Sunday, October 23, 2005

Public Varsities Still Struggling with English

Some first year students in our public universities are finding themselves in the sticky situation of having to revert back to the Bahasa Malaysia (BM) medium of instruction in some of the science and maths based subjects they are taking. For example, lecturers in Universiti Malaya (UM) and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) have been reported to conduct their lectures in BM to first year engineering students.

For these students, it must be pretty confusing. They were taught Science and Maths in BM from Form 1 to Form 5. When they went to Form 6, they had to study the two subjects in English for their STPM exam. And now that they have managed to get into our local universities, some of these students had to revert back to BM in the lecture halls because their lecturers were not competent or confident enough to teach in English!

The Sunday Star today reported that a ministry official and former lecturer acknowledged that "some lecturers just have closed minds and are not keen to learn anything new. They are so set in their ways that they do not know how, and do not wish to find out how, they can do things otherwise."

Even the Malaysia Academic Movement president Assoc. Prof. Dr. Wan Abdul Manan Wan Muda was quoted as saying that the lecturers' different levels of proficiency in English made the task of switching to English difficult, if not near impossible. He said, "We are talking about academics who have been teaching in Bahasa Malaysia for the last 20 years. To ask them to suddenly make the switch is going to be difficult" and "Not everyone agrees that lessons should be in English. Those who disagree will just continue to teach in BM."

I am just wondering whether in their haste to re-introduce English as the medium of instruction in Science and Mathematics in our schools, did the Ministry of Education thought of the readiness of our tertiary institutions to also adopt such a radical approach in its efforts to raise the proficiency of English among our graduates. Come to think of it, perhaps the same could also be said of our teachers who are also struggling to teach the 2 subjects in English with their own weak command of the language? I mean, if university lecturers are having a tough time trying to make the switch from BM to English, what about all those non-graduate primary and secondary school teachers? Who then is going to suffer from having to learn the two subjects in "broken" and half-baked English?

Perhaps the proposal by Dong Jiao Zong (DJZ) to scrap teaching English and Mathematics in English and instead to increase the number of hours allocated to teaching the English subject and revamp the English language syllabus is a better solution for all concerned. After all, how could learning Maths & Science in English improve one's grammar and understanding of the fine nuances of the language? Isn't it better to go back to the basics of teaching English as it was taught in the olden days? Actually, if we look at the English language syllabus being taught in Singapore schools, we can have an idea of the sort of stuff we used to have in our schools in the old days.

Just teach English as it should be taught to raise the proficiency level of our students. Have more hours to teach the subject and re-train our teachers to approach the subject in the right manner. When our students have mastered the English subject, they can tackle any other subject in English at the tertiary level without any problem whatsoever. In the meantime, we have to be careful that we do not dig a hole for ourselves and end up on the short end of the stick where our students fail miserably in mastering not only English, but Science and Mathematics as well.



Blogger leeyn said...

looking back now as the first batch of malay stream student that entered uni some years ago (argh ! i am so old now !!) - i think it was truly a MIRACLE to graduate with a piece of paper...

it was lectures all delivered/done in broken malay (even the malay lecturers were sruggling badly to get the right words, let alone those chinese...), read all references in english, answer exams in malay, talk to your firends in cantonese....
thanks/no-thanks to our educ miniter then.

now - when i interview those local graduates, i will be very pleased if i can get one that can speak proper english.

u think they will listen to DJZ ?
u think they will learn from what SGP does and adopt/adapt ?
u think they will look back at history and check how it was done ?
your guess is as good as mine.

24/10/05 09:03  
Blogger Anak Merdeka said...

You are probably bulls-eye on target on that one, Leeyn! But inaction on the part of the authorities or just plain "blur" on how to run the Ministry does not mean we should keep silent on the issue as well. I am always hopeful that if enough people voice out their concerns, sometime down the road they may just wake up and take notice of their bungling. Maybe our re-energised Public Complaints Bureau should also start a poll on the public's perception of our education system at primary and secondary level. The feedback would be most interesting, eh? Thanks Leeyn for sharing your views.

24/10/05 10:51  
Blogger johnleemk said...

I think all this stems from the government's inadequate focus on education. If you ask me, we are doing a terrible job of according the teaching profession the respect it ought to deserve and doing a just as bad job of focusing on the real core of education - the teachers and the syllabus. Our syllabus is clearly inadequate - in the recent PMR trials for English, I got elementary questions on things like the implications of signs saying "Danger!" or "Beware of Dog". Although there are many excellent teachers out there, far too many unqualified and unsuitable people have been allowed to work as teachers. Students can tell when their teachers don't know what they're teaching, and I can name many of my teachers who fall in the category of "ignorant". (Their number far exceeds that of the categories of "dedicated" and "well-educated" combined.) Furthermore, all teachers I've known are overworked (usually with paperwork) and underpaid.

If we had a better syllabus and better teachers (as well as better policies), we could have implemented a system that would work out better for all involved. Ideally, I would prefer a system whereby students' whose first language is not English are educated in science and maths using their mother tongue AND English for the first three years of primary school. (The textbooks and lessons would be bilingual; sure, this would cost a little more than it does now, but we spend loads of money on building IT labs for schools; surely a bit more on textbooks and teachers couldn't hurt?) The goal would be to prepare students to learn fully in English, which would occur perhaps around year four of primary school.

This would satisfy everyone, I believe, as no student would be left behind. Right now such a programme is impractical because of a lack of teachers well-versed in English AND Malay/Tamil/Mandarin. As such, it will take time (probably about a generation) before we can have a better programme that would suit everyone, and that's presuming English standards right now are improving (which I doubt).

25/10/05 20:49  
Blogger Anak Merdeka said...

John, you are right about our teachers being "over-worked" and "under-paid" and may I also add, drowning in mountains of bureaucratic paperwork. Sigh...

25/10/05 22:09  

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