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Getting the basics right seems easy, but solutions for English proficiency remain elusive By Azam Aris

Publish date: Tue, 25 Jun 2024, 01:02 PM

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on June 24, 2024 - June 30, 2024

I have been writing a lot about the problems we face as a nation in deciding if the English language is important to our education system. And if it is, the question then is why are we finding it difficult to implement a consistent policy that will improve its standard among our students? I have been writing about this predicament for more than 30 years.

While there have been many issues looked at and policies drafted - some controversial, some hotly debated, and some that even stoked racial sentiments - one thing is certain, that the standard of the English language in schools has not improved since I left school in 1980.

Today, the unnecessary and time-wasting “squabbling” continues and now it centres around the Dual Language Programme (DLP), where parents can opt for their children to learn science and mathematics in English. The argument put forward by parents is that if they have given their consent, the school had enough teachers and students to run the programme and the school’s performance in the Malay language met the national average standard, the DLP should be implemented without any impediments.

It seems that in some schools, the implementation of a full-fledged DLP is not as smooth as it should be as there is an additional requirement. The schools must have at least one non-DLP class for students who want to study science and mathematics in Malay or their mother tongue.

The question is that in urban areas like Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Subang Jaya, Damansara, Penang and Johor Bahru where there is demand for DLP for all classes - although I think there are not many instances - do the schools still need to have at least one non-DLP class as a prerequisite?

If this is so, the parents ask, why are some boarding schools - notably the elite ones like The Malay College Kuala Kangsar and Tunku Kurshiah College, where I presume the students are good in English like in some schools in KL or PJ - exempted from having the “mandatory” one non-DPL class? Some parents say the requirement did not exist when the DLP programme was started in 2016.

Last Thursday, Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek clarified that all government schools, including full boarding schools, had to follow the new guidelines on DLP. There would be no exceptions, she was reported to have said.

I don’t want to get myself into this polemic since the issue of the improvement of the English language in schools should have been resolved a long time ago.

My position is straightforward. If the schools have enough teachers and facilities to conduct all-DLP classes and the parents have consented (as they know whether their children have the capability to adapt to the teaching of science and mathematics in English), they should be allowed to do so.

A quick check with my daughters - who are now in university - reveals that as far as they can recall, their school in USJ 4, Subang Jaya, had three to four DLP classes, which could be the norm in some urban areas. So, there would be only a few schools that want all-DLP classes, but if some schools can implement it, they should be allowed to do so.

But what I do not agree with is the view that a student’s command of English can be improved a lot by learning science and mathematics in the language. If Malaysia wants its students to have a good command of English, both written and spoken, there is no two ways about it but to learn it as a language first. Some say the good old way of writing, reading and getting the grammar right is the best way to do this.

The key to resolving this problem is having enough competent English teachers, including in rural areas. And if you want more students to learn science and mathematics in English, the nation needs to have enough teachers who have a good command of the language.

In an article on Nov 5, 2007, titled “Language policy leaves much to be desired”, I wrote: “If the intention of the government is to improve the level of English among its populace, the best way to master English is still to teach it as a language and a communication tool. Having more English language lessons in schools taught by an equally high number of good teachers and supported by the right education infrastructure should be a prerequisite. And English as a language should be continuously taught in universities irrespective of one’s major.”

In the same article, I said that the quest for knowledge could be done in any language, even for science and mathematics. I quoted an English lecturer friend, who had this to add: “When the Europeans first made use of the knowledge derived from Muslim and Arab scholars and scientists (of the Golden Age of Islamic Civilisation from the eighth to 15th centuries including that of Andalusia (Spain) and the Ottoman Empire), they translated all the texts into their respective languages. They did not make their communities acquire new knowledge from Arabic. The transfer of knowledge was done in the language the people were familiar and identified with. That has been and still is the best form of learning - in a language the learners are comfortable in and identify with … because one’s thinking process does not take place in a language they are not familiar with.”

It is because of these two factors - the lack of English teachers and those having a good command of the language to teach science and mathematics in English, and the difficulty of the majority of students to grasp the basics of both subjects - that the policy of Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik Dalam Bahasa Inggeris (PPSMI) introduced in 2003 failed miserably.

As many students were struggling, not only in English but in science and mathematics as well, especially those in the rural areas, and with the strong opposition from parents, it was inevitable that PPSMI was aborted in 2012.

Various studies show that PPSMI had failed to achieve its intended goal of enhancing students’ English language proficiency. One study showed that out of 7,000 schools, only 5% followed the PPSMI curriculum in English while the rest had conducted their lessons in dual languages or Bahasa Melayu only, although the subjects and textbooks were in English.

The case of PPSMI is akin to Malay peribahasa “Yang dikejar tak dapat, yang dikendong berciciran”, for we did not get what was intended but instead made matters worse. DLP and its expansion can also fail because of these two factors.

Many academicians also argued that proponents of English should not conflate fluency and proficiency in English with the mastery of science and mathematics.

In my column on April 10, 2023, titled “The fundamental flaw is still not having enough teachers competent in English”, I asked why we were not able to get the basics right after all these years. If Malaysia wants more of its students to be proficient in English, as it is the main tool of communication in the world and on the internet, we should be training more English teachers, hiring retired or foreign teachers and improving the command of English among science and mathematics teachers. Is this so difficult to do?

While we have good education blueprints, what we lack seems to be a workable English language road map for the normal national schools (excluding the high-performing boarding schools). The National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) is of the view that the teaching and learning of English must undergo significant restructuring to ensure English as a second language is mastered by the majority of students.

In an interview, its secretary-general Fouzi Singon raised a valid point. He asked why, if students could achieve some level of mastery of English within three to six months at language centres, 11 years of continuous study (of at least three hours a week in national schools) does not result in optimal proficiency of the language.

A point to ponder too.

Azam Aris is an editor emeritus at The Edge

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