Malaysia: TEACHING OF SCIENCE AND MATHS IN ENGLISH: Let ’s junk the ‘use English’ policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Sep 26 15:50:26 UTC 2008

TEACHING OF SCIENCE AND MATHS IN ENGLISH: Let's junk the 'use English' policy
26 Sep 2008  NST

IT started with a request in the Dewan Negara for the government to
take steps to improve the English proficiency of students in schools
by teaching certain subjects in English. This led to a decision to use
English to teach Science and Mathematics. Unfortunately, the story did
not end there as it was reported in the newspapers that examination
results revealed a gap between rural, semi-urban and urban schools.
Now the controversy is focused on whether English should continue to
be used for the teaching of Science and Mathematics.

One group wishes the English language to continue to be used while
another group would prefer the subjects to be taught in Bahasa
Malaysia as was done previously. Cogent reasoning was put forward on
the need to be proficient in English.  Without proficiency in that
language, young graduates will find it difficult to get suitable jobs
befitting their academic qualifications.  This is the information age.
We are sunk if we do not have the ability to access sources of
information in English. English is very important for our survival in
a globalised world. In stressing the importance of the English
language, someone wrote that English was the language of science and

Another emphasised that English was the lingua franca of commerce,
trade and international relations. Yet another pointed out that the
English language was the undisputed lingua franca "especially in this
information technology age where knowledge spreads fast and
authoritative reference books are in English". It is quite relevant in
this discussion to view the importance of the English language in the
world as arguments have been based on its global supremacy.

On the question of English as the language of science and technology,
someone asked whether English was the language of science in Europe,
Russia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and in may other
countries which have made great strides in science and technology.

There are several factors for the growing importance of the English
language in the world today.

Britain and France insisted on the use of their languages in their
colonies. Two centuries of British and American colonial, commercial,
industrial, scientific and fiscal power left a substantial legacy in
higher education, government, trade and technology throughout the

Since World War 2, the dominance of the English-speaking peoples in
science and technology and international commerce has led to the
recognition of English as an important language.

Is English the world's language? There is no evidence to support the
proposition that an increasing proportion of the world's population is
speaking English. On the contrary, available statistics show just the

The data covering the period from 1958 to 1992 suggest that the
overall pattern of languages used in the world did not change
dramatically — that significant declines occurred in the proportion of
people speaking English, French, German, Russian and Japanese and that
increases occurred in the proportion of people speaking Hindi,
Malay-Indonesian, Arabic, Bengali, Spanish, Portuguese and other

English speakers in the world dropped from 9.8 per cent in 1958 to 7.6
per cent in 1992. A language foreign to 92 per cent of the people in
the world cannot be the world's language.

People need to communicate with each other and have to find means to do so.

Throughout history, lingua francas have emerged: Latin in the
classical and medieval era, French for several centuries in the west,
Swahili in many parts of Africa and now English throughout much of the
world since the latter half of the 20th century.

Diplomats, businessmen, scientists, tourists and the services catering
for them, airline pilots and air traffic controllers need some means
of efficient communication with each other, and do it largely in

In this sense, English is the world's way of communicating
inter-culturally. The use of the English language in this way
presupposes the existence of separate cultures.

A lingua franca is a way of coping with linguistic and cultural
differences, not a way of eliminating them. Precisely because people
want to preserve their own cultures, they use a lingua franca to
communicate with people of other cultures.

In Malaysia and other countries which were once under colonial rule,
the use of English tends to decline and indigenous languages, such as
Malay, become more prevalent.

Lingua francas like English cannot supplant the use of indigenous languages.

Proficiency in the use of the English language is a problem not only
among students but also among teachers and heads of schools. People in
rural and semi-urban areas hardly use English and, unlike those living
in urban areas, have little contact with those who use English.

The question which needs to be answered is how to help people gain
proficiency in English. Nothing much can be done so long as there is
no change in society which requires a greater use of English.

What about the university graduates who can't find employment because
their English is poor? The obvious answer is for them to take the
initiative on their own to study English.

Now we go back to the first question: whether to continue using
English as the medium of instruction for Science and Mathematics or
revert to the practice of using the national language.

A visiting senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia's Faculty of
Education, Bill Templer, has pointed out that research in North
America on English-language learners with immigrant backgrounds
suggests that learning complex material in the pupil's first language
helps to lay better conceptual foundations and ultimately to
strengthen progress in the second language.

People need to feel proud of their own background, home language,
values and realities ("Students' attitudes" — NST, Aug 11).

I, therefore, strongly support Khairy Jamaluddin's suggestion that it
is high time we ditched the policy of using English as the medium of
instruction for the teaching of Science and Mathematics.

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