Malaysia: Language is important for cultural as well as for economic reasons.

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Sep 9 13:20:55 UTC 2008

Language: A Perspective<>
Language is important for cultural as well as for economic reasons.

Within a community, it is important that there be a common language that
everybody can communicate. In China, it is Mandarin. In India, it appears to
be Hindi and English, though there are many other languages in use. In
Malaysia, it is Malay. In this situation, language defines the culture and
influences it. It is always lovely to listen to locals speaking their own
variant of the language. The variety makes for cultural richness.

For economic purposes, it is important to be conversant with the trading
language. Within the local economy, it is Malay. Within the global economy,
English is the dominant language for commerce, as Spanish and Portugese were
in the olden days. In the last few decades, Japanese was thought to be
important. Now, Mandarin seems indispensible. In the field of learning,
especially Mathematics and Science, the current contention is that English
is the proper medium of instruction. This objective kills two birds with one
stone - to enhance the use of English and to enhance the learning of
Mathematics and Science - which implies the availability of super-teachers
who are good in all three subjects. The idea behind this may be to create an
elite scientific class of students who could compete in the international

This idea is not flawless: (i) The Chinese schools have always claimed
supremacy in the teaching of Mathematics in Mandarin. (ii) It may be hard
enough to get ordinary school children to master their Mathematics and
Sciences in their own languages, without adding the burden of learning the
English. (iii) Teachers may not be up to the composite task of teaching
English, Mathematics and Science at the same time.

At the end of the day, knowledge in multiple languages is important for
survival in the global economy. Proficiency in Malay (for culture) and
English (for economic survival) is important. Some may wish to add Mandarin
or Tamil or Hindi to the arsenal of modern-day survival kit, but as
supplementary. While Malaysia is unique in that all these three languages
are well spoken in the country, they are by different segments. For
integration, there is a need to strengthen the teaching of languages in
schools. The education system may take a Malay+English+1 language policy,
with Malay as the medium of instruction in national schools, English as a
compulsory area of study, plus the need to choose an option (Mandarin,
Tamil, Japanese, etc.).

This language formula can be applied to the vernacular schools. In Chinese
schools, the medium of instruction is Mandarin, with Malay as a compulsory
subject, plus an option (English, Tamil, etc). In Tamil schools, the medium
of instruction is Tamil, with Malay as a compulsory subject, plus an option
(English, Mandarin, etc.). For Mathematics and Science, the teaching should
be in their respective medium of instructions. For Science, maybe the answer
is to leave the terminology in English.

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