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  • Datin Noor Azimah

A bilingual option for students

ALL Malaysians agree that English proficiency needs to be enhanced to be globally competitive. What some hesitate over is the method in which it is being deployed.

Opponents to the Dual Language Programme (DLP) claim that to improve the English proficiency of students, increasing hours within the confines of the English class should suffice, without having to be taught other subjects in the English language. They further claim that teaching the subjects of science and mathematics will not achieve this objective either.

They also believe that our dismal performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is attributed to language.

The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) speaks of its “goals for the learning of languages: fostering a unique shared identity between Malaysians anchored in the ability to be proficient in the use of a common national language, Bahasa Malaysia; developing individuals that are equipped to work in a globalised economy where the English language is the international language of communication; and providing opportunities to learn an additional language”.

Based on international research as indicated in the MEB, “Malaysia’s 15-20% instructional time in English language may be insufficient for students to build operational proficiency”.

At pre-school, the national curriculum emphasises equally on bilingual education. At lower primary, English exposure falls from 50% to merely 22% and falls further to 13% at upper primary. At lower and upper secondary, English exposure rises marginally to 15% and 17% respectively. It appears that the desired exposure is acutely inadequate at all levels.

At tertiary level, in as far as the science disciplines matter, English may be used as much as 100% of lecture time which is an enormous jump and where most students will falter. A smoother transition is desperately needed.

English teachers were consulted and it was unanimously agreed that extending English lessons would not have had the desired impact. Notwithstanding that it was near impossible to either partially or wholly sacrifice another subject to increase English lessons, more so that it would only be one that is taught in Bahasa Melayu, or worse to prolong total school hours.

To bridge this gap, all other subjects were considered in terms of time allocated per subject namely visual art, music, physical and health education, Islamic/moral studies, science and mathematics, history and geography too. Factors that were considered were its degree of impact, continuity into secondary level, exam-orientation, learning structure, immersion time, religious sentiment, nationalistic concerns, teacher availability, teaching resources and the role of English as a medium in ICT and the Internet.

These were analysed in great detail and a process of subject elimination took place. In the end, science and mathematics, ICT and Design and Technology fulfilled the above criteria to a tee.

The newly-implemented Dual Language Programme (DLP) in 300 pilot schools or a mere 3% and the Highly Immersive Programme (HIP) in all 10,000 schools are an extension of the language policy of MBMMBI (Uphold Bahasa Melayu, Strengthen the English Language).

Non-DLP schools comprise 97% of the total so there is absolutely zero relegation of Bahasa Melayu. Previous programmes under MBMMBI were the Native Speakers Programme, English Language Training Centre (ELTC) Programme etc.

DLP is an optional programme where parents are given the opportunity to choose for their children the medium of instruction for the above selected subjects. Interestingly, the MEB also mentions that, “Neighbouring Asian education systems in China, South Korea, and Singapore are increasingly focused on developing students that are proficient in their national language, and the English language to maximise their employability in the global workforce.”

Malaysia needs to develop a similar employee value proposition. India has succeeded tremendously from a similar bilingual education system in pursuit of cutting-edge technology.

Children are eager to learn, the earlier the better. Bilingual children are known to have better problem-solving skills and who will enjoy thinking benefits later in life over those who are monolingual.

On the further argument that the main reason for Malaysia’s weak performance in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) was due to language is a myth.

The MEB in chapter 3: Current Performance from page 3-9 specifically states, “Bahasa Malaysia and English language questions were both provided as options in the TIMSS assessments for Malaysia. Therefore results should not have been affected by the language of testing used for TIMSS”.

In the case of PISA, individual schools would choose their preferred medium of instruction.

In the last PISA in 2012, among the top 10 schools that outperformed the OECD average in science and mathematics, nine chose English as a medium to be assessed in including the only religious school, SMK (A) MAIWP.

It is odd that professionals and scientists who enjoyed and benefitted from English education in the 1960s and early 1970s, who proceeded to universities abroad to obtain their degrees, masters and even PhDs, and able to write and speak immaculate English, should object to DLP.

On the other hand, those who went through Malay medium and succeeded have to realise that there is a “new society” looming where different approaches have to be taken to be ahead of the intense global competition. Embrace it or forever be left behind.



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