October 29th, 2012 by Hafiz Noor Shams
I am partial to an education system which has the English language as its medium of instruction. That is because I am most comfortable where English is the primary and the common language. While the Malay language is my mother tongue, I mostly use English to run both my private and professional life.
For a person with my background, it is reasonable for a stranger to expect me to be supportive of the policy (PPSMI) to teach science and mathematics in English. While I do sympathize with the policy, I oppose it.
I do not think anyone can doubt the importance of learning science and math. From the liberal education perspective, there are not too many other subjects that can liberate the mind the way science and math do. In terms of practicality, it offers a wide range of rewarding career choices.
To be good at both, one has to comprehend various scientific and mathematical concepts. The foundational lessons especially are crucial in allowing students to understand other more complex ideas. In both subjects, each concept is built upon an earlier concept. Failure to comprehend basic lessons will cause the student to struggle later. In a system where a student largely progresses based on his or her age, this can bring about a devastating snowball effect.
Learning those lessons can be harder than it is when both subjects are taught in a language that students struggle to master in the first place. That presents a two-layer barrier to mastering those basic scientific and mathematical concepts.
The language barrier adds to the frustration which can kill schoolchildren’s interest in science and math before the interest has a chance to bloom.
For many children from middle and upper-class families, English comprehension skills are not likely to be a problem. That is not true for the rest.
Consider a proxy to the mastery of the English language. Typically, families with higher incomes can be expected to have children who are better at English than those belonging to lower-income families. Here are the numbers. Based on the 10th Malaysia Plan, nearly 53% of households earned a monthly income of less than RM3,000 in 2009; about 66% earned less than RM4,000 a month; close to 76% earned less than RM5,000 a month.
The figures have probably improved since 2009. After all, 2009 was a recession year and we have recovered from that recession. Nevertheless, it is likely that a significant number of households still do not earn too much. This is a structural economic issue and such issues do not just change significantly in three years.
Notwithstanding the technical concerns about the evolution of household income over the past three years, that possibly means that more than half the children in Malaysia may have trouble with English. If PPSMI is to be continued in its blanket fashion as it was enforced earlier, that may lead to the making of a lost generation in terms of science and math education. As for the level of English, I am unsure if science and math classes are the place to learn English grammar, vocabulary and comprehension skills.
While I oppose PPSMI, that does not mean I think English is unimportant. I live in corporate Malaysia and in corporate Malaysia, English is the national language and not Malay. I know English is important. The inability to speak and write in English will come at a very great cost for fresh graduates and labor market veterans alike. I do believe that the teaching of English should be emphasized in all schools and at the early stages. The barrier to learning English should be reduced.
What PPSMI does to many students instead is that one, it does not reduce barriers in learning English – one does not learn grammar, vocabulary and comprehension skills in science and math classes – and two, it erects barriers to learning science and math for underprivileged children.
The point is that the teaching of English should not come at the expense of learning science and math.
At the very least, do not force students with a weak grasp of English to study science and math in English. Instead, let them improve their English in and outside of classes and let them learn science and math in the medium they understand best.
For students who already have a good command of English, let them study science, math and perhaps other subjects as well in English.