Thursday, July 9, 2009

Math and Science in English?

Logging into facebook this morning and found this article.

This issue about teaching of science and math in English has been going on for quite a while. Some people wanted the subjects to be taught in English, while others thought that the policy is just bullsh*t. So the government finally has made the decision to drop English as the medium of teaching, and go back to using BM/Mandarin/Tamil, starting 2012. Although the decision was said to be final, the commotion is still there. Those who wanted the subjects to be taught in our mother tongues rejoiced, while others were disappointed.

I personally agree with the government's decision. I know some of you disagree with me because of the obvious reasons--the language for science and math is English, English is the language of the world, without English, we cannot go anywhere, yadayadayada. Yes, I agree with those statements, but I have my own reason for agreeing with the government's decision.

My main reason for supporting the decision is, for me, groping the main ideas and basic concepts in science and math comes first before being able to explain those ideas and concepts in English. Science and math are both considered as killer subjects to most people, which means both subjects are difficult to be understood. Even to Americans, algebra is hard. And they learn that in English--their mother tongue. And how can we expect our students to be able to grope and master math and science when these subjects are taught in English, which is our second or third language? Without a strong understanding of the subjects, we still cannot produce good scientists and mathematicians.

I have talked to a science teacher, teaching form1-3 students. She said, when she taught in English, they did not want to listen because they did not understand. Ended up, sometimes she had to explain it in BM just to make the students understand. And although the students have to answer exam questions in English, apparently it is fine for them if they use the wrong grammar, as long as the key word is there, and as long as they examiners can understand what the students trying to explain. (Of course, if wrong grammar would make the answer wrong, almost everyone would fail)

Let's think for a second here. The main reason for teaching math and science in English is to produce science students with a good command in English, and they are hoped to become world-known scientists and mathematicians in the future. However, looking back at what I have written in the above paragraph, this policy does not serve the purpose, since wrong grammar = bad english = bad scientists. Let's try to put this thing in equation so that we can see it better.

(S&M refers to science and math, not the other thing)


English is the language of S&M. Our problem is,

S&M taught in mother tongue => good scientists, bad English => bad scientists

Solution (method):

Teaching of S&M in English


Teaching of S&M in English => good scientists, good English => excellent scientists

However, result:

Teaching of S&M in English => cannot undertand S&M => bad scientists

Teaching of S&M in English => does not help in mastering English => bad English, still


Teaching of S&M in English => bad scientists, bad English => even worst scientists


Teaching of S&M in English does not produce better scientists, instead, it makes it worst.

So, what went wrong?

Maybe we have overlooked something. We expect teaching of science and math in English would produce a good scientist with a strong command in English. Our main problem here is our students, even the top scorers in math and science, have a weak command in English. This shows that we don't have a problem with our method of teaching science and math. The problem is in our method of teaching English. Even for the non-science students, their command in English is bad. It has been English all the way. Then why are we trying to mess up with science and math?? We should have been messing up with English!

I think the reason why we messed up with science and math in the first place is because our parents' generation said, "My friends who went to English school, learned science and math in English, and had no problem. They understood science and math just fine. So, what's with all the ruckus?" However, they forgot that those who went to English schools from non-English schools had to do, if I am not mistaken, a year of some sort of preperatory program. Or maybe less than a year, I am not sure. But the point is, they were prepared before learning everything in English. It's the same concept as sending students for preparatory program before flying off to oversea for college--the program that I was in. For at least a year, we were taught the language of the country that we were going to for college, so that we would be well-prepared to learn everything in a different language. We were well-prepared, but these students who have to learn science and math in English at school are not prepared, thus explains the unsatisfactory result.

I am not saying that teaching of science and math in English is wrong. It is not wrong. But the students have to be prepared before they are ready to learn those subjects in English. They have to master English first, before they can learn and master the subjects in English. Or, they can master the subjects first in their mother tongue, master English second, before they can master the subjects in English. Either way, they have to master English.

There, we have come back to English being the main problem.

I am still with my stand. We have to change our method of teaching English. Our current method is not effective at all. The curriculum should focus on all aspecst of the language--reading, writing, listening, speaking--and it should be taught at least for an hour everyday. Make it a habit. Then only we can master English. In fact, this should be implemented to the learning of other new languages as well.

p/s: From my observation, most of the people who want the subjects to be taught in English come from the city, or are not aware of the difficulties that the students from rural area have to face when they are forced to learn science and math in English. We should be aware that the probability of these students hearing/using English in their everyday life is close to zero.

p/s/s: I had expressed my disappointment about Malaysians who cannot speak BM. For goodness sake, they ARE Malaysians. Aren't they ashamed of themselves? However, someone told me that these people cannot speak BM because they do not use BM in their everyday life, so we should not blame them. So, are we saying it is okay for Malaysians to have a bad command in BM, but it is not okay for Malaysians to have a bad command in English? Dimanakah jati diri kita sebagai anak bangsa Malaysia?


Fiza Pushie said...

try comment sat

Adilla said...

I don't completely agree or disagree with PPSMI's implementation and breakdown. It had a good goal, but the execution was very flawed and sloppy, and many factors were overlooked. In the same vein, that's why I don't disagree with you either. But it was just embarassing for our country to once again be in NYT for reasons that are less than appealing.

Back to PPSMI. Whatever you wrote up there -- if every anti-PPSMI person spoke with sound, logical argument like that, it would've been fine. But nooo. Have you seen some of the excuses?

"Apa yang aku ajar dalam English amik 1 jam, tapi 15 minit je bila cakap Melayu. Hidup bahasa ibunda!" <-- What is this? This has nothing to do with one language's power over the other. It's because you and your students are freaking FLUENT in Malay. What kind of excuse is this?

"Buatpe nak ajar budak-budak jadi macam mat salleh? Kita kena tegakkan bahasa ibunda." <-- What is this? This has NOTHING to do with wanting to absorb Western culture. Sikit-sikit English = nak jadi mcm mat salleh. This just sounds defensive, which is a very common psychologically defensive technique among people who refuse to learn English and then associate it with being a negative thing, like a "colonist language" or some stupid bullshit. And this has NOTHING to do with undermining our national language. NOTHING.

(It just so happens that English happens to be the international scientific language. Unfortunately, that language is also associate with America and Britain. If only there were a neutral language that's not associated with a particular ethnic group, then probably nobody would have any problem.)

"Ala, kat Jepun pun ajar je semua dalam bahasa Jepun. Ok je." <-- What is this? Are you even aware that Japan is 10 years ahead of everyone else and is already an international superpower? OF COURSE they can afford to do that. A country like Malaysia? We talk so much shit about trying to show the world what we can do, to make a name internationally. Well then, we need all the boost we can get.

These kinds of excuses make me judge you. They just show that you're lazy, defensive, and has a dysfunctional brain. (Ok, I am clearly exaggerating with the latter, but you get my point)

But of course, the implementation of PPSMI was so sloppy. Jangan cakap la students from rural places -- the teachers pun were not well-versed in English, but they had to suddenly switch. And what do they get in preparation for that? Some 2-week crash course? That's what I heard. Memang la tak jadi. And jangan cakap la rural places je -- there are so many people in urban places that don't use English on a regular basis.

Adilla said...

So, yes, therein lies the root of the problem. Command in English. Yes, it would be imperative that students be used to the language first, and then apply it in complicated subjects. But I also want to underline how important it is for Malaysians to master English in science to advance in the field. How many publications are generated by Malaysian researchers? And you of all people know how difficult it is for the grad students to write papers properly. Yes, it also has to do with writing techniques, but what good are writing techniques without good command in the language itself? How are you going to participate in scientific discourse internationally if you can't communicate? How can you read and analyze research papers if you don't understand shit?
I'm not saying that you're saying English in science is bad. I know you're not. I just wanted to point all that out. And it's not just scientific terms je tau -- you also need to know how to express in proper scientific syntax and know how to use appropriate verbs, nouns, etc.

Initially, when I heard PPSMI was going to be stopped, I was disappointed. Then, when I read that they were going to increase the hours for the English subject, then I thought: ok, that's not bad, maybe they're trying to work through it slowly from the bottom. So all in all, I think everyone should look at this issue from all angles, and should think about it with a sound, logical mind and make arguments that have merit. And at the same time, people should not forget how important English is in science. Unfortunately, sorry to say, most people don't, before they speak up and end up sounding like morons.

Fiza Pushie said...

Yup that's true. Most people who don't support PPSMI are narrow-minded, and we can see this through the way they present their reasoning. Learn science and math in English will make people become Caucasian? I am still tan, as before.

And I also agree with you that PPSMI was not being implemented properly. It was too rushing, I think. Even the teachers cannot explain the subject matters properly. Had the policy being implemented slowly, I think PPSMI could have worked.

I think whatever it is, make the students master the language first. The current curriculum is very ineffective. Almost all students hate learning English. They just don't get it. And even after 11+ years of learning English, we still cannot master the language.

Learning new language should not be like this. It should be fun. It should be exciting. I remember being so pumped up about going to Japanese language class everyday. And I could converse in Japanese after only 3 years of learning it. This kind of output is what we need in our teaching of English.

Maybe we should switch back to learning science starting from form 1. The extra time during primary school could be used to strengthen the students' English. After we are sure that the English curriculum is good enough to prepare the students to study science and math in English, start implementing back PPSMI to the secondary school students. Maybe by that time, it wouldn't be a problem.

But if it looks like a lot of hassle, maybe they should make everyone attend a year of intensive English class, like what we did in INTEC. They can do it after UPSR or after SPM. If they do it after UPSR, PPSMI during secondary school should not be a problem. If they do this after SPM, all the students have to do is to apply the language to the science knowledge that they have already acquired. After all, we are all good scientists despite learning science and math in BM at school, aren't we?

And I think another factor that contributes to the poor scientific writing skills is because they are not being stressed on that. This is, I would say, the problem with the universities' curriculum. So far that I know, in UPM at least, students are required to take a general writing class, but not scientific writing class. I'm not even sure if they have such classes. I have seen workshops on that for grad students and lecturers, but not a course for the undergrads.

All in all, I think the academic curriculum in Malaysia is still very shaky.

masmuni said...

I can see why you have spend two hours writing this blog. Good argument, and you write your points clearly.

I'm totally agree that academic curriculum in Msia is like sh*t. I wish Msian gov implement American education system rather than British education system which solely base on memorization.

Memorization = boring = hardly understand what you are learning

Having good English teachers is the key for generating students with good English command. My parents were taught by English native speakers even thought they lived in rural areas. Their grammar was good during their high school years compared to me at the same age.

I was unlucky to have very boring English teachers during my high school year. Not only that, they liked to Manglish all the time thus defeat the purpose of teaching their students proper English.

Malaysians, compare to other Asians (like Japanese, Siamese, Chinese, Korean) might be able to speak English fluently, but we are really weak in conversing English with proper grammar.

Those people on the other hand able to converse English with proper grammar despite having really THICK accent.

masmuni said...

pushie, susah giler nak comment kat blog ko, for some reason bile kene verify words, ak susah nak letak d security words dlm kota (xjumpa kotak tuh ok)

Adilla said...

Yeah, tapi the thing is, sometimes when you're fluent in English pun, it doesn't mean you can straightaway learn science in English tau.

That's weird Mas - I've never heard of English teachers using Manglish lol. But there are many English teachers who don't even know proper grammar ... :/

(Ya the box for verifying words tak keluar -- I kena guna Tab key)

masmuni said...

i pun guna tab key...after berusaha nak komen

yea adilla, my english teacher kat MGS Manglish bile ajar, keluar sume ma, meh, lah. I pasrah bile fikir balik....

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