Why the need to go English

THIS issue of teaching Science and Mathematics in English has been discussed, debated, demonstrated against, and aired for and against in letters to the press that we seem to have worked ourselves to near-frenzy. Let us calm down and consider what is at stake. We Malaysians had a strong foundation in the English language until the mid-1970s when the medium of instruction was switched from English to Bahasa Malaysia. Thirty years after that change, which was made under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the then Minister of Education, the general level of English proficiency and, arguably, the standard of education, declined alarmingly. The thought of re-introducing Englishmedium schools is now finding growing appeal. In 2003, a year before he stepped down as the PM, Dr Mahathir partly reversed his action of 30 years ago by introducing PPSMI , starting with Standard One in 2003. There has always been opposition to PPSMI from certain quarters. The reasons include that English is a colonial baggage, and that a person with an English-language education is not patriotic or nationalistic. Our Tunku Abdul Rahman and all our other Prime Ministers and world leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Nelson Mandela were patriotic despite their having been wholly or largely English-educated. It was also argued that Bahasa Malaysia will be marginalised. Most continental Europeans learn English in school to a high level of proficiency, yet they remain Dutch, Danes, Swedes or Germans in language and culture. The opposition to the English language does not open us Malaysians to an increasingly globalised word. Surely an insular stance is no strategy for producing towering Malays and Malaysians! The opposition has been directed against the English language in general, but we are talking about the use of English in the teaching of Science and Mathematics, not in the teaching of all subjects. Without a competence in English for Science and Mathematicss, we would have to use translations. But translations are a poor alternative as they are not always good or accurate and they need people who are good at both English and Malay, on top of being knowledgeable in their field and there are few such people.

Scientists and mathematicians of note would prefer to make a name for themselves in their field rather than in doing translations. And good translations will always be late in becoming available. Has the experiment come full cycle? Under PPSMI, students beginning with Standard One in 2003 would sit for the SPM examination in 2013. But now, midway through the programme, the policy is being re-examined. We have not produced even one cohort of students who had studied Science and Maths wholly in English and the performance data for such cohort will be available only after the SPM examination in 2013. Even then, we shall have only one PPSMI cohort to compare against the many previous cohorts from the fully Bahasa Malaysia stream. Comparing a single variate (performance data in this case) against a sample of variates is not a good basis for comparison. Then again, with one variate from which to draw any inference, we cannot comment on a trend whether there is a decline or improvement in performance. The experiment has not come through one cycle. It should go through a few more cycles to provide sufficient data for a statistical analysis. Changing the PPSMI policy will produce only confused students for those caught midway. The situation is not a move to marginalise Bahasa Malaysia but rather a strategy to provide our students with the best tool, that is English, to learn Science and Mathematics. Without this tool, our students will largely have to make do with translations, with their inherent shortcomings. Our future generations may not be able to walk alongside the Science and Maths bigwigs on the world stage, they will merely trail behind. They will forever have to make the effort to catch up.

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