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The language of equality

(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.

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15 Responses to “The language of equality”

  1. Jambala says:

    Technical english is very different from literature english!

  2. Azmi says:

    Such a clear and coherent piece. I wish everyone would read the article.

  3. Andrew I says:

    “We do not and cannot become English people by speaking or reading English.”

    Unfortunately, some people don’t seem to be able to draw that line. MJ didn’t help. After singing black or white and looking at the man in the mirror, we can safely say that he made that change.

    Some who marry foreigners of the Western kind seem to think others will suddenly become afflicted by colour blindness.

    I’m glad I can turn it on and off. Once I was asked for some street directions and due to my having a bad hair day, I replied: no speak de ingris.


  4. Andrew I says:

    p.s. I just checked. It’s not always “i” before “e” except after “c”, lah.

    It’s forEIgners.

    English is hard, innit?

  5. Nicholas Aw says:

    Thank you WCH for a great article.

    The bone of contention here is not being against the use of the mother tongue or English to teach Math and Science. The worrying factor is the policy change made haphazardly although to the government, it would say that much thought and study have been given before the decision to change was made.

    Since the government has decided on this policy change there is nothing much that we can do. Even if we were to debate until the cows come home, history in the making will not be changed.

    The worry of many parents especially those who want ETeMS or PPSMI to stay is a Catch-22 situation. Students who are learning Math and Science in primary school now have to use Bahasa Melayu (or is it Bahasa Malaysia?) when they enter secondary school. This switch will create a lot of confusion.

    Of course there will be no perfect solution to overcome this problem but perhaps the better way would be to allow those already in the system (current Primary One to Upper Secondary) to finish Math and Science in English until they leave school.

    The government can still resort to this method of implementation without losing face. The teaching of Math and Science in the mother tongue or BM can even start with Primary One as early as next year, that is, if the schools are ready for it. I believe that this is a win-win situation for both the government and the people.

  6. Main says:

    Let us feel openly about what is being done in the education fraternity. The uniformity exists in ourselves. Let’s realise this in a real world and not mingle in uncertain discussions whereby a need is being pushed as the main subject, forgoing other more important factors. It’s in the citizens that lies the will and zest to actually realise what uniformity is all about.

  7. Well, what about the millions of Malaysians whose first language isn’t Malay? Do they have difficulties in learning Science and Maths when it is not in their mother tongue?

    Sure, Malay is the national language. But we’ve got to admit that there are many Chinese and Indian Malaysians who don’t speak Malay at home or while growing up. That’s where many of them pick up Malay, in school. And yet, they still manage to rough it out learning those subjects in that language.

    So, when the teaching of the English language is effectively and properly taught in early school years, I do not see a problem with kids learning Science and Maths in that language later on in their school life.

    The problem now is that we do not have quality teachers who are proficient enough in English to teach Science and Maths. But by abolishing the PPSMI, wouldn’t this be a perpetual contributor to the problem when some of the kids today will eventually become teachers one day?

  8. alias says:

    To Andrew:

    The phrase ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ is a rule applied to words like ‘receipt’, ‘conceive’ and ‘conceit’ where, if the letter ‘c’ precedes the letters ‘i’ and ‘e’, then the sequence of the letters would be ‘c’ – ‘e’, followed by the ‘i’.

    In words like ‘piece’ and ‘foreigner’, where the letter ‘c’ is absent, then the letter ‘i’ precedes the ‘e’.

    In other words, the phrase means that the ‘i’ always comes before ‘e’ UNLESS the letter ‘c’ comes before the both of them.

    Nope, learning English is NOT difficult. It just needs, like in any subject, some creativity to make things fun.

    I wonder why people have not realised that it was our dear Dr M who initiated the switch from English to BM (to get the popular vote?) when he was the minister of education in the mid 70’s, when Tun Razak was PM. That very decision is the root cause of the decline of the English language in Malaysia!!

    I would like The Nut Graph to please do some research and publish an article on this! Not many know this fact and that’s why today, Dr M is hailed as the ‘hero’ who opposes the reversal of the PPSMI policy.

    He started the whole circus!!!

  9. kahseng says:

    There is a large segment of Malaysian society of all ethnic backgrounds whose mother tongue is English.

    They meekly accepted then Education Minister Dr M’s destruction of the English-stream primary schools in mid-1970. Now they seem to be taking out their frustration on Chinese vernacular primary schools, consciously or unconsciously helping Umno to destroy vernacular schools.

    What they should do is not to bully a fellow victim of an authoritarian education policy. What they should do is take a cue from the March 2008 elections, and stand up against Umno nationalists, and demand the re-activation of English stream national primary and high schools.

    As Chin Huat pointed out, Chinese vernacular school supporters should also support such efforts to re-establish English stream schools.

    Without English stream primary schools, many possible negative scenarios will develop. First, vernacular schools will face enrolment pressure. Second, the pressure to go for international schools can only mean more “class” segregation and higher family costs. Third, vernacular and national schools will miss [out on] some of the competition from English-stream schools [that] they need to improve themselves. Fourth, [the] vernacular school segment will continue to face Umno nationalist pressure because it stands alone.

    Then there is the secondary school language issue. Under this reversal, the vernacular primary school leavers will find their outlook clouded, by being forced to study high-school math and science in Malay.

    Switching from Chinese to English will take the same or less effort then switching to Malay, because more vernacular Chinese school children are in urbanised areas than national school children. So the net effect is a loss of opportunity and increase in personal cost for switching to Malay (rather than English) in high schools, and increased chance of dropping out of high school.

    There is also a loss-of-hope factor, because many of them cannot expect to be permitted into local universities, and would have poorer Engilsh command that they cannot secure financial aid from foreign universities.

    If the Chinese vernacular supporters would support the English stream primary schools, then there is an increased chance that high schools will be able to teach math and science in English.

    Amidst all these arguments, we need to recognise that language medium functions differently in primary school children than in high school children.

    In primary school, studying in mother tongue is important because mother tongue serves as cognitive hand and fingers to grope around the real world, and to extend family support.

    By Standard 5 or 6 (coincidentally when boys seem to catch up [with] girls in language-intensive subjects), children seem to go through a transformation in language handling capability. It is also [at] this stage when children seem to start enjoying reading in a second language.

    By high school, language becomes almost just another logical tool, like a cognitive pencil and laptop.

    So switching from mother tongue in primary school to second language in secondary school is much less disruptive to learning. But switching or continuing into Malay rather than English will cost many of them future opportunities.

  10. pak yeh says:

    This debate about maths and science in English is a zero sum or Zen debate. It does not matter which language you use as long as you master the language. The problem is when English teachers are so poor in English that students cannot master the English language, what more master maths and science.

  11. simon teoh says:

    I generally disagree with this article although there are some truths in it.

    In the short term, yes, I agree with Chin Huat. That’s because the real issue is about implementation, not about policy.

    Dr M’s policy on the importance of English was correct. His fatal mistake was the haste and poor execution, like most other government policies unfortunately. And I would argue that that’s due to our weak civil service [but] that’s another issue to deal [with] separately.

    Instead of theorising, let’s take a look at our neighbour, Singapore. When it chose to use English as the unifying language and medium of instruction, it was relatively backward, too with multiple languages spoken and practised and a GDP/capita not too far from where we are today. So, it wasn’t a class bias as such. But look at where it is today.

    Go and ask any Malaysian who is studying in Singapore (or his/[her] parent), whether in primary, seconday or in tertiary school. If he [or she] came from a non-English [speaking] background in primary or secondary [school] and if he [or she] could turn back the clock, ask him [or her] which language would he [or she] choose to learn in, especally for technical subjects? Go ask the thousands of Johorean Chinese-, Malay- or Tamil-educated parents why they send their kids across the border to learn in English?

    What we need is a goal and a game plan to get there. Dr M’s goal was correct — globalisation is narrowing the field for the number of technical languages. I doubt anyone who’s seen the world can doubt that the question is: how do we get there?

    One [thing} I agree [about] with Chin Huat is to allow an English stream. It meets the demands [of] city folks of all colours, and it also gives an option for the urban folks from smaller towns, and rural folks.

    I believe in the market and over time, the demand will grow when people see the need. Then allow secondary level science and math [to] be taught in English across the board. And once parents and students are more comfortable, bring it on in primary and pre-school.

    The other pillar in the phased approach is on the supply side. We currently don’t have the capability for Dr M’s policy. Teachers, text books, teaching materials take time. We need a robust system to train the trainers, and then train the teachers to implement [the policy]. We can supplement and quicken this by employing our retired teachers who came from the time when English was the medium of instruction for most schools (i.e. pre-1973/75?). Do this quickly before they get too old to teach and help. This will be cheaper than sending batches of teachers overseas. Maybe, hire a few Indian, Singaporean, Pakistani and other sub-continent teachers who have experience teaching in English as well.

    The ministry has given three years to reverse the current policy. Maybe, that time can be spent to think of how to better implement and execute [in order] to reach the goal. It’s easily a six to ten year goal, so it’s better to start now than later.

  12. linguisticinternationalist says:

    The news just out…. the use of BM will be 100% by 2012. In the year 2012, on 21 Dec to be exact, all international languages will be replaced by BM and all medical and scientific inventions will be by Malaysians.

    Airports all over the world will have BM as the standard language. BM will be used as the language of the internet and the rest of the world will be forced to learn BM. In addition, the ringgit will become the new world currency and the United Nations HQ will be moved to KLCC.

    BN will change its name to BA (Barisan Antarabangsa) as it forms the first united world government. In return for taking on this heavy responsibility, all bumiputera will have special rights, by which they can buy property at a discount anywhere in the world, where they have free travel on all international airlines and free higher education at any college or university. They will also only require a special IC to travel freely anywhere and be accorded first class service and cheaper rates from all hotels, restaurants and travel services.

  13. Andrew I says:

    Erm, ‘e’ precedes ‘i’ you mean, alias, in ‘foreign’?

    I’m getting a headache. I usually take the easy way out by clicking the dictionary icon.

  14. Andrew I says:

    To linguisticinternationalist, if the report is indeed true, then we would be expected to produce our paspot to immigressen before taking our beg through kastam at say, Heathrow?


  15. chinhuatw says:

    @Simon Teoh,

    The introduction of English as the common language was not without a class bias. Many Hokkien-speaking Singaporeans still feel that they are sidelined by the English-speaking elites. Such discontent has been reflected in previous general elections.

    Language implies power. We can’t run away from that.

    The only way to be fair to all is to give them choices. If people then choose to learn in English despite their initial difficulties, then you don’t have complaints because they choose so. That’s what happened to the “anglisisation” of many first-generation English-speakers in the colonial days.

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