(PetalingJaya, Wednesday): The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad said after the opening of the Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (Utar) yesterday that the teaching of mathematics and science in English in schools starting next year is not a political decision to undermine the culture or identity of the different communities in the country but made based on the realization that English was the main language for learning in the world.
He said: “The Government is totally committed towards implementing the teaching of mathematics and science in English. This is not politics. We cannot keep on translating the thousands of books, articles and reference materials. We have to acknowledge that English is the language of learning today just like Arabic and Latin in the past and we have to accept that reality whether we like it or not.”
I fully agree with
Mahathir about the importance of
English as a global language in the era of globalisation and information and
communications technology. English
is the dominant language of commerce, of science, of the skies, of the Internet
and of opportunity.
English is the official language in more than 75 countries. Although 1.2 billion people speak Chinese as their mother tongue, more than 1.5 billion people speak English as their mother-tongue or use it as a second or foreign language. Plans are afoot for some 300 million people Chinese in China to learn to speak and use English.
The European Union
uses English alongside French at its informal gatherings, even though Europe has
more native German and Italian speakers. In Japan, the government had said that
the tongue of its onetime enemies should become its second official language to
“achieve world-class excellence”.
scientific organizations use English, partly because most relevant literature
and terminology is in English and partly because scientists want to spend time
on science, not on translation.
While I fully agree
with Mahathir that it is urgent and there must be crash programme for Malaysians
to master English if we are not to continue to lose our edge of international
competitiveness, this does not mean that one must agree with the proposal to use
English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Std. One,
whether in national, Chinese or Tamil primary schools,
unless the Education Ministry can make out a strong case that this is an
educationally sound proposal and would not result in decline in standards
for mathematics, science and the languages as has happened in some
Mahathir is right
that Malaysia “cannot keep on translating the thousands of books, articles and
reference materials”, but this has no application or relevance to the issue of
whether English should be used to teach mathematics and science in primary
schools from Std. One – or the whole world should be using English not only to
teach mathematics and science, but all subjects, from the first year in primary schools.
The Information Minister, Tan Sri Khalil Yaakob, said in
Kota Kinabalu yesterday that the government has given a thorough explanation on the need, as well as
the ways, to improve English proficiency among the people, and that there should
no longer be any question of the public not understand why the government had
put in so much effort to improve the people's proficiency in the language.
is completely untrue as neither the Education Ministry nor the Cabinet has
been able to give a sound educational justification for the use of English to
teach mathematics and science in primary school from Std. One in the past three
months. In fact, the Education
Minister, Tan Sri Musa Mohamad, the Education Director-General Datuk Abdul Rafei
Mamat and all Education Ministry officials had been avoiding dialogues and
discussions to convince Malaysians about the educational soundness of the move
to teach mathematics and science in English from Std. One -
and my requests for meetings with Musa and Abdul Rafei to solely discuss
the educational aspects of the move remain unanswered!
Minister for Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said
Malaysians cannot turn a “blind eye” to English, as many countries in the
world including China, Japan, Korea and France are now turning to English due to
the realisation that the language can play a role in bringing them further
that the Chinese in China were immersing themselves in English through special
programmes while in Singapore all means of communications were done in English.
He said that “even people in France, who are so proud of their French language which they think is superior than English, are now learning English" and that it would be unwise for Malaysia not to do the same, given that the whole world was now focusing their attention on English.
I believe the majority of Malaysians fully agree with Muhyiddin but again, this does not mean that such agreement must mean support for the move to use English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Std. One – as Muhyiddin cannot be implying that China and France are using English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Year One, or that Malaysia should emulate the Singapore example in having primary and secondary schools with English as the medium of instruction.
also not supportable is
Mahathir’s repetition yesterday that the issue of using English to teach
mathematics and science in Chinese and Tamil primary schools is “an internal Barisan Nasional problem to be resolved
internally” – as this is a public interest issue affecting all Malaysians as
well as the economic well-being and prosperity of the country which should be
the subject of the widest public consultation and discussion.
Malaysians, for instance, are entitled to ask and to get satisfactory answers whether in proposing to use English to teach mathematics and science in primary schools from Std. One, Malaysia would be following the footsteps of Singapore or South Africa, first and last respectively in world schools mathematics tests in the Third International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMMS) 1995 and 1999 although both use English to teach these two subjects.
In TIMMS 1995, which involved 45 countries, 15,000
participating schools and more than half a million students, South Africa came
out last both in mathematics and science. In TIMMS-R (Repeat) 1999, in which
180,000 students in Grade 8 (Form
II) from 38 countries participated (including Malaysia for the first time),
South Africa again came out last for mathematics and science.
There is a raging controversy in South Africa as to whether
one main cause for the low
standards of mathematics and science is because of the use of English, one of
the official languages,
as a medium of instruction from too early stages resulting in impeding
the development of thinking skills
of students with the consequent low
achievements in mathematics and science.
Educationists and researchers of bilingual education like J. Cummins, M. Swain, M. Saville-Troike and K. Anstrom have made following powerful argument:
“It is vitally important that learners fully develop their L1, (first language) because in so doing they also develop their cognitive academic abilities, their ‘thinking skills’, and their academic intelligence. To achieve full L1 and cognitive academic development, the home language needs to be used as the medium of instruction at least for the first few years of primary school at a minimum. Without this, learners enter L2 (second language) education mentally under-developed, which disadvantages not only their language acquisition, but also their overall academic success, and, in particular, their maths and science achievement.”
They also find a very close link between the learners’ attitudes towards their home language and culture, their motivation at school, and their overall academic achievement. Cummins and Swain in Bilingualism in education (1986) recommend that the home language is used extensively in the early years of school, not simply to make the children “feel good”, but also to ensure that they improve their overall academic performance:
“Acceptance of the home language in the home and school is clearly, then, one of the first steps in creating an environment where learning can occur, an environment which fosters feelings of self-worth and self-confidence. But acceptance of the home language is only the beginning. Active encouragement to make use of the home language in school is equally important. This can be done in a variety of ways. One way, of course, is to use the language as a medium of instruction, which not only enhances students’ comprehension, thereby improving academic performance, but also provides concrete evidence that the home language is a useful and valued tool.”
Singapore is of course the total reverse to South Africa,
scoring first of 45 countries in
mathematics and science in TIMMS 1995 and
first in mathematics and second in science out of 38 countries in TIMMS 1999 –
but the Singapore system is
different not only in being a “total immersion” programme, where English is
the medium of instruction for all subjects, but where English is the “home
language” of many Singaporeans.
Is the Education Minister or Education Director-General
capable of responding whether
Malaysia will be following the footsteps of
Singapore or South Africa when English is used to teach mathematics and
science from Std. One next year?
Incidentally, in the TIMMS-R
results released in November 2000, where Singapore
emerged first in mathematics and second in science, Malaysia
was placed 16th in mathematics and 22nd position in
science out of 38 countries.
The Singapore Education Ministry has made public the
“key findings” relating to Singapore students who participated in
TIMSS 1999 immediately after the release of the results in November 2000: such
as (i) Most Singapore students are in the international top half – 93% and 80%
of Singapore students are in the international top half for mathematics and
science respectively; (ii) A high proportion of Singapore students also achieve
excellent results – 46% and 32% of students reached the international top 10%
in mathematics and science respectively; and (iii)
For mathematics, 96% of the Chinese students are in the international top
half while 83% of the Malay students are in the international top half.
For science, 86% of the Chinese students and 61% of the Malay students
respectively are in the international top half.
The Malaysian Education Ministry should similarly make
public the “key findings: relating to Malaysian students who participated in
TIMMS 1999, particularly an analysis of the performance of the Malay, Chinese,
Indian, Iban and Kadazan students in mathematics and science
in TIMSS 1999, or Malaysia
will be shown to be lagging way behind in accountability, transparency and
democracy in refusing to release these educational findings.