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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

It’s just another matter of choice


The importance of the English Language has become a hot topic and issues discussed before are coming to the forefront again.

AT an Indian community leaders meeting in 2009, it was passionately argued why Science and Mathematics should be taught in Tamil and not English, as was the case in our schools from 2003 until repealed six years later.

Midway, a participant stood up and brought the heated debate to a standstill. “Why are you all debating in English? Speak in Tamil!” she said.

Very few among the debaters could articulate as confidently in Tamil, which goes to show that their mastery of English had propelled them in their jobs, career and life to the extent that many were successful.

Despite strong opposition from mainly parents, the Government reversed the “teaching Science and Maths in English” policy, better known as PPSMI, in favour of teaching in the pupil’s mother tongue in primary and Bahasa Malaysia in secondary schools.

Lately there is a move back towards English, not totally, but in a more intelligent way by providing alternatives for parents who want their children to be taught the subjects in English.

Schools tailored to teach in English are being considered to cater for parents who want it.

Providing alternatives is a key component of a fair, just and democratic education system because it gives choices for parents.

Most parents want their children to get a modern education that arms them to face and survive in a tough competitive world.

Parents are upset those choices and flexibilities are currently missing.

They say today’s globalised world is ruled by English, the language that the English colonial masters had spread across the world first through conquest and later through trade, economic development and promotion of education.

For long, education in English was elitist and enjoyed by the political elite, but later it spread to the masses through missionary schools and government support for a mass schooling system.

The process took several centuries and finally an English-speaking world took shape.

As the diverse world continued to globalise, it needed a common language and English became that language, but former colonies now independent were left grappling over the medium of instruction in their school system – whether to continue with the inherited English language or switch to the native language.

At one time or other, across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the issue had raged.

Societies had to variously adapt to meet demands for native language as an instruction medium and the need to master English for self-advancement and for social and economic advancement.

Some African societies stuck with English and eventually became English proficient and have produced great scholars, novelists and poets whose influence goes beyond their native societies because of their mastery of the language.

A classic example is the Nigerian master Chinua Achebe.

This is not to say that non-English speaking societies have not produced equally great thinkers.

A good example is Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, who wrote in Arabic to win the 1988 Nobel prize for literature.

Some societies have found ingenious ways to promote their native language and English, like in Hong Kong where primary education is in Mandarin but English plays a major part in secondary education.

Ours have been a brave exercise in reversing the English medium to fully Bahasa Malaysia.

While English is taught, its mastery has been seriously hampered, especially among students from working-class families.

Numerous studies shows that our graduates are leaving colleges and universities without a grasp of English and facing problems finding jobs.

In 2003 the Government sought to reverse the damage and improve the sciences by teaching science and mathematics in English, a programme known as PPSMI.

Millions of ringgit were spent and students and teachers pressed into the scheme, with manuals being produced and high technology brought into play.

PPSMI was heavily criticised by many who wanted the subjects taught in the mother tongue, i.e. Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin and Tamil, instead of English.

The mother tongue proponents, who were usually at odds with each other, were united against the “return of English”.

In 2009 the decision was made to revert the teaching of the two subjects to Bahasa Malaysia in national schools and mother tongue languages in national-type schools from 2012.

However, parents have been consistently arguing otherwise and even took to demonstrating to make the point that instruction in English is beneficial and that they should be heard and their needs satisfied.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, in a Facebook encounter with fans last week, was asked about PPSMI.

He responded by saying that a system, where some schools can teach the subjects in English while others teach in the mother tongue, was being studied.

While uniformity and national integration are the key elements of our education system, the world view has changed to seeing diversity and pluralism as key characteristics of an effective education system.

Parents know this more than anybody else and that’s why they have been pressing for an English alternative for those who want it – and there are many.