Thursday, January 01, 2009

Learning English: Serious Business

I just read an interesting article in The New Yorker about English instruction in China which I thought I'd share with you. The article's focus is on Li Yang (李阳), who claims to have taught 20 million people how to speak English, and holds English classes in stadiums. It's a fascinating read.

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.


Anonymous said...

English proficiency among the Chinese is indeed abysmal. However, the Chinese are honest and smart enough to know that the only way to improve their English is through sheer hard work. Imagine a society with a written tradition of more than 3,000 years embracing a language which goes back only a thousand years or so. This is humility at its best. As for the Malay and Chinese language supremacists, all I can say is shame on them for treating their own people as idiots.

Unknown said...

A very well-written article. Certainly bolder measures have to be taken to arrest the decline of English proficiency among Malaysian students. I propose revising the format of English exam papers in the PMR and SPM to cater for candidates of different abilities eg. elementary, intermediate and advanced level. Only then can we make it mandatory for students to pass the English paper and only then can we raise the quality of distinctions. Right now the bright students will not feel a need to improve their English proficiency while the really weak ones would just give up hope. We need to test students on what they know , not punish them for what they do not know, if we really what learning to take place.


Banshee Creative said...

He was featured in a Discovery channel documentary the other night.

very very fascinating show etc. you should try and catch it.

could be quite an inspiration!

The Malaysian Explorer said...

Thanks for the great article. I especially like the part where you mention that English is more than just a language or tool, but more a measure of life's potential in China. How true.

Cheers & Happy 2009!
The Malaysian Explorer

Anonymous said...

The English spoken by our university
lecturers, deputy vice chancellors and vice chancellors are so deplorable and atrocious

Anonymous said...

The discovery show that he was featured is called Mad About English. They showed the two hours version in Singapore and the documentary shown is one hour. It is really interesting and I think there are many re-runs.

LeighC said...


I confined my thoughts here to the teaching and learning of Mathematics in English

I taught pre-University students in a local college, which means, I get many students fresh off the SPM examination (others were from overseas which I do not have the luxury of space and time to share here). Although most of these students were able to communicate well in English, they were unable to perform well in Mathematics (give me the benefit of doubt that I am able to teach Math reasonably well in English). I was initially quite confused until I enrolled myself in a post grad studies in Statistics. I have minimal knowledge in statistics and thought that if I put in a lot of effort, with my pure Mathematics background, I would be ok. How wrong I was. The first course I enrolled in was Applied Probability Theory, taught by an extremely respectable professor in his field, spoke fluent English and I could understand his language but for the second time in my life, I flunked a paper, got a C minus (first time was in Form 2, when my art teacher misplaced my art portfolio and gave me an E, I have forgiven her ;)). Although I had no problems with the language, I had a lot of difficulty trying to conceptualize mathematical terms like Borel sigma field, convergence in probability/ in distribution, intersection-union is different from union-intersection, etc and it was just mind-blowing for me to process all that. The point I am making here is that, Mathematics is a language by itself with apparent English terms, but known only to the ‘elite’ people. In everyday language, I can differentiate the dogs from humans but in Math, the term differentiate bring a whole new meaning. How can you make one understand {a,b} is a subset of {a,b}? As in English, I am a subset of myself? I am assuming that my own experience in my post graduate studies is the same struggle my students had with Math. Good instructions does not imply a successful lesson learnt.

There were many studies done in teaching and learning of Mathematics in English by students whose mother tongue is not English. This is not a new thing in Mathematics education. One study was done on two groups of Pasifika students (one group who spoke English and the other group in their in mother tongue-bilingual) and concluded that if their mathematical knowledge is poor, then it doesn’t matter what language they are tested in, they will still perform badly. Another note: Suppose that the half-baked study done by UPSI is to be trusted, then you will find many of the students' numeracy skills are weak to begin with (eg: not all could answer 6x7= correctly) and since an extremely large majority of students from this study is Malay students (a whooping 80% or so), that goes to show that students haven't even master the Mathematics language itself. Another example is the SPM Add Math Paper 1, most of it is in Math language and I wonder what the percentage of students nationwide who score Distinction for this paper? So before a conclusion is made that students are weak in Mathematics because it is taught in English, I say, maybe we should pause for a while to look at their ‘naked’ Math skills (algorithms) before it is garnished with social language. It takes more than fluent instructions to ace Math.

It is mentioned in this post (or the previous ones) that students should be allowed to choose a medium they are comfortable learning S&M in, I foresee the choice isn’t as simple as one language per school but possibly two/three languages per school. Then, as suggested, the administrative part is going to be a major headache and this multi-lingual science classes in one school is going to segregate students even more and with this, the teachers as well. (even with one medium of instruction, students in local Unis are already mixing with one-language group).

John, I really admire your determination in trying to make everyone see how important English is in this time and age and I am in total agreement with you. A lot of work is to be done, if your suggestions were to be taken seriously. For starters, maybe a comprehensive study on how Mathematics is learnt by GenY, countries who used their mother tongue but still succeed in producing renowned graduates in S&M (you will find that there is more to the medium used that contributed to the success), how easily language is pick up (children vs adult), motivation etc. One interesting studies was done on the Mathematics ability of Malay students in SRK and SRJK(C) in the 80s.

Keep up the good work, John. I look forward to reading more of your ideas and opinions :)

To all…have a wonderful New Year celebration! :)


Shawn Tan said...

Happy New Year!

I agree some with LeighC because I also think that math is a language unto itself. It should be as easy (or difficult) to teach math in Martian as it is in English. However, I do think that the situation for science is very different. Most scientific knowledge today is transacted in English. So, it is important to get a head start in the use of the language.

However, you have pointed out the problem with delivery. If the teachers themselves are half baked in the use of the language, it will be difficult to raise standards, regardless of the language that sci+math is taught in. So, let us first start by trying to bring in teachers who can teach English.

I have mentioned this in my own blog earlier but the gist of it is to hire foreign spouses - solves the problems of foreign spouses being unable to get jobs; and brings in a bunch of native speakers in to teach the subject.

On top of that, getting sufficient exposure to the use of a language is important. That is why I think that science should definitely be taught in English as it will force students to use it. However, I don't think that it should stop there.

If you turn on the TV today, you will see that it is heavily Malay or Chinese (Mandarin/Cantonese). In fact, you can cleanly divide the TV channels up by language. We should significantly increase our English programming. However, that is probably a question of cost.

So, the ultimate problem lies with the fact that people do not feel that they need to learn English. You can certainly go on with your life in Malaysia without uttering a single word of English. So, as you suggested, the government should brain wash everyone into thinking differently, which is what the PRC government seems to have done successfully.

Once there is a sufficient demand for it, I'm sure that everything else will fix itself.

PS: It is folly to think that you need to master Mandarin to work in China. They've already got 1.3billion expert Mandarin speakers and they don't need any more. What they need are English speakers. That is a message that needs to be driven into the heads of our parents.

Anonymous said...


You made my day by phrasing this

"In everyday language, I can differentiate the dogs from humans but in Math, the term differentiate bring a whole new meaning."

Anonymous said...

Correct, mathematics was never about language, hence I only agree with the first part of LeighC sentence but not the second part when he said Mathematics is a language by itself with apparent English terms. I think it should be with numerical and alphabetical term, not English term.

Don’t we agree we should deliver the mathematical concept using a language that the student are familiar and speak?

I paste a comment from one “Confused Malaysian”, The Malaysian Insider.

According to TIMSS 2007 reports: (

Grade 4* Science ranking:
1. Singapore
2. Chinese Taipei
3. Hong Kong SAR
4. Japan
5. Russian

Grade 4* Math ranking:
2. Singapore
3. Chinese Taipei
4. Japan
5. Kazakhstan (instruction in Kazakh and Russian languages)

*Grade 4 = Primary 4 / Standard 4

All countries (Singapore?) in the top 5 use their mother tongue to teach Science & Math.

Until and unless the Malaysian English language standard is on par with our neighbor, we should stick with mother tongue teaching for these two subjects.

How to improve English language is another issue altogether. We should consult with English teacher like Helan, not Mahathir, Hishammuddin, or blogger like Kian Ming and John.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1/02/2009 09:17:00 AM,
LeighC is in a way right (depending on which area of Mathematics you are taling about) with " Mathematics is a language by itself with apparent English terms" because many common English terms like "open", "close" etc (in topology)have an (abstract) technical meaning of their own.

Anonymous said...

Dear Shawn Tan,
You have a point in saying "It is folly to think that you need to master Mandarin to work in China. " But on the other hand it is doubtful that the Chinese (in China)will supplant Mandarin with English (national pride).Being able to communicate in Mandarin with the Chinese will certainly create better rapport especially if you are doing business with them.In my humble opinion Mandarin and English are both important.

Shawn Tan said...

I think that it's dangerous to say that "All countries (Singapore?) in the top 5 use their mother tongue to teach Science & Math." I think that it's more accurate to say that they all use their main language (mostly the national language) to teach it. That makes sense because there is generally only one medium of instruction but that's not the case Malaysia where there are a number of different streams of instruction.

On top of that, I'm sure that these countries have an abundance of books printed in these languages to help the students learn. I have personally seen a number of localised versions of many western text books. In our case, if we were to go shop for a book on science in our local book store, chances are that it is printed in English. So, it only makes sense to teach it in English. No sense fighting to teach it in Malay or Mandarin if you cannot find enough reading material for it.

PS: Let's just make this a case of choosing a suitable language of delivery, instead of personalising it by using the word 'mother' in it.

Anonymous said...


Hello LeighC! I think I know which college you hail from, though I was never under your tutelage nor am I were in the same department as you are now. Nevertheless, I myself am doing an undergraduate degree in Maths and I couldn't agree more with your sentiments. There are currently a few Germans in my course and all of them display exceptional mathematical abilities, so are some of the Chinese nationals, despite that both groups started out learning Maths in their mother tongue.

Anonymous said...

English is the most important international language and our schools should put stongest emphasis on the learning and usage of English to all students.

Anonymous said...

If open doesn't mean open and close doesn't mean close, can we call this English?

Daniel said...

Let's not talk mathematics here. I'm an engineering student and I've taken courses in mathematics (real analysis and some abstract algebra).

Hailing from a course where practicality is the main emphasis, experience has told me that unless a person has been shown the light, else he won't know what mathematics really is. And again from experience, most people don't bother with the elegant complexities of maths.

As for the preferred language to use for math and science, I personally think that with a strong foundation in english, it won't be a big problem crossing the malay-english language barrier. I actually studied some maths in French and I've had little problem with the English version.

In the midst of all the promotion of english as a medium of education for S&M, I'm quite concerned about the diminishing level of competence in Malay. I've been to France for a month in a cultural immersion and I've come to appreciate the culture of a country. Embracing a foreign language involves embracing its culture too (else you end up with something like Singlish). Are we ready to lose some (if not all) of our cultural identities yet?

Unknown said...

The Straits Times Singapore
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

ENGLISH IN MALAYSIA - Good sense held hostage to politics

By Cheong Suk-Wai

SOME months ago, a Chinese Malaysian undergraduate asked me to comment on an English language project paper that her lecturer had asked her to rewrite.

The paper had been put together while she was on emergency leave by her two project mates, who happened to be Malay Malaysians. I was bemused to read what they had written - paragraph after paragraph with neither head nor tail. They had cut and pasted bits and pieces from various English-language newspapers without quite understanding what these bits and pieces meant.

I was reminded of this incident while reading about the latest uproar among the country's intelligentsia over the compulsory use of English, instead of Malay, to teach mathematics and science to primary and secondary school students. So politicised has the issue become that non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the influential Malay writers' group Gabongan Persatuan Penulis Nasional Malaysia (Gapena), have threatened to sue the government for violating Article 152 of the Malaysian Constitution, which calls for only Malay to be used in all official matters.

Nothing in Article 152 prohibits the teaching or learning of any other language - but never mind: The NGOs are planning mass protests on the issue over the next two months.

Gapena's president, Tan Sri Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Ismail Hussein, told this newspaper: 'The problem with English being taught in this way is that we are being colonial again. This is the psychological problem.'

Prof Ismail stressed that the Malay intelligentsia's quarrel with the government is only against English being the only channel for the students to learn crucial core subjects, and not with the study of English itself. They are worried that Malay students studying maths and science in English would abandon Bahasa Malaysia by the time they enter university, thus killing the language.

The country's Education Ministry introduced this limited 'English only' policy in 2003 to improve the English skills of Malaysian students. Students can now choose to be examined entirely in English in both subjects or answer questions in both English and Malay.

The main medium of instruction in Malaysian public schools was English until 1970. It was changed to Bahasa Malaysia, as Malay is officially called, to foster national unity in the wake of racial riots in May 1969.

The chief problem of switching back to English is that 60 per cent of Malay students live in kampungs, where it is hard to find any English-language newspaper on sale. But young urban Malays are also not enamoured of English.

British-educated lawyer Emilda Shardin, for instance, laments that while her 10-year-old daughter writes well in English, she resolutely refuses to speak it. 'She tells me: 'Buat apa kita cakap bahasa orang lain?' (Why should we speak the language of others?).

Madam Emilda blames her daughter's all-Malay social circle for that attitude. They see English as a part of Western culture - or budaya kuning (yellow culture) - something that will lead them far astray from the path of Islam.

Malay parents resent especially the extra stress their children face from having to learn English. As one of them, corporate planner Hamzah Shafiee, put it: 'Malay students must pass these core subjects which are taught in a language they don't quite understand. They are being doubly pressured. Why can't their studies be selesa (comfortable)?'

What's worse, the country's maths and science standards have slid since the ministry rolled out the policy.

The December 2008 Trend In Mathematics And Science Studies' global-ranking report showed that Malaysian secondary school students scored an average of 474 points in maths and 471 in science in 2007, compared to their counterparts in Singapore, who scored 593 and 567 points, respectively. In 2003, Malaysian students scored an average of 508 in maths and 510 in science; and in 1999, they scored 519 and 492, respectively.

To be sure, it is not only the Malays who are opposed to learning maths and science in English. The Chinese, many of whom send their children to vernacular schools, also oppose the policy.

Singaporeans might well wonder why young Malaysians are so resistant to a lingua franca that will open global doors. The short answer is that they are just mirroring their teachers' attitude towards the language.

A survey last year by the Malaysian Education Ministry of randomly selected national schools found that 35 per cent of its teachers could hardly speak English. Last September, then-deputy education minister Razali Ismail admitted that most teachers were not enthusiastic about English and spent allowances meant for English- language learning aids on 'unrelated purposes'.

The truth is it is high time Malaysians saw the mastery of English as a productivity, not political, issue. More than 50,000 of the country's graduates are jobless today. Most of them are poor, female, Malay and cannot speak enough English to hold a two-minute conversation in the language.

How are they to impress employers, many of whom list English fluency and the ability to think critically as their chief job requirements?

The Education Ministry said last week that it would decide soon whether or not it will continue with this limited 'English only' policy beyond this year. It would be a pity to scrap it just as it is beginning to make headway.

Three weeks ago, the ministry released the 2008 Lower Secondary Assessment results, showing that 51 per cent of the 26,378 candidates answered all exam questions entirely in English, compared to 22 per cent in 2007. English was also the subject in which students showed the most improvement, with 75 per cent of students passing exams in it last year, compared with 71 per cent in the five preceding years.

One wonders how much more time will be squandered revisiting pointless linguistic arguments before Malaysia's Malay intelligentsia realises that the country cannot embrace globalisation unless the people at least partially embrace English.

hak55 said...

Mathematics and Science should be taught in the mother's tongue.

Learning Mathematics and Science in English do not necessarily improve one's English. To improve one's English, he or she must first learn the basics; the alphabets, numbers, spelling and dictation, grammar, writing composition and essays, precis writing, critical appreciation, reading, etc. There's no short-cut in learning English.