Malaysia: Immersion is a difficult lesson

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Jan 19 15:49:44 UTC 2008

Immersion is a difficult lesson

Ian MacKinnon
Friday January 18, 2008

Guardian Weekly

It was an ambitious plan pushed through by Malaysia's leader, Mahathir
Mohamad, despite fierce opposition. Five years on the decision that
all Malaysian children should be taught maths and science in English
still causes heated debate. With an election looming, nationalist
politicians are again seizing on the charged issue of language in an
ethnically diverse country of indigenous Malays, Chinese and Indian
Tamils. In such a vital area everyone wants to be heard: newspaper
letters pages are bursting with all shades of opinion for and against
the policy.

Few doubt the wisdom that led Mahathir to his U-turn, reintroducing
the language of the old colonial masters nearly 30 years after he, as
the nationalist education minister, scrapped English-medium teaching
in schools. He recognised his nation was falling behind in the
globalised world and made an abrupt switch to try to redress the
balance. Yet the suddenness of the change, which led to the
introduction of English maths and science teaching from primary level
within just six months of the decision, seems to have played into the
hands of the policy's opponents.

Even its advocates concede that teacher training to instruct in
English and the availability of suitable course material have been
patchy. Rural areas - where nationalist politicians trade on parents'
disquiet - fared worst as English remains more of a foreign language
there; in more sophisticated urban areas it is a second language to
the mother tongue. But after five years the government and most
educationists accept it is still early in such a radical experiment.
Despite strong opposition, even in the government's own ranks, the
education minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein has declared it will
remain in place for now. Education professionals argue it needs a full
11-year cycle of primary and secondary teaching to gauge success or

Improving English standards, which had declined, was the obvious goal.
But by using the concept of Content and Language Integrated Teaching
(Clil) the aim was to give access to knowledge in maths and science.
It is argued that Bahasa Malay failed to convey meaning precisely in
translations from papers in English, if they were translated at all.
Educationists point to the success of immersion teaching techniques in
Canada, where children whose mother tongue is English are taught
subjects in French, Canada's other language.

"Cognitively there is no problem with children learning in a bilingual
environment," said Professor Andy Kirkpatrick, an expert in English
language training at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. "Most
evidence shows that it is good for children. Malay and English are not
that separate." By enhancing the English capabilities of students and
graduates, Mahathir sought to give Malaysia an advantage in a
competitive world. He glanced enviously at former colonies such as
Singapore and India, which have made huge strides in the knowledge
economy because of their familiarity with English.

Professor Saran Kaur Gill, deputy vice-chancellor of Universiti
Kebangsaan Malaysia, who is studying the teaching policy in relation
to higher education, interviewed Mahathir and his view was clear. "You
have to be masters of knowledge, otherwise you will be slaves to those
who have knowledge," she said, reflecting his opinion. Little work has
been done so far to monitor the policy's progress. But there are
questions about its implementation. Most experts concede that many
rural schools instruct in local languages because either the teachers
or pupils cannot cope in English.

"Five years down the road is not very long considering the size of
this endeavour," said David Marsh, a leading expert in Clil at
Finland's University of Jyvaskyla. "Still I think there is already
grave concern that they will have a lost generation of Malaysians who
will not learn content in maths and science because of this policy."
Professor Yoong Suan, an opponent of the policy and a director of
United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia, says pupils
"react" badly or even drop out if they fail to comprehend coursework
taught in an unfamiliar language, although he stresses he is not
against English.

"All of us realise the importance of English," he said. "We want
English to be taught. But it's the one-size-fits-all policy that's the
problem. We have a highly centralised education system that decrees
all schools should teach maths and science in English. We should
consider a more flexible policy that allows each school to make its
own decision. There's also the problem of identity with parents
fearing children will lose their social identity because of English."

The Malaysian English Language Teaching Association president, Dr
Malachi Edwin Vethamani, shows sensitivity when he is quick to stress
that Bahasa is not under threat or undermined because of maths and
science instruction in English. He also believes the policy is
beginning to show results as test scores demonstrate that more pupils
are passing in English or choosing to answer exams in English, rather
Malay, Chinese or Tamil as they are permitted to do. "Results from
secondary school form three exams show more are passing English,
although there was also a decrease in those getting A grades," he
said. "So the quantity is up, but the quality is down. That's
something that will have to be looked at."

But Kirkpatrick believes that despite the teething troubles and the
continuing opposition, the tide is with those who favour pressing on
with the policy. "No doubt the disparity between the urban middle
classes and the rural students who do not receive the same resources
plays into the hands of the politicians who would like to go back," he
said. "Certainly they tend to be loud and they tend to be heard, but I
don't think they're winning the argument." (c) Guardian News and Media Limited 2008,,2243209,00.html
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