By K. Arumugam
“If you don’t understand, how can you learn?” was the title of an education monitoring report released by UNESCO in 2016 as its policy paper. The contents of the report aptly addressed similar drawbacks and concerns of the Dual Language Programme being introduced in some of the Tamil schools in Malaysia.
The teaching and learning of maths and science in English was first introduced in 2002 as a policy initiative called PPSMI, an acronym for Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik Dalam Bahasa Inggeris. The objective was to improve the command of the English language among pupils at primary and secondary schools in Malaysia.
The policy saw its end in 2011 after much debate and protest pertaining to its efficacy and effectiveness. The concerns raised were particularly on its impact upon children who were from rural backgrounds and where English was not their mother tongue or home language.
To please the strong advocates of the PPSMI project, the government rebottled PPSMI as a Dual Language Project (DLP) under another policy initiative called MBMMBI (Memartabatkan Bahasa Malaysia dan Memperkukuhkan Bahasa Inggeris, meaning to uphold Bahasa Malaysia and to strengthen the English language). MBMMBI replaced PPSMI with an intention to improve the proficiency of English language.
All hell broke loose when the DLP found its way into Tamils schools. The government had introduced the DLP as an option and offered it to willing parties to partake. However, over-enthusiastic parties within the Tamil school system had rushed for it, despite being ill-equipped to handle the switch.
The government rejected all the 30 Tamils schools that applied for the DLP in 2016 for non-compliance with the requirements set by the Ministry of Education. Nonetheless, in 2017, the government appears to have approved 47 Tamil schools amid allegations of non-professionalism in the schools’ conduct and that of the ministry’s role in giving the said approvals.
Unaware of the implications, the ministry’s approval has given a new hype and hope for the parents in search of bright future for their children.
The DLP requirements in the ministry’s guidelines state that teaching of maths and science will be in English. Undeniably, the introduction of the DLP would alter the character of Tamil schools and in the course of time, it would cost these schools their loss of identity and cultural image.
Even if these emotive arguments are left behind, from a purely pedagogic perspective, the DLP is doomed to fail in Tamil schools and the negative implications that the DLP would have upon these school children are unmistakable.
In spite of this, there are influential individuals who, functioning as advisers to the government on Tamil schools, are myopic in their views and comments. They have yet to advance any convincing study or research in the post PPSMI era to advocate in favour of the DLP.
Furthermore, in documenting the reasons for the repeal of the PPSMI, the government revealed the outcome of researches commissioned by academic institutions. These findings well correlate to the UNESCO’s position on mother tongue education.
In fact, there is adequate research literature that argues for the pedagogic importance of teaching a child in early education in its mother tongue for best results, especially when teaching subjects like maths and science which require conceptual understanding.
The 2016 UNESCO policy research paper cites references from 26 published research papers and 3 unpublished research papers that were documented over the last 15 years. These researches focused on the subject matter of the relevance of mother tongue in teaching children at early years of their education, in particular children of minority communities and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups.
UNESCO’s prescription of mother tongue language befits the situation that exists in Tamil schools in Malaysia. Over 90 per cent of the children enrolled in Tamil schools come from the bottom 40 per cent (B40) of the community. These children have Tamil as their mother tongue; they speak Tamil at home, not English.
The title used by UNESCO, “If you don’t understand, how can you learn?” advances basic concepts that were also applicable to our local situation in Malaysia. The key messages of the findings include:
- Children should be taught in a language they understand; speaking a language that is not spoken in the classroom frequently holds back a child’s learning, especially for those living in poverty;
- At least six years of mother tongue instruction is needed to reduce learning gaps for minority language speakers;
- In multi-ethnic societies, imposing a dominant language through a school system has frequently been a source of grievance linked to wider issues of social and cultural inequality; and
- Education policies should recognise the importance of mother tongue learning and linguistic diversity creates challenges within the education system, notably in areas of teacher recruitment, curriculum development and the provision of teaching materials.
Almost all the Indian children who go to Tamil schools are from poor homes. For them education is perceived as the only avenue for vertical mobility. The DLP inadvertently has the potential of reversing the gains they have gotten over the last two decades.
Over and above this, the DLP enthusiasts who possibly originate from the English-educated middle-income group, forming a small minority, cannot and should not hijack the Tamil school system jointly with parents who are ill informed of their choices on the DLP.
For the best interest of the children from B40, it is crucial for the government to immediately revoke the approvals given to the 47 Tamil schools. Time is of the essence and any delay in the revocation would be in the direction of further exacerbating the B40.
* K Arumugam is a Tamil Foundation committee member. This article was published in Malay Mail on 17 February 2017.