My essay deals with the implementation of English as the medium of education in Malaysian primary schools between 2002 and 2009 and considers the advantages and disadvantages which have been observed during this period. Malaysia belongs to the group of former colonies of the British Empire described by Braj Kachru as countries of the outer circle (Kachru, et al., 2009). Malaysian census figures show a population of 8 million in 1970 increasing to 28 million in 2010. During this time the urban population has increased from 26.8% in 1970 to 64% in 2010 with the rural population decreasing proportionately (Swee-Hock, 2007) and (Wikipedia, 2012). According to Hewings (2012) in the years before independence in 1957 English was used in private schools for the education of the privileged classes and for British citizens, and also formed a compulsory part of the education in state schools alongside vernacular languages. The three racial communities which formed the country were Malays, with a majority of 60% and the least advantaged, Chinese, in charge of commerce and finance with a representation of 25% and Hindu professionals at 7% (Hewings, 2012).
In 1963 with the creation of the new country called Malaysia, the new government made pre eminent the idea of the Malay people and the Malay language, and began to identify the Malay language as something which could confer identity on the new country (S. Bautista & Gonzáles, 2009). Until 1969 English in education coexisted without problems with the vernacular languages but violent social upheaval against the Chinese minority in the same year forced prime Minister Mahatir Mohamed ‘in the interests of national unity and affirmative action for the bumiputras (children of the soil)’ (S. Bautista & Gonzáles, 2009, p. 131) to change the policy in favour of Malay ‘with future civil servants and university students having to pass advanced examinations in Malay to qualify’ (S. Bautista & Gonzáles, 2009). Surprisingly the same man who reduced English to the status of a second language ‘with the National Language Act of 1976 (S. Bautista & Gonzáles, 2009), in 2002, and claiming that this was necessary ‘to compete on equal terms with the world’s most advanced countries’ Mohamad cited in Hewings (2012, p. 99) reinstated English once again, as a six year experiment, as the language of instruction of science and mathematics (Hewings, 2012).
According to Hewing this reinstatement of English created a series of concerns for students in Malay language primary schools especially in rural areas ‘as those using Tamil and Chinese were not obliged to follow’ (Hewings, 2012, p. 99) . In urban areas this measure was well received by parents, especially those of students of a superior social class as traditionally English was the vehicle for the elites to maintain their power (Hewings, 2012). English in urban areas, especially for the upper classes, had been the traditional medium of education. Students from this category had not suffered any reverses during the period of marginalisation of English and their level of English was good. Interest in learning English was not solely academic, however. Toh, quoted in Hewing (2012) states that ‘the formal education system in Malaysia has been utilised more as a mechanism for the intergenerational transmission of economic status rather than as a vehicle for the social advancement of the poor’. ‘Urban parents…pupils who already had access to English, certain higher education professionals, and many in business and the media’ gave support to the experiment since it was a way of assisting students to climb the social ladder and have access, to better jobs, the use of new technologies, and to better prospects of advancement globally (Hewings, 2012, p. 102). But these benefits which English gave to some also turned out to be disadvantageous for others.
In primary schools in remote rural areas with difficult access, for example, where the students were native speakers of other languages distinct from Malay and only used it as a lingua franca ‘there was much disquiet over this policy’ (Hewings, 2012, p. 99) . The children were presented with the enormous task of ‘learning subjects through a completely foreign language’ (Hewings, 2012). The children had to both decipher the English language and cope with the mathematical idea(s) it conveyed: clearly this was too ambitious for most (Singn, et al., 2010). Other disadvantages that Hewings (2012) stated which may be added to the above were the lack of methods and the scarcity of learning resources for the teaching of the science and maths curriculum in English. Hewings (2012) goes on to affirm that those children in rural areas were greatly disadvantaged in comparison to children in affluent areas where the parents were educated in the English language themselves and could help them with homework.
Furthermore there was a scarcity of qualified staff, training and insufficient linguistic skill on the part of rural primary school teachers to cope with these subjects. There was evidence of a sense of resentment at the return of British imperialism. ‘In addition, there were many who felt it was a return to the colonial times’ (Hewings, 2012, p. 99). Braighlinn cited in Martin (2005), when speaking about a very similar situation in Brunei, states that ‘the majority of non-middle class youth receive virtually no education at all, because the medium of instruction [English] cannot be understood’, therefore Martin (2005) states that ‘safe’ resources such as code-switching between English and Malay are used by the class-room teachers as a mean to ‘allow the classroom participants to be seen to accomplish lessons’. This defence of code-switching is also shared by Frank Monaghan who claims that we don’t have languages. We ‘DO’ language; something that he denominates “languaging” ‘which proposes that people use a range of lexical and syntactic resources to communicate and that labelling them ‘English’ or ‘Spanish’…or ‘Patois’, does not add much to our understanding –in fact it can get in the way’ (Monaghan, 2012).
According to Martin (2005), teachers’ lack of linguistic competences in English enabled them to elicit the meaning of simple concepts but for complex ones they needed Malay. Without code-switching teaching would not have been possible and English was taught by means of the Malay language (Martin, 2005). Paraphrasing Ofelia García, cited by Monaghan (2012, p. 131), code-switching is the way the students and the teacher are ‘doing language’ and using all their linguistic abilities and assets they have to make themselves understood. Martin (2005) states that little is known about the effects or/and benefits of code-switching in education and the practice generates controversy. On one hand code-switching was against the guidelines of the government educational policy which stated that the classes must be taught exclusively in English (Hewings, 2012, p. 102): ‘school inspectors regard such bilingual practices as code-switching as a substandard form of communication in the classroom’ (Martin, 2005).
On the other hand there is the lack of research about the effectiveness of pedagogical bilingual interaction and the ways code-switching could support communication or could be useful to facilitate learning (Martin, 2005). The outcome of this ‘experiment’ was found to be disappointing as it resulted in a lowering in the standard of understanding and competence in these subjects: ‘In 2009, the results of national tests at the end of primary school indicated that Malay children’s performance in maths had declined over a three-year period’ (Hewings, 2012, p. 100). Demonstrations followed this result. The demonstrators against this experiment expressed a number of grievances including the aforementioned shortage of adequately trained teachers in those subjects, the downgrading of the students’ own languages, and the lowering of standards. A common complaint was the disadvantage English brought to the students in rural region as ‘it creates another barrier to their education success’ (Hewings, 2012, p. 102). Those demonstrating in favour were the same groups who supported the experiment at the start, affluent parents, Indian and Chinese professionals and students with good English (Hewings, 2012).
As a result of this the government changed once again the language of instruction in Maths and Science to Malay or vernacular languages (Hewings, 2012). Despite the clear failure of the experiment, the Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad was reported as expressing his regret over the disadvantages he believed the withdrawal of English would create in an article published on the 9th of July 2009 in The New York Times. ‘The decision would adversely affect children and make it difficult for them to keep abreast of scientific development’ Gooch, cited in Hewing (2012). Hewings (2012) points out that the Government was aware of the shortage of qualified teachers to teach English, as were the teachers themselves; an example of measures that were taken to correct this situation was the ‘Project to Improve English in Rural Schools’.
Launching these programmes requires a significant investment (Hewings, 2012) and Malaysia, compelled by the idea that English would generate wealth and that without a good level of English ‘Malaysia’s competitiveness as a destination for multinational companies may suffer’ Gooch, cited in Hewings (2012), established its English medium initiative. The Malayan experience is an example of an attempt to promote English medium education without adequate funding and without recognizing the complexity of the task. This is a classic example of politicians interfering in education without sufficient knowledge of what was needed. Not surprisingly the outcomes have been very mixed and certainly not what the government intended. The advancement of a small and privileged elite competent in English came at the expense of reduced standards of attainment for the masses, especially the rural masses (Coleman, 2012).
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