(Background pic by Sophokles; Queen Elizabeth I pic public domain. Source: Wiki commons)
NOT surprisingly, the debate on the reversal of the English for Teaching Science and Mathematics (known by its Malay acronym PPSMI) policy is largely framed as a zero-sum choice between English and the so-called “mother tongue” languages. Many opponents of the reversal lament that this would cost Malaysia global competitiveness. It’s as though the population is so homogenous that the widened and deepened use of a single language would make everyone a winner.
While the importance of English in this globalised age is indisputable, the simplistic view that there can be a one-size-fits-all solution is flawed. The core argument for teaching Science and Mathematics in English is that language facilitates learning. So, if you can’t understand scientific journals in English, you can’t learn the scientific knowledge imparted through these journals.
However, this also means, all things being equal, that one learns best in the language one has the best command of. So, if your command of English is too poor for you understand what your teacher says, you won’t learn anything. It would therefore be irrelevant if more knowledge was generated in English than in other languages. And you would benefit more by learning in your first language, even if you would have to rely on translations to access the latest information. This is, incidentally, the pedagogical argument of the pro-”mother-tongue” camp.
The “mother-tongue” camp, of course, has their socio-linguistic argument. They relate the development and functioning of language and its cultural significance to ethno-national identity. I exclude this argument here as it warrants a separate discussion in its own right.
So, the pro-English and pro-”mother tongue” camps — for ease of reference — actually begin with the same premise but come to different conclusions.
The pro-English camp has an implicit assumption: that everyone can quickly pick up English if they learn in an English-speaking environment. Many advocates have backed their claim with their own experience of coming from non-English-speaking families, yet surviving and mastering English eventually. They are not being dishonest.
However, there is, technically speaking, a self-selection bias. They are the winners. What about their schoolmates who did not make it because of their lack of command over the language? Not recognising diversity in the learning ability of students, which could very much be the outcome of socioeconomic class and geographical location, is the most fundamental flaw in the pro-English argument.
To put it crudely, the pro-English camp has a class bias and refuses to admit it.
What is mother tongue?
International Mother Tongue Language Day monument in Sydney, Australia. Why can’t we celebrate
our diversity of language instead of quibbling over it? (Public domain; Wiki commons)
Does that mean the latest policy reversal is justified? No. I purposely use quotation marks for the pro-”mother tongue” camp because they lead us to assume that English is not a mother tongue.
The term “mother tongue” can mean two things: your first language, or your ethnic ancestor’s tongue. Now, if a kid grows up listening, speaking, reading and writing English as his or her first language, is English not his or her mother tongue?
Let’s say we argue for Malay-speaking, Chinese-speaking and Tamil-speaking students to be entitled to learn in their mother tongue, which is also their first language, so that they pick up knowledge most effectively. Why should an English-speaking kid be denied this right as well?
If the merit of the pro-”mother tongue” argument is the recognition of individual differences which facilitates equality in education, why should English-speaking children suffer discrimination? If the one-size-fits-all language switch is an injustice for non-English-speaking students, is the reversal now not an injustice for English-speaking students?
I find the justification of either policy by invoking majority support appalling. So what if 60% support either this or that language? Must the remaining 40% be sacrificed? If the majority support were as high as 85%, would the imposition of the majority’s preference be fair to the remaining 15%? And if we knew that 15% of students were to underperform in certain settings, should we still insist on uniformity because it is all right to sacrifice the minority?
Going beyond the issue of language, doesn’t insensitivity about individual differences contribute to so many students dropping out in secondary schools? Shouldn’t equality be one of the priorities in education? How can we promote equality without providing freedom? Who are we — whether “we” are the state, politicians, opinion leaders, parents, or even students — to dictate one single way for all students to learn?
The debate on the language policy should move on beyond this zero-sum game mentality. It must move beyond grandstanding on the greater good of the nation or community when individual differences in abilities and aspirations are ignored or suppressed.
Crooked policies cannot stand
Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad wronged half a generation of students by hastily imposing an ill-planned policy in 2002. While the current reversal by Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is also deeply flawed, we must not let Mahathir take us for a ride in his zest to save his “I-know-what’s-best-for-you” legacies. Like the crooked bridge to Singapore, the PPSMI should also go.
Concept sketch of the Singapore-Malaysia crooked bridge
The way forward is to allow for the establishment of English-stream schools for parents and students who prefer this. The pro-”mother tongue” camp has a moral responsibility to support the establishment of English schools if their argument is really about education: namely, the effectiveness of learning through one’s first language. They must overcome any obsession that one must speak the tongue of one’s ethnic ancestors. We do not and cannot become English people by speaking or reading English.
And even if a Malaysian spoke the Queen’s English better than his or her ancestor’s tongue, and saw himself or herself as more English than Malay, Chinese or Indian Malaysian, should this personal choice not be respected? Let us not forget that many Eurasian and Indian-Christian Malaysians have been English speakers for generations. No one should force them to adopt Malay, Kristang, Tamil or any other language as their “mother tongue”.
Our obsession in linguistic uniformity is perhaps not too different from the obsession in religious uniformity that is the norm in almost all societies at certain points in time. One day, our descendants will perhaps read our grandstanding today on suppressing the freedom of language with incomprehension, the way many of us see the suppression of religious freedom.
For now, let’s ponder on this: “Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve” (Qur’an, Surah al-Kahf, 18:29). If even the Qur’an allows a person to disbelieve even in God, why can’t we be allowed to disbelieve in English or “mother tongue” languages?
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. A product of “divisive” Chinese-language education, he loves English as the language John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson used to articulate and advocate freedom. He loathes linguistic authoritarianism.