Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Master English by learning English, not others

I remember being taught to pass exams. I remember being taught the importance of the almighty "A". I remember being taught to memorise facts. I remember being taught. I do not remember learning. I do not remember having to think. I do not remember why.

Master English by learning English, not others


OVER the last many months, the debate concerning the teaching of science and mathematics has once again dominated our discourse. The letters pages in our many newspapers rife with opinions and commentary. Critical notes from teachers, students, parents and politicians. Barely a day goes by without some recommendation on how to remedy the situation; without some novel solution.

So let me get it out of the way. Here are my two cents:

I believe that it is necessary for science and mathematics to be taught in Bahasa Malaysia. There, I said it. I do not say it out of sentimentality. Neither does it stem from some misplaced sense of national pride. My reasons may be dispassionate, but they are practical.

The facts are these:

- The teaching of science and mathematics in English does not serve to improve one's command of the language. The teaching of English does that. The understanding of its structure and rules, the immersion in its literature, the active encouragement of its use. There is no easy out. There is no shortcut. No killing of two birds with one stone. And while our students may now be fluent in the technobabble that is common to these subjects, their English language skills remain wanting.

- There are those who insist that after 11 years of science and mathematics in Bahasa Malaysia, our students find it difficult to cope when they go abroad to further their studies. That they find it impossible to handle the transition between the two languages. That it in fact causes them to lag behind. I disagree.

I believe that if you possess the intellectual capacity to actually make it to a university, then those skills should provide you with the competence to make the shift from one language to another. Besides, so many of the technical terms are in fact loaned words.

English terms that are magically transformed into Bahasa Malaysia merely by virtue of their spelling. "F" instead of "PH", "SIN" instead of "SYN", lose the "H" and you get "fotosintesis". One would never have to grapple to decipher "experiment" from "eksperimen". It isn't like we are actually using the word "ujikaji".

- I believe that children achieve a better understanding when taught in their mother tongues. They can better grasp abstract concepts. For it is after all much easier when relating to the familiar. In fact, there is data indicating that the top 10 countries that have excelled in the International Olympiad in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology are those using their mother tongue as the medium of instruction. The teaching of science and mathematics in Bahasa Malaysia does not encumber its understanding. It may in fact do the very opposite.

- It is the practical application of our education that is of the utmost importance. For what is the point of having a doctor returning home to practise medicine and being unable to communicate with his patients? How would he take their medical history? How would he even begin to explain to them what was wrong? Through a translator? What is the point of attaining all of that knowledge and then not being able to pass it on to your own people, in your own language? It is insulting. Really.

But there is more to the problems that plague our education system than just the language in which we are taught. It is merely a distraction from all that really ails us. Our system is broken, in that it fails to educate our youth, let alone inspire them. We are shut up in our schools and in our colleges for years, and come out in the end with little else than a brief grasp of language and some memory of the thoughts of other men.

For 11 years, I, too, was held captive, cold irons bound, in the claustrophobic confines of the Kurikulum Bersepadu. My dreams tortured by the spectre of Afonso de Albuquerque. His disembodied head, muttering in Portuguese, insisting, over and over again, that his name is in fact pronounced: "Al-Buh-Kur-Kee".

I can barely call to mind all the things I was taught in school. I remember being bored. It is the one compelling memory of those days. I remember being bored and I remember being sweaty.

I remember being cooped up in a little room with rickety chairs and a squeaky ceiling fan. I remember 44 other people. I don't remember their names or their faces but I remember their smells. I remember that cleaning the blackboard after class would give me an asthma attack.

I would sneak storybooks into school, hiding them between textbooks, in those small spaces underneath those rotten wooden desks. I would read them, surreptitiously, while the rest of the class struggled with the base six number system. They were my only escape. The only way I could endure my sentence. Year after year, with no early reprieve for good behaviour.

I remember being taught to pass exams. I remember being taught the importance of the almighty "A". I remember being taught to memorise facts. I remember being taught. I do not remember learning. I do not remember having to think. I do not remember why.

It is an unfortunate truth, but our education system gives birth to drones. Human computers that are able to regurgitate, with great efficiency and accuracy, everything that has been fed to them. And little else.

Therein lies our greatest failing.



Azman said...

I agree with you 100%.
My son is sitting for UPSR this year. I pity him struggling just to understand the questions whereby he can actually do the calculations easily after I explained to him(sometimes I myself got confused!).
I truly understand the importance of English, but what our government is doing is actually using maths to teach english, and that is very wrong. For me math is still math, that is ability to count, no matter what lingo you use. The situation is even worse when the teachers themselves have poorer command in english.I hope our goverment come to their senses before my other child suffer the same fate.

Jiziah said...

I disagree...

I was taught Science and Mathematics in English and had no problems with the learning of the two subjects. The rationale is not only to master English but also the writing of academic journals and scientific journals at the international level is in English.

Furthermore, a competency and proficiency in English and other languages will give us the competitive edge at the International level...and English is an International language worldwide.

The translation of scientific and technical materials into Bahasa Melayu could NOT keep pace with the demand for the materials and the advancement in the fields..

I say...what have we to lose...use the English language and learn other languages and we will be richer in knowledge for that...

dato said...

So Jiziah...if one only know bahasa Malaysia and doesn't know English, he/she should miss out on learning math and science? That is what we may loose, people with talents in math & science, yet left out because they didn't learn English as babies. Not everybody know English, and I'm not talking just about Malaysian kids...many talented adults elsewhere don't either. Please don't talk about international language when we are talking about year 1, 2, 3...I can personally testify learning math & science in BM as children does not hamper mastering English later in life....Early years of schooling should focus on the foundations. Say someone teach you how to count, but the instruction is in Swahili....you know how to count, but wouldn't you wish someone teach you Swahili first.
Teach good english first to these kids, and they will be able to understand any subjects under the sun in English later. Don't make them wait until they know English before they can learn math & science. There shouldn't be big gap between what the children know and where the teaching begins in school.

Piggy Singh said...

Dear Sir,

If that had been the case, the problem about poor command of english particularly among Malays should have been solved. Learning English as a subject itself does not offer much challenge.

A few years ago the ministry introduced EST, or scientific English. It does help much either as teachers who are teaching the subject in majority do not have science background.

You have your own believe and I do have mine, rather an experience. I found that students who are learning science in English have indirectly enriched their vocabularies and are given more exposure to construct sentences in English, in which I myself found it difficult to have done so during my school years.

There is a generation of youths that in majority have ignored the importance of English in schools. And sadly their complain currently is the same, failing interviews with established companies due to poor English.