Malaysia: Learn English from an early age

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Sep 13 13:13:10 UTC 2008

 Learn English from an early age
By : Arman Ahmad

AS a student raised during the decline of the English language in
Malaysia, I saw how my Malay friends struggled to cope with English
because the education system we had in place was simply not good
enough. While in school, it was the English subject that brought out
the division between students from middle- and lower-income families.
Students from middle-income families generally had a good grasp of the
language from home while the children of the lower-income families had
no fundamentals to work with. I remember the difficulty my friends ---
some whom were the sons of Felda settlers -- had in learning the

One classmate -- from some far off estate in a remote part of our
country -- had difficulty in speaking the language when he moved to
Petaling Jaya. We were in Form Five, and Khairul (not his real name)
was so bad in English that he was often used as an example by our
English teacher, although he wasn't bad in other subjects. One day,
our teacher, exasperated that she had failed to get through to him,
tried to force him to read a paragraph from a simple children's story
book, and Khairul, trembling and utterly embarrassed, stood up and
started off: "Onche upon a ty-me", sending half the class into a fit
of laughter.

I was lucky. My father, although a civil servant with Mara, was
fortunate enough to be sent by the government to study in the United
States in the early 80s. So, for the first two-and-a-half years, I was
under an American education system. I was forced to learn English and
became as proficient as any American child. Even the first words that
I learned were English. I can still remember how excited I was when
those letters in a Penguin book of science suddenly materialised into
words carrying ideas and concepts.

The book was one of those lying about in Steward Elementary School and
I struggled for days to decipher its contents because I wanted to know
what all those colourful pictures meant.  Later, I developed a
voracious appetite for reading -- consuming entire collections such as
the Encyclopedia Brittanica during school holidays. What is amazing
about being able to read in English is the sheer amount of literature
that you have access to. The debate on whether English or Bahasa
Malaysia should be used as the medium of instruction for Mathematics
and Science continues to be one of the most passionately discussed
topics among educators and parents alike.

The premise of the argument is simple: if you teach Mathematics and
Science in English, you create an inadvertent stumbling block for the
rural Malay child -- people like my friend Khairul, who because of his
poor economic background is at a disadvantage. Because of his lack of
proficiency in English, he will also face difficulty in understanding
the terms used by his Mathematics and Science teacher, which he could
have easily understood if taught in Bahasa Malaysia. This would not be
in the spirit of giving each person an equal opportunity in life.

The reasoning seems solid and Professor Emeritus Datuk Isahak Haron,
who led the research on 5,800 students, may have a point. The
statistics also seem to prove his case.

But before attempting to do an overhaul of the school syllabus as a
result of this study, perhaps the policy makers could take heed of
National Union of the Teaching Profession president Hashim Adnan's

Hashim suggested that students be taught subjects in English from an
early age. From experience, I agree with him. He also said that we
could lose nothing by teaching the children additional language.

English is now spoken by 1.8 billion people worldwide and has
established itself as the most important language for trade as well as

That being the case it does look as if it would be better to continue
with the current policy. After all, it wouldn't do students much harm
if they were to add mastering English to their list of achievements.
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