TEACHER TALKBy MALLIKA VASUGI
We have come full circle with the teaching of Maths and Science in English, despite pessimism from some quarters. Wouldn’t it be a waste of precious time, effort and money to turn back now?
AT this point in time, the biggest question on the minds of every Mathematics and Science teacher in Malaysia would probably be this: “Are we going to continue in English or revert to Bahasa Malaysia?” Some await the decision with trepidation, and nail-biting anxiety, hoping in their heart of hearts that finally they can cease grappling with the language and go back to the way it was before 2003.
For many other teachers, however, the whole thing points towards yet another flaw in the system. An uncomfortable sense of uncertainty and doubt seems to linger in the air.
All that earlier talk about the need to remain competitive in an era of globalisation, to keep up with the rapid development in science and technology and the crucial role of English in a knowledge-based industry — was it just hype?
All that effort towards improving standards of English among students and teachers alike, the ETeMS (English for teaching Mathematics and Science) programme, the buddy-support system, the course-ware, and everything else — are they all going to count for nothing much, apart from experience gained?
And what about the money? Surely a huge amount of money must have been spent. All this, just to give up and turn back?
Why now, just as we are beginning to produce students with the desired levels of proficiency and competence in English? Students who are able to network globally and access, process and present information from scientific texts. Isn’t this what we wanted in the first place?
Is it even possible to revert?
We have come one full circle since 2003. At present the medium of instruction for Mathematics and Science, from Year One right up to Form Six is English.
At least that is what the official documents say. Unofficially, the situation is less convincing.
We hear of teachers who continue to teach Mathematics and Science in Bahasa Malaysia although it creates confusion among their students, who have been learning both subjects in English previously.
But to be fair, we also hear success stories of teachers who have achieved linguistic milestones and managed to overcome initial struggles, and can now deliver lessons confidently in English.
We have students who are so proficient in their Science and Mathematics register that they make their teachers a little nervous.
And yet we still have students who are unable to comprehend any level of Mathematics or Science, unless the content is delivered in their own first language.
Thus our dilemma. Continue to teach in English and risk incomprehension among an entire class or use Bahasa Malaysia and risk contravening policies?
Most of us strike a happy balance.We use Bahasa Malaysia to get the meaning across and retain the English equivalents for the Science and Mathematics terminology.
And privately we heave a sigh of relief that the public examination questions remain bilingual at present. Perhaps that is the best we can do for now, while waiting for what happens next.
Then we hear stories all the time from teachers who had to suddenly switch from teaching in English to Bahasa Malaysia way back then.
The roles seem to be reversed. There are traces of indignation in the accounts we hear. The underlying message is, ‘If we could do it, why can’t they?’
Another question on the lips of those who have lived long enough to experience each change would be,”Why change in the first place?”
For answers we would have to go back in time, to our first Merdeka in 1957 and the achievement of nationhood, which brought with it the need for a national language as a crucial unifying factor of the different ethnic groups in our country.
We would have to remember 1963 as the year that the National language Act was implemented.
And whether we like it or not, we would have to consider the dark events of May13, 1969 which accelerated the change in the language of instruction in schools from English to Malay until the policy change was completed in 1977.
These were schooling years for many of us who are teachers now. Words like “nationalism” and “unity” were just karangan (essay) topics to us.
We munched on kuaci seeds, dipped our fingers in ketupat with rendang and nibbled on the muruku our friends brought from home.
We sang Putra-Putri and Muhibbah with great gusto while cycling home from school and memorised the Rukunegara for every assembly. We dressed up in imperial robes and acted out plays from ancient China, in flawless Malay.
If someone had pointed out that the lead character, Lady Precious Stream, was a Malay girl, or that her ‘husband’ was Indian, we would have been surprised but not duly bothered.
Ours was the class of ’77. We were the last of the transition group. We learned Mathematics and Science in English and the rest in Bahasa Malaysia. I don’t think it made us any less, or more patriotic.
Some of us went on to university, where we had to re-learn our Mathematics and Science terms in Bahasa Malaysia. By the time we began teaching, English was just another core subject.
How far have we come really in terms of national unity? Do our students see themselves as Malaysians or cling on to ethnic identities?
Is there integration among the races or do they cluster together as Chinese, Malay and Indian, forming separate islands in the school compound?
Just the week before I was conducting an activity during Physical Education class with Form 1 students. The girls had to form a circle by linking hands.
The circle remained unformed after a few minutes and to my dismay I realised that it was because some girls didn’t want to hold hands with those from a different race. I had done the same activity without any problems with another Form 1 class.
Later when I tried to analyse the situation, I realised that the group which refused to hold hands came from a vernacular primary school and that the barrier, to a large extent, was language. It was then that I realised how important a national language is.
And so questions remain, lingering and unanswered. We cannot ignore the needs of nationalism and harmony. Neither can we ignore the need to equip young Malaysians with crucial linguistic skills for the present era of globalisation and scientific expansion.
We cannot disregard the lack of facilities and suitable learning environment in some rural schools nor the protests from educationists who feel strongly about maintaining the character of vernacular schools.
We cannot shut our ears to voices that are concerned about the threat of language reforms to cultural identity.
And finally, we cannot brush aside the fact that much time and money have already been spent and despite pessimism from some quarters, positive results are beginning to show among teachers and students alike.
“We have come far,” is a lament by many Mathematics and Science teachers. “We have come so far and achieved so much. We don’t want to turn back now.”
The Star Online: 24 Ogos 2008