One Barisan Nasional leader after another, from the Prime
Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad to the Education Minister, Datuk Musa
Mohamad and even civil servants like the Education Director-General, Datuk Abdul
Rafie Mamat have been claiming that the use of English to teach mathematics and
science in national, Chinese and Tamil primary schools should be treated as a
purely educational issue and should not be politicized.
This issue has both a political and an educational
dimension, as if it is purely an educational issue, the UMNO Supreme Council
would have no business to decide even before the Cabinet on May 10 on the use of
English to teach mathematics and science in schools.
Unfortunately, there is not a single Barisan Nasional
Minister or Education Ministry official who is prepared to discuss the proposal
educationally and professionally and make out a sound educational case to prove
that it is a good idea, resulting in better
student attainments in mathematics,
science and English rather than the opposite.
I have always maintained that unless the government, and in
particular the Education Ministry, can convince Malaysians about the educational
soundness of the proposal, there is no need as yet to address the political
dimension of the proposal.
As of now, neither
the government nor the Education Ministry can even cross the educational hurdle
to prove that the use of English to
teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Standard One is
educationally sound – which makes it unnecessary to enter into the
“political” implications of the proposal.
Yesterday, I emailed Abdul Rafie, who headed the Committee which made recommendations to implement the use of English to teach mathematics and science in schools for a meeting to solely discuss the educational aspects of the proposed switch of medium of instruction, whether the government can guarantee that such a move would raise the academic attainments of students in national, Chinese and Tamil primary schools in mathematics, science and English and whether there are any supporting educational studies.
DAP is prepared to give to Musa and Abdul Rafie educational
studies world-wide showing that using a second language as a medium of
instruction from too early stages can impede the development of thinking skills
of students resulting in low achievements in mathematics, science and
Studies by internationally-acknowledged educationists and
researchers of bilingual education, like J. Cummins, M. Swain, M. Saville-Troike
and K. Anstrom show that a
unitary cognitive academic proficiency (i.e. “thinking skills”) underlies
all language performance, and may be expressed through either the first language
(L1) or the second language (L2). The “thinking skills” are developed primarily through the
L1 in the early years, and may then be transferred to and expressed in an L2
later on. If a learner’s L1
remains underdeveloped, then so does that learner’s “thinking skills”.
Thus, when that learner attempts to acquire an L2 and pursue studies
through the medium of an L2, that
learner will bring lower
“thinking skills” to the task and be disadvantaged.
These studies show that if a learner uses and develops his
or her L1 for several years, and then moves into an L2 educational system at a
later stage, that learner will invariably perform better than a learner who
entered the L2 education system from the very beginning.
In one “classic study” on immigrant Finnish children in
Sweden, the prevailing belief that
the younger the children were when they begin school in their new language, the
better they would do in terms of second language acquisition and overall
academic achievement was proved wrong. The study found that the children who
adapted and performed the best were those who began education through their L2
between the ages of 10-12 years.
Another study compared the performance of two groups of
Mexican children in the 6th grade in US schools on English language
reading comprehension tests. The
one group had received two years of Spanish language education in Mexico
followed by four years of English language education in the USA. The other group
had received no Spanish language education in Mexico, and six yeasrs of English
language education in the USA. Contrary
to popular expectations, the children with two years of L1 education
outperformed the others in English, even though they had received fewer years of
English language education.
After reviewing similar research, Cummins and Swain (1986)
reach the conclusion that an initial period of L1 education is imperative to
achieve a higher level of mental maturity, which can then be transferred into L2
DAP can extend to Musa and Abdul Rafie these educational
and professional studies worldwide showing that it is vitally important that
learners fully develop their L1, because in so doing, they also develop their
“thinking skills” and their academic intelligence.
There are also studies to show that learners in L2
education lag behind their peers in areas such as mathematics and science, which
may be because their L2 skills are insufficiently developed to be able to think
mathematically and scientifically in their second language – and that learners
have their best chance of success in mathematics and science if they study it
through their L1s. Successful
achievement in mathematics and science is difficult enough for students learning
through their L1, and it is significantly more difficult for L2 learners because
of the specialized type of language that mathematics and science need, even from
a very early stage.
Have Musa and Abdul Rafie studies and surveys whether by
international or local educationists to counter these professional studies and
There is the great risk that in using English to teach
mathematics and science in national, Chinese and primary schools from Std. One,
student attainments in these subjects might fall instead of being raised.
This is the conundrum being faced by South Africa,
where the majority of the students are taught mathematics and science in
English instead of through their mother or home language.
In the Third
International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) in 1995 and the TIMMS 1999,
involving 41 and 38 countries respectively, South Africa came out last
for mathematics and science in both – and the use of
a second language, English, as a medium of instruction from too early
stages have been strongly argued as a main factor, as it impeded the
development of thinking skills of
students resulting in low achievements in mathematics and
Shouldn’t Malaysian educationists, the Cabinet and the public be giving these international educational studies, surveys and examples serious consideration before precipitately switching the medium of instruction for mathematics and science in primary schools from Std. One?