Speaking in tongues

DEC 13 — When Chinese educationists finally make up their mind to protest against English as a medium of instruction for Science and Mathematics, one hopes all the placards and banners will be in Chinese characters.

Any other language or script would scuttle their protest.

But then again, any other language and script would enable the rest of Malaysians to understand the depth of their anger and desire to ensure Chinese Malaysians get the full benefits of mother-tongue education.  To recap, Malaysia introduced teaching Science and Mathematics in English in 2003 in efforts to stem deteriorating standards of the language.

Of course, the simple thing was to make English a compulsory subject but education and language are touchy subjects in Malaysia with both the Malay and Chinese communities already up in arms over the language switch for the two subjects. For the Malays, English is an affront to the sovereignty of the country and community while for the Chinese, Mandarin is integral to preserving culture and identity despite most only speak in dialects.

The threat to protest came last week from Ong Chiaw Chuan, president of Jiao Zong, the United Chinese School Teachers Association, ahead of an Education Ministry roundtable discussion on the issue in middle December. Jiao Zong, together with Dong Zong, or the United Chinese School Committees Association, together make up Dong Jiao Zong (DJZ) that represents teachers, community leaders and administrators in some 1,200 Chinese primary schools.

DJZ has been a vocal opponent of using English to teach maths and science since the policy was started in 2003, saying it erodes the learning of Mandarin. Previously, the subjects were taught in Malay in national schools, and in Mandarin and Tamil in the respective vernacular schools.

Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has dismissed their threat, noting that in the second and fourth roundtable discussions held on Aug 27 and Oct 21 respectively, most of the participants, including DJZ  and educational and cultural groups from other races, political parties, academics and former education officers, were not in favour of the “go English” policy.

Just like the touchy subject of race relations in Malaysia, the heated and public debate over the “go English” policy reflects a widening of public space for such subjects but a lack of statesmanship to solve the issues.

English, like other languages, is for communication. Over the years, standards in written and spoken English has slipped and the mobile phone texting has exacerbated the situation as most rely on acronyms and abbreviations to push their point and message across. The government, under former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, figured that teaching Science and Mathematics in English was linguistically, technically and politically easier than making it a mandatory pass for examinations.

Although no one disputes the necessity of learning English, they are just disputing using it for teaching Science and Mathematics. And there does not seem to be any solution to the issue as it has become a zero-sum game. Apart from declaring that most students are now taking examinations in English for both subjects, the Ministry has not provided details of the language switch effectiveness.

Imagine the uproar then before it began. Imagine the uproar now five years later.

But most of all, imagine vernacular school educationists making their point in their own language, like chickens talking to ducks. They have an important message but won’t communicate in a common language.

Which is precisely the point for using English. Everyone understands. Everyone gets the point.


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