The Sultan highlighted many issues, including English as a universal currency, its role in the advancement of knowledge and in fostering unity (more on the latter later).
This added to the myriad views on the ongoing debate as to the role of the English language within our education system.
To many, reintroducing English-medium schools or teaching maths and science in English is the solution to our education woes - be it the ability of our students’ to communicate, think critically and gain the latest and most advanced knowledge.
From this, a question arises: Is it really so? Is English the panacea to our problems?
Research would suggest that the answer to the above is “no”, though if this issue was a Facebook status, it’d more aptly be categorised as “It’s complicated”.
According to various UNESCO reports going as far back as 1953 (with reports in 2003, 2005 and 2008), it has been argued that student outcomes are most positively influenced when they are able to learn and gain basic education in their first languages or mother tongue.
Among the advantages of 'mother tongue' education are that:
• children are more likely to enrol and succeed in school (Kosonen, 2005);
• parents are more likely to communicate with teachers and participate in their children’s learning (Benson, 2002); and
• girls and rural children with less exposure to a dominant language stay in school longer and repeat grades less often (Hovens, 2002; UNESCO Bangkok, 2005).
From conversations with educationists, especially those who teach in areas where English isn’t commonly used, they tend to suggest the same as the above. Teach in the mother tongue, get the basics right, and as the children develop learning skills, there’ll be a point of convergence where they can learn in English or a non-mother tongue language and excel.
Interestingly, the often-cited PISA 2012 results which placed Malaysia’s education system in the bottom third in the world (and we are often reminded, behind Vietnam) was taken by students who had learned maths and science in English for some 8 to 9 years. A cursory extrapolation would suggest that the teaching of maths and science in English had an adverse effect on our students’ performance.
So, what gives?
If we can accept the premise that mother tongue education enhances student outcomes, an important question we have to address is ‘What really is our mother tongue?’
For Malaysians, the answer isn’t always direct.
It depends on where you were born, your parents, and environment. History plays a role too. And with the many 'rojak' children we have nowadays (i.e. those from mixed parentage, like myself), some may even have more than one mother tongue – and are thus bilingual.
The common stereotype is that English is the mother tongue of urbanites with Bahasa Malaysia for the rural-folk. In between, there are the Chinese- and Tamil- dialect speakers and then also, the languages of Sabah and Sarawak indigenous groups. UNESCO reports that ‘about 140 languages are spoken in Malaysia’.
Let’s not forget that for those from Kelantan and Terengganu, their local dialects (loghat) are their mother tongue (the kecek klate and ghoyak ‘ganu). A Terengganu-born friend once told me that during his school days that he couldn’t even think of working on his English yet as he had to first fix his ‘broken’ Bahasa Malaysia.
Language isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair. Perhaps herein lays some answer: Primary education shouldn’t be taught just in English, but in the various mother tongue languages in Malaysia.
Various concerns arise with a mother tongue approach to primary education. These include:
Unity and integration – will this exacerbate the segregation of races (like what’s currently happening due to various education streams – vernacular, boarding, religious, private-international)? Language should unite, but which language should it be? Personally, I’d say Bahasa Malaysia (and this is open to more debate). Indonesia has done well with its Bahasa Indonesia - and it has the fourth largest global population of over 255 million.
Elitism – I’ve come across English speakers who tend to see themselves as ‘better’ or more ‘modern’ than Bahasa Malaysia speakers while the latter tend to deem the former as unpatriotic, too Western, etc. A very real situation is when rural school children are made fun of by peers and even some adults for trying to be 'Mat Salleh' when they try to speak in English. So how do we prevent this?
Opportunity – some says that English is the language of the latest and most advanced knowledge hence the need to give students the opportunity to be exposed as early as possible. Why deny this? On the flipside, others argue that Bahasa Malaysia is growing and we can become like the Germans, Japanese and South Koreans. Why not?
Preservation of culture
There is a need to safeguard and develop Bahasa Malaysia as the national language. The fear of nationalists is that the more English is taught in schools, the more it could mean an erosion or possibly extinction of the language (and closely related thereto, the Malay culture). Selfish as this may seem, it’s a real fear that cannot be swept under the carpet on the pretext of English being a ‘universal currency’ (also because based on that logic, why not just learn Mandarin in view of China as the next world superpower?).
All said and done, what we want is a holistic education system that is able to nurture good people and unite Malaysians. Language, undoubtedly, is at the heart of achieving this.
Perhaps, the bilingual approach that already exists in our education system could be strengthened.
The debate continues.