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In Malaysia, a Movement Away from English in Math and Science Classes


The southeastern Asian nation of Malaysia is moving to have all of its math and science courses taught in the country's native language of Malay, rather than English.

Malaysia has changed its policy several times for these courses. As recently as 2003, it had decided to teach math and science in English, which then reflected the desire of government officials to keep pace with Singapore, as I explained on our blog, Curriculum Matters. The latest, Malay-only movement arises after objections from various interest groups, who feared that teaching math and science courses in English was unfair to the country's native population, particularly in rural areas, according to the Associated Press.

(Posted by guest blogger Sean Cavanagh.)


Most troubling. Only 50% of the population is Malay and they are often the least fluent in English. They are often the least educated and more likely to live in rural areas and villages. The Chinese and Tamil populations pride themselves in their use of English and are active in trade. They tend to live in the urban areas. Right now due to the Malaysia constitution, only Malay ethnics can be in government. There are Ministers to represent Chinese and Indian interests. Before the government has tried to ban alcohol, pork and implement Sharia law. The measures all failed because the minorities had an uproar. The whole country stays together because the economy has been growing and developing well for about 40 years. The ethnic groups all dislike each other and riots and disruption caused Singapore to separate from the country in 1965. The country holds itself together by a thread. English is an international language that facilitates business and interaction with other countries. All students must learn Bahasa Malaysia in school but are able to learn their native language and English is the primary language in the upper grades. What the Malaysian government is proposing is designed to slow the learning English and cripple the minority prowess in trade. They are cutting off their own opportunities too.
The cost of developing materials in Bahasa Malaysia will cost the government education ministry a lot of money and people who only speak Bahasa Malaysia will be isolated in the world. The minorities will continue learning English and their native language which enable them to trade with two of the fastest developing countries in the world. Not a good choice for Malaysia but perhaps short lived like many of the Malay government's rash law making.

I don't know the particulars of this situation, but I think it only makes sense to teach other subjects through English in these circumstances
- One year of very intensive English classes before that
- Lots of investment to make sure Maths and Science teachers can teach in English, or English teachers can teach Maths and Science
- A streamed school system with only the more academic taking this route

There is zero evidence to suggest that a poorly performing student in Maths and English with less than perfect teaching is going to have any of his problems solved by mixing up those two subjects and having them taught by the same teacher being forced to teach an unfamiliar (and possibly hated) way. As Gloria Payton writes in this month's English Teaching Professional magazine "CLIL... was described in a presentation at this year's IATEFL conference as 'the way ahead for language teaching'... [but] I have yet to hear CLIL described as 'the way ahead for geography teaching'"

When I was in Turkey the (streamed) grammar schools taught those subjects in English with precisely the 3 things I am suggesting in place, very successfully I think. However, I believe the Dutch and Scandanavians graduate with a phenomenal level of English without needing to study other subject in that language

Thank you for the info.

In India schools offer an option to students: study all courses in English or in one the official language of the state in which the school is located. It has worked very well in India for decades.

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