Malaysia: TEACHING SCIENCE & MATHS IN ENGLISH: Don ’t judge before 2020

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Sep 22 00:37:58 UTC 2008

TEACHING SCIENCE & MATHS IN ENGLISH: Don't judge before 2020
19 Sep 2008  NST

MANY readers and educators have raised pertinent points regarding the
teaching of Science and Mathematics in English. I, too, would like to
highlight some points that may need to be considered. The first
concerns the nature of language learning. Linguists and child
psychologists tell us that children are born with the innate capacity
for language learning, which they call the Language Acquisition Device
(LAD).  LAD is most active between the ages of 2 and 7, and children
soak up whatever language they are exposed to during this period. If
children are constantly exposed to two or even more languages at this
stage, they will still be able to handle them. As they get older, LAD
becomes less and less active and by the time they reach adulthood, it
tapers off to a relatively low level. This explains why children learn
a new language a lot faster than adults. Children in the lower primary
classes should have minimal difficulty learning Science and
Mathematics in a new language, be it English, Spanish or any other

They have the capacity to pick up the language fast — including the
grammar, syntax and the nuances of the language — if the teachers are
using the language effectively.

The large number of Malay and Indian pupils in Chinese vernacular
schools who express themselves in Mandarin with the same proficiency
as their Chinese classmates proves this point.

Therefore, to say that pupils are not doing well in Science and
Mathematics because of their weakness in English is a rather
superficial inference. They could still be weak in those subjects even
if they are taught in Bahasa Malaysia.

These pupils have often been cited as the reason for wanting to
reverse the policy but that amounts to barking up the wrong tree. The
real problem actually lies with the teachers.

Some quarters have called for an increase in the number of English
lessons in the classroom. At present, a child who finishes 11 years of
school (Year One to Form Five), would have had about 1,300 hours of
English-language lessons.

Yet, many students in the east coast town where I live are unable to
string a simple sentence in English free of grammatical or syntactic
errors, after all those hours of learning English.

I do not believe increasing the number of hours learning English in
the classroom will be of much help. It will only present additional
logistical problems for the schools and overwork the students and

Another aspect of language learning that begs consideration is that
any language needs to be learnt in an environment or context that
promotes its use; it would be difficult to learn a language in

For most rural children the environment does not exist, but a subject
learnt in the language offers the context. It can be any subject
(History, Geography, etc) but the policymakers were prudent and
pragmatic in choosing Science and Mathematics.

For schoolchildren, Science and Mathematics offer the context; the
pupils have the opportunity for meaningful interaction with the
language as they learn the subject content.

Linguists realise that language is "more caught than taught". In
learning Science and Mathematics in English, pupils have far more
opportunities to "catch" the language.

Probably the greatest challenge in the implementation of the policy
lies with the teachers. As it is, a large proportion of English
language teachers are not that proficient in the language, making
frequent errors in grammar, syntax, spelling and pronunciation. Your
children in school will confirm this. What more with Science and
Mathematics teachers?

There is always the temptation to resort to Bahasa Malaysia and that
is what many of them are doing — depriving the pupils of the
opportunity to learn the subjects in English.

To improve on the situation, we must start with the teachers. With the
teachers already in service, regular in-service language courses and
motivation programmes will be necessary; I believe these are already
being carried out.

Our main concern now should be the 2,000 or so Science, Mathematics
and English teachers who enter the service every year. The selection
process for admission into the teacher training programmes should be
more stringent — selecting those who are already quite proficient in
English. In that way, the newer teachers entering the service would
not need to struggle with the language.

Finally, we must remember that it took a whole generation (about 35
years) to bring about the plunge in English language standards in the

It will probably take at least another generation to elevate the
standards again to a desirable level. To expect significant results
after six years is rather naive. I would think that 20 years is a
reasonable amount of time to see some desired results.

Language learning is such that it takes many years to reach a
reasonable level of proficiency. We need to be patient. We need to
wait for the present generation of teachers to be gradually replaced
by teachers who are more comfortable with English.

Can we wait until 2020 to pronounce any judgment on the policy?

W.S. , Kuala Terengganu

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