Teaching Maths and Science in English – Harping on the Wrong Thing!


There is a raging debate over using English to teach Maths and Science.  There was a public demonstration against this recently although silenced by the police.  Literary laureate and other political figures had led the protest.

More submissions in various blogs have attempted to present views from both sides of the divide.  Malaysia Today carried various postings to allow readers to appreciate the pros and cons.

If we are not aware, long, long ago, prior to our independence, Maths and Science were taught in English all the way until 1969.  These subjects were then taught in Malay since 1970 until 2003 when the the Ministry of Education decided to revert back to using English again.

After 5 years of this implementation, there are mixed results although the recent STPM exams showed that between 71% and 89% of students chose to answer in English (read here).

The argument that Malay will lose its status as a national language is baloney.  The argument that English will be improved is also absurd.  Using English to teach Maths and Science will not help students to improve their language skills and neither will it cause Malay to be discarded in its importance.

One of the more pragmatic argument for using English presented came from Tun M (read here) and he did so with sound reasoning.  Most of the documents and references published from international subject matter experts are all in English and we attempt to translate them into Malay.  Much of the terminology in Science and Maths cannot be properly translated into Malay.  We will have to invent new Malay words that sound like the English words e.g. definition (Eng) vs definasi (Mal).

We have all missed the point here focusing on the medium of instruction, English, rather than the objective of the instruction – Maths and Science knowledge.  We are fighting about the means and forgot the end of the matter.

We are concerned that students from rural areas are unable to cope with learning Maths and Science in English.  The complaint is that their handle of the English language is poor and hence, they suffer in learning the subjects of Maths and Science.

Perhaps the issue to focus on is not the medium of instruction of English but rather the capability of teachers in the subject matter as well as their proficiency in using English to impart knowledge.

In 1970 when Maths and Science along with the other subjects were to be taught in Malay, many teachers struggled in their classes because their proficiency in the language was not up to par.  The good teachers pressed on and figured out how to best use their limited knowledge of Malay to ensure their students learn the subjects to the highest level.

Today, we have the same situation where teachers struggle to teach in English when their proficiency in the language is still poor.  But good teachers will always find a way to impart their knowledge and not let a medium of language instruction prevent that from happening.

Unless these teachers are not proficient in their own expert subjects and a poor handle of the English language will make things worse, expose their weakness in Maths and Science, and now can blame it on English for their own slack.

Certainly, this is not about all teachers but it is my guess that blaming English is a cover up for lack of Maths and Science knowledge.  If we are engrossed in putting the blame in using English after 5 years of implementation, then we are not serious about our children learning Maths and Science properly.

The Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) recently published their 3rd installment and Malaysia showed a down trend, something that many are concerned.  Read here for more.  Lim Kit Siang had something to say about this, of course (read here).  He saw the decline in the few years TIMSS did the reports and suggested that the Minster of Education should explain and that our Minister did not.

So, shouldn’t we focus on improving the Maths and Science skills of our children rather than beating the language drum without realizing that it’s quite inevitable.  Our children will go into universities around the world and even in Malaysia and these higher learning institutions teach in English.  Their libraries are filled with English texts.  It’s really putting our medium of instruction argument to a rest and focusing on improving the students Maths and Science.

Let’s not forget the end and miss the forest for the trees.  Fix the teachers to fix the students.  And fix the students but not the language.  Strengthen language study skills including literature.  Have them speak more and want to speak more.  Without encouraging the personal use of English, they won’t improve in English at all.  Parents play a very important role to encourage the language skills of their children and should not relegate that all to the teachers and the Ministry of Education.

For now, just focus on improving Maths and Science and not fight about the medium of instruction.

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