Malaysia: Let the Parents Have a Choice about language used to teach science and math

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu May 29 16:02:52 UTC 2008

Let the Parents Have a Choice
Posted on: Wednesday, 28 May 2008, 00:00 CDT

By Dr M.A. Nair

THE government has spent over RM2 billion since 2003 to get Science
and Mathematics taught in English. This involves the retraining of
teachers, buying of computers and educational software and having
computer labs built in schools. Teaching is supposed to be aided by
software to offset the language inadequacy of some teachers. Teachers
are given laptops for this purpose and schools are provided with LCD
televisions. As an incentive, teachers are also given special language
allowance to teach Science and Mathematics in English. Unfortunately,
the computer-aided approach has not been fully used in most schools.
Most of the computer labs built are not fully utilised.

Teaching in most schools is still based on the traditional board-
and-book method. Some teachers who are given the role to teach these
subjects in English are themselves not proficient and some who are
proficient in the language may not be competent in the subject. There
are also some teachers who just refuse to take up this challenge or
refuse to go for special training and sit the special language test
for this purpose. All these variables have affected pupils' learning

Some politicians and parents, however, have blamed the use of English
as the reason for pupils' inability to perform in Science and
Mathematics. It has of late been turned into an issue by some who feel
that the policy of teaching Science and Mathematics in English is just
not right. Ironically though, almost every parent in the country
realises that being able to understand and express in English -
specifically in science and technology - is always an advantage to
their children. From the pedagogical perspective, studies have shown
that it's the cognitive ability of pupils that could hamper their
learning process when subjects are taught in a foreign language.

Being not proficient in the language is not the sole reason children
cannot cope with the lessons taught in English. Children's cognitive
ability is more of a determinant in understanding the effectiveness of
learning these subjects in English. Many children who do not have a
good English background are finding it an uphill task to study Science
and Mathematics in this language, despite all the efforts put into
this exercise. Those who benefit most from this policy are children
who speak English at home and have English-speaking parents to guide
them. They are better prepared cognitively to handle these subjects in

Those who are at a disadvantage are mostly children in rural areas and
also in urban areas where they do not use English at all, or have
parents who do not speak the language at home. Switching back to
teaching these subjects in Bahasa Malaysia would incur the wrath of
parents and children who are already comfortable with English as the
medium of instruction. There could be some solutions to this problem,
though. First, go ahead with the present mode of teaching the subjects
in English, making the examination questions bilingual, training the
teachers to be more competent in the language and fully utilising
computer technology to reinforce teaching and learning.

This is going to cost a lot more money and its success cannot be
assured if teachers do not seriously co-operate. Second, to make all
parents happy, let those who are comfortable with English go ahead
with the present system. And those who want their children to learn
the subjects in their home language should be allowed to do so. Let us
consider the cognitive factor in learning to help those pupils who
have no English language background. Let this group learn the subjects
in the language they speak at home.

This could be Malay, Mandarin, Tamil or English. For this reason,
bring back the English-medium school for those who are comfortable
with English. After all, many educated families these days speak
English at home. Third, if bringing back English-medium schools is
going to be an issue, though many educated parents would disagree with
this idea, just create two streams in the national schools - Bahasa
Malaysia and English. Let the parents choose which stream they want
their children to study in. Teachers who are willing to co-operate,
are competent in English and trained to teach these subjects can be
utilised for the purpose of teaching Science and Mathematics in


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