Of language in education

I’ve been out of the loop again for the past few days, so much so that I missed THIS piece of news:

PUTRAJAYA, Dec 16 — Maintaining the current practice of teaching science and maths in English is the most popular choice among education stakeholders.

Wee added that pending a Cabinet decision on the matter, all preparations for the next academic year would be based on the status quo.

Assuming that I’m reading this correctly, it means that Science and Maths will continue to be taught in English. No change.

I think this is a good decision. To continue teaching Science and Maths in English. But to be honest, I think they (the people involved) have spent much too much time merely discussing the issue, instead of coming up with new ideas on how to improve the implementation of this policy.

When they first decided to change the language in which Science and Maths were going to be taught, I was caught in the middle. Having done Sains dan Matematik in Malay for so long, I had to do my final, most difficult two years of Sixth Form in English.

The change was relatively easy for me, since English is very much part of my life. But it wasn’t so for so many of my friends, and it felt like the teachers weren’t exactly having a great time either.

But, did the change in policy achieve what it set out to do? That is, to improve the quality and standard of English amongst students?

I think that in my class of less than 20 6th Form students, most of us had some trouble. But maybe in the end, we managed to pick up *some* improvements in English.

But I would suggest that equal, if not more, emphasis should be placed on better teaching of the English language itself. It is not enough to rely on our Science and Maths teachers to try and improve the low standard of English in our schools. Their job is to teach Science and Maths. We have English lessons and English teachers trained in teaching English for a reason.

More effort should be put into training the Science and Maths teachers. I think a lot of the problems arise because the teachers themselves were trained to teach the syllabus in Malay, and therefore their grasp of English may not be as good as it should be.

I think the teaching of Science and Maths in English is good. It is just the implementation that requires a whole lot of attention at the moment.


On why I think Science and Maths should be taught in English. Personally, I think it doesn’t really matter what language Maths is taught in. If the teacher is proficient in Malay, teaching Maths in Malay would definitely be better than getting the same teacher to teach Maths in English. Because ultimately, Maths is Maths, a whole lot of formulas, symbols and understanding of concepts.

But English is the language of Science. Most research materials are in English. Terms are in English. And it just doesn’t do it to convert English terms into Malay. So I strongly believe that Science should be taught in English.


About vernacular schools. I was talking to my dad about it, and he told me that during his schooling years, there were also vernacular schools. But most of the time, parents didn’t send their children to those schools, but opted for national schools instead. This, he told me, was simply because of the quality of education offered in national schools which surpassed those of vernacular schools.

I’ve never went to vernacular school. But coming from an English-speaking background into secondary school where one either spoke Mandarin or Malay, I know how much language plays a part in communicating with peers. I spoke better Malay than Mandarin, and some of my first friends were Malay. When I started picking up Mandarin, I started to have more Chinese friends. So I doubt it is the mono-ethnicity in vernacular schools that creates that racial barrier. It’s more of a language issue.

If you speak good Mandarin but bad Malay, you would tend to stick to friends who speak Mandarin, simply because you understand each other better. The problem with having segregated schools that focus on different languages is that we end up not having a central language that we can all communicate in.

But to say that vernacular schools are the root of all that is evil in nation-building, is too far-out for me. Vernacular schools offer parents a choice that most national schools do not. They offer quality education, good facilities and strict disciplin. The standard of national schools have to be brought up, if we are to see them become a popular choice again. And, as always, it’s in the implementation of policies.


3 Comments on “Of language in education”

  1. Patricia says:


    I’ll comment on the English-teacher part: Yes, you have a point. A concerted effort needs to be put into producing better abled, and better qualified, English language teachers.

    BUT. Look at the pool from which they have to choose. How many out there can speak good English? And of those who can, how many even want to go into teaching, and into teaching English?

    THe pool has been tainted by bad education policies in the recent past. The move to relegate English to just one subject was a bad move. We pay the price today: just take a listen to our better English speakers on the radio, on tv, at the malls!

    So these guys from a mucky pool will be teaching our kids. They’ll be teaching them English; and they’ll be teaching them Maths and Science, in English.

    You tell me, is that a good thing?

    I guess, given our choices, this is the best of the very poor options we have to choose from. How sad is that?

    This problem with us people not speaking the language properly, is not only confined to English. I’ve heard that producers/directors get extra-frustrated listening to hosts speak Mandarin, because a splatter of Cantonese sounding words just automatically come out. I have a feeling that spoken-Malay is also dropping in standard.

    And where does that leave us?

  2. Drachen says:

    I don’t object to learning Maths and Science in English. I read science magazines regularly and they are all in English. I don’t need Dewan Bahasa to translate them into Malay for me.

    I don’t know how good Chinese science magazines are so I can’t comment on that.

    1/3 of government schools in Malaysia have no water and electricity. If they cannot get that right what makes them think they can handle a quality education system? These guys are just talking KOK!

  3. Gadfly says:

    There are multi-factors to be taken into account whether English or vernacular language is best suited for the teaching of science and maths.

    Language by itself does not guarantee that a student will excel in these areas. For example, US is an essentially monolinguist country. They use English to teach maths. Yet, comparing to countries like Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, the maths ability of their 8th or 12 graders are far behind them.

    Social and cultural factors like parental and familial attitudes towards what leads to future success in life, expectation of the quality of teachers and teaching materials, affect the decision to opt for which language is to be used.

    I think too much time have been wasted on language rather on how to inspire and motivate the students to love and enjoy learning science and maths. Whatever language we may use, if we kill the students’ interest in these subjects, the nation suffer as a whole later for not producing people with original thinking.

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