19 January, 2008

Immersion is a difficult lesson

It was an ambitious plan pushed through by Malaysia's leader, Mahathir Mohamad, despite fierce opposition. Five years on the decision that all Malaysian children should be taught maths and science in English still causes heated debate.

With an election looming, nationalist politicians are again seizing on the charged issue of language in an ethnically diverse country of indigenous Malays, Chinese and Indian Tamils. In such a vital area everyone wants to be heard: newspaper letters pages are bursting with all shades of opinion for and against the policy.

Few doubt the wisdom that led Mahathir to his U-turn, reintroducing the language of the old colonial masters nearly 30 years after he, as the nationalist education minister, scrapped English-medium teaching in schools. He recognised his nation was falling behind in the globalised world and made an abrupt switch to try to redress the balance.

Yet the suddenness of the change, which led to the introduction of English maths and science teaching from primary level within just six months of the decision, seems to have played into the hands of the policy's opponents.

Even its advocates concede that teacher training to instruct in English and the availability of suitable course material have been patchy. Rural areas - where nationalist politicians trade on parents' disquiet - fared worst as English remains more of a foreign language there; in more sophisticated urban areas it is a second language to the mother tongue.

But after five years the government and most educationists accept it is still early in such a radical experiment. Despite strong opposition, even in the government's own ranks, the education minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein has declared it will remain in place for now. Education professionals argue it needs a full 11-year cycle of primary and secondary teaching to gauge success or failure.

Improving English standards, which had declined, was the obvious goal. But by using the concept of Content and Language Integrated Teaching (Clil) the aim was to give access to knowledge in maths and science. It is argued that Bahasa Malay failed to convey meaning precisely in translations from papers in English, if they were translated at all.

Educationists point to the success of immersion teaching techniques in Canada, where children whose mother tongue is English are taught subjects in French, Canada's other language.

"Cognitively there is no problem with children learning in a bilingual environment," said Professor Andy Kirkpatrick, an expert in English language training at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. "Most evidence shows that it is good for children. Malay and English are not that separate."

By enhancing the English capabilities of students and graduates, Mahathir sought to give Malaysia an advantage in a competitive world. He glanced enviously at former colonies such as Singapore and India, which have made huge strides in the knowledge economy because of their familiarity with English.

Professor Saran Kaur Gill, deputy vice-chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, who is studying the teaching policy in relation to higher education, interviewed Mahathir and his view was clear. "You have to be masters of knowledge, otherwise you will be slaves to those who have knowledge," she said, reflecting his opinion.

Little work has been done so far to monitor the policy's progress. But there are questions about its implementation. Most experts concede that many rural schools instruct in local languages because either the teachers or pupils cannot cope in English.

"Five years down the road is not very long considering the size of this endeavour," said David Marsh, a leading expert in Clil at Finland's University of Jyvaskyla.

"Still I think there is already grave concern that they will have a lost generation of Malaysians who will not learn content in maths and science because of this policy."

Professor Yoong Suan, an opponent of the policy and a director of United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia, says pupils "react" badly or even drop out if they fail to comprehend coursework taught in an unfamiliar language, although he stresses he is not against English.

"All of us realise the importance of English," he said. "We want English to be taught. But it's the one-size-fits-all policy that's the problem. We have a highly centralised education system that decrees all schools should teach maths and science in English. We should consider a more flexible policy that allows each school to make its own decision. There's also the problem of identity with parents fearing children will lose their social identity because of English."

The Malaysian English Language Teaching Association president, Dr Malachi Edwin Vethamani, shows sensitivity when he is quick to stress that Bahasa is not under threat or undermined because of maths and science instruction in English. He also believes the policy is beginning to show results as test scores demonstrate that more pupils are passing in English or choosing to answer exams in English, rather Malay, Chinese or Tamil as they are permitted to do.

"Results from secondary school form three exams show more are passing English, although there was also a decrease in those getting A grades," he said. "So the quantity is up, but the quality is down. That's something that will have to be looked at."

But Kirkpatrick believes that despite the teething troubles and the continuing opposition, the tide is with those who favour pressing on with the policy.

"No doubt the disparity between the urban middle classes and the rural students who do not receive the same resources plays into the hands of the politicians who would like to go back," he said. "Certainly they tend to be loud and they tend to be heard, but I don't think they're winning the argument."

- Ian MacKinnon, education guardian

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