Case for English-medium schools

By Lan Boon Leong | May 17, 2011
The Sun

THE United Nations in its various declarations and conventions has continually affirmed the universal rights of minorities, including indigenous people, to an education where the medium of instruction is their mother tongue.

Mother tongue is usually narrowly defined as the language of one’s ethnic group. A wider definition of mother tongue, according to the Oxford dictionary for example, is the language that one first learns to speak as a child – in other words, one’s first language. In this broader sense, a person could have more than one mother tongue and the ethnic language may not even be a mother tongue.

Our present education system caters for minorities but only those whose mother tongue is either Mandarin or Tamil through national-type schools.

Not catered for, among others, is a growing minority of Malaysians – of diverse ethnic backgrounds – whose mother tongue or first language is English.

This linguistic minority has the same right as all other minorities, including the indigenous people, to an education in their mother tongue in a national-type school. They should not have to compromise and attend a national or national-type school where the medium of instruction is not English.

Children who begin their schooling in a language which is not their mother tongue face two simultaneous challenges: learn a new language and learn in the new language.

Those who cannot cope with the former will obviously not be able to cope with the latter. How can the poor child understand what is taught if the child has difficulty understanding the language of instruction.

Inability to understand what is taught leads to a loss of not only interest in learning but also self-confidence as a learner. Disadvantaged by the language of instruction, even smart kids eventually drop out of school.

It is therefore not surprising that numerous studies have confirmed children learn best if the medium of instruction is their mother tongue (Paper commissioned for U, Jessica Ball, 2010).

These children perform better academically, and they have lower dropout rates and higher self-esteem than their counterparts who learn solely in a language which is not their mother tongue.

Moreover, once they have achieved academic proficiency, particularly literacy skills, in their mother tongue, these children tend to achieve higher proficiency in the official or national language, which is taught as a subject, than their counterparts who learn exclusively in the official language.

The government’s conviction that science and mathematics “need to be taught in a language easily understood by students” led to the reversal of the PPSMI policy of teaching and learning the two subjects in English. The reversal means that the two subjects, like all other subjects, will be taught solely in Bahasa Malaysia in national schools, and solely in Mandarin or Tamil in national-type schools.

One of the reasons cited by the government for its conviction was: “Unesco studies showed that it would be easier for students to learn in their mother tongue at the early stage of education”.

If the government believes science and mathematics are best learned in the mother tongue, surely it must also believe the same is true for all other subjects.

So when will we have English-medium national-type schools, where Malaysian children from diverse ethnic backgrounds learn in their mother tongue and learn the national language together?

Parents who are in favour of English-medium national-type schools should vote for them on the webpage which I have set up. Please tell other parents you know to vote too. Your votes will further strengthen the case for such schools. I plan to report the results in my next column.

* Dr Lan Boon Leong is an associate professor at the Monash University Sunway Campus. He thinks and dreams solely in English.

  1. #1 by sheriff singh on Wednesday, 18 May 2011 - 11:09 am

    Didn’t the government say they want to employ 3,000 Americans to teach at our schools next year?

    Speaking English is history.

    Speaking ‘American’ is the ‘in-thing’ these days. Like ‘Hasta la Pasta’, ‘dude’, ‘y’all’, ‘wassup?’, ‘gangsta’, ‘moola’, ‘ice’, ‘hubba hubba’, ‘crack’, ‘joint’ etc etc

  2. #2 by sheriff singh on Wednesday, 18 May 2011 - 11:11 am

    Ah, moderated yet again. It is getting to be the norm.

    As if the Catcha is not bad enough.

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