a 100-page draft of a book detailing how f***ed up our schools are because of those mind-numbing subjects. I still remember last year when a classmate of mine asked during History, "Cikgu, Belanda datang dari mana?" and the teacher responded, "Tak perlu tahulah, soalan macam tu tak ada dalam peperiksaan."

Anyone can memorise something if they study long enough. But memorisation is pointless when we have the whole internet at our fingertips. We need to go further and learn how to apply the information we have memorised. And our schools are failing at this. Our science classes today no longer impart analytical or thinking skills. Students just memorise the information in textbooks and learn only how to apply them to textbook situations. Give them a real chance to apply what they have learnt, and they will fail.

This is a very new development in our schools, as I know people only a few years my senior who burst out laughing when told of the situation in our schools today. So perhaps tanahputeh is a more recent product of our education system than you, Jonathan.

tanahputeh said...

Yes, Mr. Jonathan, an extreme predicament calls for extreme actions (and also extreme comments). When you see the state that the Malaysian education system is in, there is no room for being considerate so don't expect to hear pleasant things here.

First of all, I didn't say we (myself included) are a bunch of airheads focused on getting the marks. I happen to think that young Malaysians are as bright if not brighter than kids from other developed nations. I'm saying we focus on getting the marks because the SYSTEM focuses on grades. I'm not blaming the students, I'm blaming the system. Instead of focusing on creativity and originality, the system rewards conformity, memorizing and regurgitation.

Secondly, it's true that Nobel prize is an extreme measure. But I'm not measuring fame and glory here. I'm measuring contribution! Why do we even bother to practise science, if not to improve the human condition? I find the lack of significant research papers, patents and inventions from local universities clear evidence of a lack of contribution. What is the cause of that? Is it not because of the way we are taught in schools?

Next, of course teaching math and science in school has imparted knowledge in students. But students are not taught to apply whatever knowledge they learned. It's not the same knowing something by heart and knowing how to use that knowledge to solve everyday problems. Sure, in Primary One, probably this is not a big deal, but I find that right up to university, this is
still how students are taught.

Speaking of the History and Moral crap, I think, if they do not test the students on those subjects for SPM, then nobody would even bother memorizing all those dates and moral values. Again, I'm asking, what is the use of memorizing all those dates and moral values? Do you become a moral person by studying it in class? Do you become a scientist if you can recite Newton's Laws of Physics? That is what I'm trying to say, that this whole education system is missing the point. You may call me extreme, but all I want is to kill this cancer that is slowly killing our nation.

Anonymous said...

On the 1st reason - most Chinese in Malaysia don't speak Mandarin as their mother tongue - despite posturing of Chinese nationalists of the contrary. In fact, hardly anyone speaks Standard Mandarin as a mother tongue - it is, at least in Malaysia, a purely academic language/dialect (whatever makes you happy).

On the 2nd - so, by the same logic (which I happen to agree with), Mandarin skills wouldn't drop all that much, now would it? What's there to be afraid?

On the 3rd - DJZ have to decide whether they are Malaysian or just Chinese nationals with Malaysian passports. Malays gave up their sekolah pondok, their madrassahs, and more recently, their Sekolah Agama Rakyat. Maybe it is time the Chinese gave something up. I'm all for education choice - school vouchers, independent schools, the whole bandwagon, but this are tax-payer funded (albeit discriminitorily lower fundings) schools.

But I get this argument. After the Anwar days, it isn't far-fetch to believe that the government would try to implement its near half-century old Razak Report. But I don't see why it is an overall bad idea (according to surveys, Chinese parents choose Chinese schools not because of academic quality anyway as their main reason).

Anonymous said...

Jonathan Lim: Singaporean Junior Colleges, kicking our arses? Since when? My best friend bought STPM books, and was looking around for Further Maths (STPM) books because the standard is much higher here than in Singapore - at least when A-Levels vs. STPM.

Anonymous said...

Heh, sorry for the third comment.

my human rights: Mother tongue education is not a human right. How many Spanish-language public schools are there in Texas, for example? Or Hindi-language state schools in Wembley, England? In America, for example, the plurarity ethnicity there is German-Americans, followed closely by Irish-Americans - not the English.

But just say you're right on mother tongue ed rights - what about my mother tongue - Ceylonese Tamil? What about those who speak Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Fuchow, etc.? You can't assign languages to people based on their skin colour - my mother tongue is English, not Ceylonese Tamil, not Standard Tamil. I grew up using English, I think in English, but let people like you decide, my mother tongue isn't English.

johnleemk: SPM Core Science subjects is *very* different from PMR. And don't think O-Levels is all that special (I'm assuming you are taking Cambridge International Examinations) - the main differences between SPM and O-Levels is the grading curve. We inherited, afterall, our rote-learning system from the Brits. Thankfully, you aren't doing GCSE which is just as bad as SPM.

Perhaps you feel a big difference in teaching between your current O-Level teachers and your former school teachers - but that's only because now your parents is directly paying for your education, while the latter is being paid by the government with very strict and restrictive teacher-firing rules. So if you want to know where the Belanda-nese (or Dutch, as it would come out in your History paper) come from, they answer you because your satisfaction and your parents satisfaction puts food on their tables.

Johnathan Lee: Science classes, even at primary school, should be not about facts but about the scientific method. But all I remembered about my primary school was teachers forcing us to memorize how the scientific method works, not the reasoning behind it, not how it is applied. We only experimented when it is required to fulfill PEKA requirements - and I'm from the then-top school in Subang Jaya.

The entire education system is geared on us learning facts when we should at that formative year be learning how to learn and explore. Facts and theories should be learnt *after* they get the whole concept of the scientific method.

tanahputeh: That cancer, unfortunately, is slowly killing the rest of the world too. Heh, rote-learning - "brightest" invention of the Industrial Revolution. Should I ever have kids (or even marry in the first place :-) - thinking far, far ahead), I'll probably homeschool my children (depending on what say the person who wears the pants in the house - my wife, of course).

John Lee said...

We inherited, afterall, our rote-learning system from the Brits. Thankfully, you aren't doing GCSE which is just as bad as SPM.
Most education systems around the world are pretty much the same, but even so, there is a detectable difference between the O Level syllabus and the way we do things here.

Perhaps you feel a big difference in teaching between your current O-Level teachers and your former school teachers - but that's only because now your parents is directly paying for your education, while the latter is being paid by the government with very strict and restrictive teacher-firing rules.
Actually, I self-studied the subject. Most international schools here only offer the IGCSE.

And they taught you the scientific method in primary school? Boy, standards sure have dropped. I learnt it in form one (and my first two years of primary education were at a private school which offered science, at a time when few, if any public schools did), and my younger sister (currently in form one) never has. But yeah, we learnt the scientific method by rote. All experiments were just copied out from the textbook, and experiments were very rare.

Should I ever have kids (or even marry in the first place :-) - thinking far, far ahead), I'll probably homeschool my children (depending on what say the person who wears the pants in the house - my wife, of course).
A high-five to another potential home-schooler. But I would say it depends on the calibre of my children. The smart ones, I'll just send to school and tutor at home. That's what my parents did with me. And home-schooling isn't for everyone. Hopefully by our day (though the chances aren't very good) the world's education system will have improved. (By the way, have you heard of the Finnish education system? Supposedly they tend to encourage more thought, and the teachers are given a lot more autonomy.)

Cibaikia said...

This is stupid..Look at how they treat language problem,they (umno)simply associate anything for the better of all races benefits into a very weird but creative thinking way..Putting extra chinese roadsign means challenging malay>?
plain moron only will thought that way..keep it up,soon we will umno and bn sinking now..